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European Soul Cheever Wins Indy 500

May 25, 1998

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) _ He still has a trace of an Italian accent, and no matter how many ovals he races, he’ll always think of himself as a Formula One driver.

Eddie Cheever has a European soul and an American passport. But when he rumbled across that famous row of bricks Sunday, he was living the dream of a boy from Phoenix.

``I came to the states to run in the Indianapolis 500,″ he said. ``When you come to this place, it takes over.″

Cheever was born in Phoenix. But when he was 4, his parents moved the family to Italy, where they opened a chain of health clubs. He speaks English, Italian and French fluently, and a little bit of German and Spanish.

Like other European kids, he grew up with the Formula One circuit, not Indy cars. He dreamed of driving at Le Mans and Monte Carlo. His heroes were Jackie Stewart and Gilles Villeneuve, not A.J. Foyt and Al Unser.

When he started racing, he learned on road courses and was taught to downshift and use his brakes. At 15, he won the Italian and European karting championships.

And when he was 16, he told his father he was leaving high school to concentrate on his Formula One career full time. His father, Eddie Cheever Sr., was furious.

``You better do something important,″ the elder Cheever said. ``If you’re going to win one race, win the Indy 500.″

But Cheever ignored his father’s advice. He raced Formula Fords and was a teammate of Danny Sullivan on the Formula Three circuit. He finished sixth in points in Formula One in 1983, and won seven world sports car prototype races in 1987 and 1988.

As the years went on, however, the Formula One cars got smaller. Cheever didn’t. Finally, he decided to heed his father’s advice, jumping to Indy cars in 1990.

``The first time I came to this place, it terrorized me,″ he said, laughing at the memory. ``I wanted to go home.″

After spending his entire career in Europe, Cheever had no idea how to race in the United States. There were no right turns, downshifting was unheard of and no one ever used the brakes.

But he was doing something right. He was rookie of the year at Indy in 1990 and finished fourth in 1992.

He won his first IRL race last year in Orlando, Fla.

``I’m still learning ovals,″ he said. ``I still consider myself a Grand Prix driver. I’ll never drive a Grand Prix car again, but that’s my foundation in racing.″

When Cheever pulled into Victory Lane, he pumped his fists, a wide grin spread across his face. But he also looked somewhat stunned when the fans began chanting ``Eddie, Eddie″ as he climbed out of the car.

He admitted later he was having a hard time believing he’d actually won the race his father told him to 24 years ago, the race that brought him back home eight years ago.

``I don’t know what I’m supposed to say,″ he said, coming up with something a few minutes later. ``This is for my dad.″

A few weeks ago, not only did Cheever never think he’d win the Indy 500, he wasn’t even sure he’d be able to race. The primary sponsor for Team Cheever dropped out, and he didn’t find a replacement until a week before he arrived.

But with the winner’s wreath around his neck and the taste of milk still in his mouth, none of that mattered.

``The Indy 500 is special,″ he said. ``I’m relieved that finally I’ve done something in my career that will stick.″

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