Infinite joy for Cheever
25 June 2000
If tradition is to be upheld, Eddie Cheever will win this year's Indy Racing Northern Light Series. The 42 year old ex-Arrows and Renault Formula One driver began the year as the only Infiniti powered driver in the entire IRL field and after victory in Sunday's Radisson 200 at Pikes Peak International Raceway, he now leads the championship.
The winner of the Radisson 200 for the last three years has gone on to win the championship and after a performance like the one he put in on Sunday, few will bet against Cheever continuing that trend for a fourth consecutive year.
Starting tenth, Cheever gained three places on the opening lap but was quite content to let Robbie Buhl in the only other Infiniti powered car in the field pull clear in the lead. Scott Sharp was able to muscle past pole-sitter Greg Ray to take second while Mark Dismore and Jeret Schroeder battled for fourth.
The race was only six laps old when Sarah Fisher made contact with the wall in turn two to bring out the yellow flags. As she entered the turn Billy Boat spun a little way in-front of her which caused her to break sharply. The back end snapped away and she was out. Somehow Boat avoided the concrete but was left stranded in the middle of the track awaiting a push start.
Fisher was not the first retirement of the day however, that honour being bestowed upon championship leader going into the race, Buddy Lazier. The Hemelgarn driver started the race 13th and managed to keep clear of the mid-field jostling on the opening half lap until suddenly and without warning, his Aurora engine went bang and as the rest of the field completed their first lap, a dejected Lazier coasted into the pits and retired.
Barring a miracle, Lazier's retirement meant that the championship lead was up for grabs and any one of seven drivers could take it. One of those drivers was Buhl who held the championship lead until the Indy 500 courtesy of his season opening Walt Disney World victory, achieved with an Aurora engine. The Dreyer & Reinbold driver was in an attacking mood and as the field were given the green flag, Buhl made a superb getaway. Sharp also got a good run and the pair soon left Ray, who shattered the track record in qualifying, alone in third.
Cheever got the jump on Eliseo Salazar and Schroeder on the re-start and moved up on the tail of Dismore where he remained for the next 20 laps.
Buhl and Sharp continued to circulate within a second of each other for the opening forty laps and although Ray closed up dramatically when they first encountered back-markers he dropped away in clear air. By lap 42 he was four seconds behind the leader and looking nervously over his shoulder at the advancing Cheever who had taken fourth when Dismore began suffering severe understeer. The Kelley driver actually dropped to 15th with the problem, almost going a lap down to the charging Buhl before the first round of pit-stops.
Other drivers on the move in the early stages were Donnie Beechler, Airton Dare and Buzz Calkins. Beechler started 15th, one place behind Calkins and one place ahead of Dare and all three made light work of the mid-fielders to climb into the top ten by the quarter distance mark. Beechler had made the most progress by this point and was up to fifth place, two spots ahead of Dare and three ahead of Calkins. However the Cahill driver wasn't done there and as the fuel loads went down, Beechler's car reacted better than most and he was able to put pressure on Cheever. After several laps shadowing Cheever's machine, Beechler went to the inside coming down the back straight and pushed Cheever wide into turn three. In a brave move, the young charger was up into fourth and closing on Ray.
By this stage Buhl had built up a six second lead and looked to be cruising comfortably when, coming onto the start/finish straight to complete his 60th lap, the Infiniti grenaded itself, coating the track with oil. The pace car was quickly dispatched but Buhl could hardly believe his luck. His team sat dumbstruck on the pit-wall as Buhl parked the Purex backed G Force on the entrance to turn one.
The yellow brought about the second caution of the day which coincided with the first round of fuel stops. Sharp's crew got him out cleanly and he now took up the lead although for Ray the pit-stops were a disaster. As the Team Menard driver left his pit he met with Davey Hamilton who was pitting two stalls in-front of him. Ray's nosecone tapped Hamilton's left rear tyre as the Team Xtreme driver pulled into his pit. This dislodged Ray's nose while Hamilton was able to continue unscathed once he had been pointed in the right direction.
Ray was forced to pit again for a new nose on the next lap and eventually rejoined the queue in eleventh place while Cheever now assumed second place where Ray should have been. Beechler's inexperienced crew couldn't turn their steed around in the same time as Cheever's could which meant Donnie found himself in third ahead of Al Unser Jr who had steadily worked his way into contention from 18th on the grid. Dismore was back into fifth after a superb stop by his Kelley crew and he was followed by Salazar, Schroeder, Dare, Calkins, Stephane Gregoire and Ray. Such was Buhl's early pace that only eleven cars remained on the lead lap, Jeff Ward and Scott Goodyear leading those who were a lap adrift.
Sharp quickly pulled away from Cheever on the lap 70 re-start and built up a five second cushion over Cheever. Unser Jr was now putting the pressure on Beechler but the young Illinois native refused to budge and held on to his place for several hectic laps. It took the unintentional help from Al's cousin Robby, who was struggling with the only Riley & Scott chassis in the field, before Beechler gave up his position. Coming on to the back straight for the 79th time, Beechler was taken by surprise by the slow pace of Unser, R and was immediately overhauled on the inside by Unser, A.
