Print and Go Back ESPN.com: IRL [Print without images]

Wednesday, June 7, 2006
Updated: June 12, 12:12 AM ET
Cheever fires back at criticism from other drivers

By John Oreovicz
Special to ESPN.com

Eddie Cheever Jr.'s involvement in a pair of controversial on-track collisions at The Glen doesn't come as a surprise.

All-Access with Marco Andretti:
Marco and Cheever lock horns in St. Pete

Nor do the candid assessments of his driving offered up by Marco and Michael Andretti and Danica Patrick. Or for that matter, Cheever's strident response to their comments via press release a day later.

I'd suggest that IRL marketing guru Gene Simmons came up with this little he-said, she-said scenario, but Cheever has been up to these crash-on-track, bash-in-print tactics for years. His reputation has been the same throughout his career, both in Europe and America: Incredibly intelligent and articulate, nice guy when he wants to be, but a dirty driver on the track.

I was not at Watkins Glen for last weekend's IRL IndyCar Series event and I have not spoken directly to any of the parties quoted below. But Cheever's run-in is the talk of the circuit and with words flying back and forth through various media outlets, it isn't difficult to sort out the underlying issues.

Based on their own experiences over the years, Mario and Michael Andretti knew Cheever could be difficult during a race. But they apparently didn't get that message across to Marco, who has fallen afoul of Cheever twice during his rookie IndyCar season. The first incident occurred during practice earlier this year at St. Petersburg; the most recent at Watkins Glen arguably cost Marco a shot at becoming the IndyCar's youngest race winner.

Michael, Marco and Mario Andretti.
Three generations of Andrettis have an Eddie Cheever discussion at Watkins Glen.

Of-again, on-again rain showers made the race a pit strategy lottery, but Marco was looking good in third place just past the halfway point.

Then, while trying to put a lap on Cheever in the short straight between Turns 8 and 9, Cheever veered right at the exact moment Marco was alongside him, sending Andretti's car into a hard impact with the guardrail on the side of the track.

Marco wasn't impressed and he and Michael branded Cheever an idiot.

"I thought the contact was pretty blatant and it wasn't the first time we've had problems with him," Marco Andretti snapped. "I had the fastest car on the racetrack."

Michael Andretti backed up his son. He actually had the best quote about the whole affair, garnered by Nicole Manske on the IRL Radio Network: "He had a problem with my father, he had a problem with me and now he's taking it out on my kid," Michael Andretti said.

At that point in the race, Cheever already had survived a skirmish with Patrick on a restart that sent Danica's car spinning into a tire barrier, from which she recovered to finish eighth. "Idiot" was also the epithet she chose to describe Cheever over her car-to-pit radio.

"There was no point in doing something so desperate on a restart, but he did it," Danica later commented. "It's unfortunate and it's silly."

Cheever was surprisingly reserved for his television interview in the immediate aftermath, but he couldn't resist putting out a press release the next day taking a few shots.

The IRL clearly wanted to steer clear of the controversy, because it issued Cheever's comments with its own disclaimer: "The following is a release from Cheever Racing and is run as received by the IRL."

"To think I would intentionally take anyone out is just ludicrous -- it's beyond words," Cheever stated. "It was a racing accident, pure and simple. There certainly wasn't any intent, so I find the accusations incomprehensible."

Regarding Patrick, Cheever simply said, "She did that all by herself."

Moving on to the Andrettis, he unloaded.

"No single team is the center of the racing universe, no matter how much they seem to think they are," Cheever said. "Nobody took them out intentionally, so their accusations look a bit ridiculous.

"