Before 'Little Al' had the chance to close on Cheever, the pace car did it for him. Coming out of turn two Shigeaki Hattori lost control of his Treadway-Vertex G Force and spun wildly along the back straight, changing direction as Hattori fought to keep the machine off the wall. Cars scattered everywhere and although Schroeder and Jaques Lazier were forced onto the grass, nobody made contact with the EPSON backed machine.
The inclusion of the pace car into proceedings negated Sharp's hard won advantage and once the green flag was waved once again, the winningest driver in IRL history found his car to be slightly loose, making the handling unresponsive. As a result Cheever was able to stay with the leader and as the race approached the half-way mark, Sharp and Cheever were tied together.
For Ray though, his miserable 2000 season was about to run true to form, and after a spirited drive back into the top six, he finally came unstuck as he attempted to pass Dismore for fifth. The Dallara caught a bad draft in the middle of turn three and Ray was helpless to stop the car sliding into the outside wall on the exit of the fourth corner.
After another brief interlude by the pace car, Sharp led the rest of the field away with 96 laps to go. Once again Cheever found the improved torque of his Infiniti engine to be a great advantage as the race wore on and he continued to hassle the leader. Some three seconds behind the lead battle, Beechler summed up the energy to have another go at Unser, making the decisive move on lap 110 and quickly pulling away. Unser now came under pressure from Dare who had earlier disposed of Salazar, Dismore and Schroeder.
The top five drivers circulated in close formation for several laps until on lap 134 Cheever went high along the front stretch to take the lead for the first time. Just two laps later Beechler dived to the inside along the back straight to take second and was soon closing on the new leader.
With just 60 laps to go and the final round of pit-stops looming large, the top three had pulled out a 7.5 second lead over fourth placed Dare who had finally muscled past Unser Jr. Salazar was now right behind Unser Jr in sixth. The situation changed on lap 141 when the Chilean pitted for fuel and tyres, dropping to 14th in the process.
On lap 143 it was the leader's turn and Cheever handed the lead to Beechler. The Team Cheever crew took their time and ensured that Cheever had a full tank before releasing him after 12.6 seconds. Two laps later Beechler handed the lead back to Sharp when he pitted, his stop lasting a leisurely 14.7 seconds. When Sharp pitted on lap151 the lead was taken up by his Kelley Racing team-mate Dismore who in turn led for two laps before stopping. The only man not to have stopped was Gregoire who was aiming to make just a quick splash and dash near the end of the race. Cheever was now second and leading the race in reality while a superb stop by Team Xtreme put Dare back onto the track ahead of Sharp, Beechler and Unser Jr who occupied the next three places.
Cheever's car was now working very well and he was able to pull away from Dare with ease, the young Brazilian having to contend with the unwanted attentions of Sharp and Beechler.
Gradually Cheever hauled Gregoire in and on lap 172 with the Frenchman desperately trying to conserve fuel, Cheever re-took the lead. As soon as he was through he was able to pull out a big lead and by the time Gregoire made his five second stop for fuel, Cheever was twelve seconds to the good.
As the race entered its final 10 laps, Sharp and Beechler really started to pile the pressure onto Dare. Sharp looked high into turn three with no luck whereas Beechler tried to pass both at the same corner with just four laps remaining. As the trio came across the line to start lap 197 Sharp and Unser were held up by Unser Jr who had dropped back to seventh place and was now running a lap down. Dare squeezed past the Galles driver but Sharp could not find the necessary momentum. Coming across the start/finish line with two laps to go Sharp ducked to the inside as Unser stayed in the middle of the track. Beechler saw a gap on the high line and went for it and the three went side by side into turn one. Contact was inevitable and it was Unser and Beechler who were bound for destruction, Beechler clipping the front of Unser's machine as he went around the outside sending both into the turn one wall.
Of course the race finished under caution which would be an anti-climax for some drivers but not Cheever who crossed the line, punching the air with joy as he did so.
Pouring a bottle of iced water over himself in victory lane and forsaking the obligatory sponsors cap for the post race interview, Cheever was typically composed and calm about his achievement. Not only is he the first man to win in the IRL with an Infiniti engine, he was the first man to win with Aurora power back in 1997, a fact which he is justifiably proud of.
Dare came through in second to score his best IRL finish ever while Sharp was third and the only other man to complete the full 200 laps. Cheever and Sharp were the two main beneficiaries of Lazier's failure to finish although the fourth placed Dismore also gained some significant ground.
Beechler was classified fifth but deserved better, youthful impetuosity cost him on this occasion but it is unlikely he will make the same mistake again.
Salazar continued his good season for AJ Foyt Racing by coming home in sixth, the Chilean has finished all but one race so far this year and is a real dark horse for the title.
Schroeder completed a composed drive for the underfunded Tri Star Motorsports squad in seventh place while Gregoire's late stop dropped him to eighth ahead of Jaques Lazier and the incapacitated Unser Jr who rounded out the top ten.
The Radisson 200 may not have had 31 lead changes and the margin of victory was slightly more than 59 thousandths of a second (20 seconds to be precise as Dare failed to catch the pace car before Cheever took the flag) but it was an enthralling race nevertheless. The championship is still wide open and six different drivers have been victorious in the six races so far this year.
One thing is certain though, there WILL be a new champion this year as Greg Ray's crash made it impossible to match Cheever's current points tally. The series now takes a well deserved break before recommencing in Atlanta on July 15th.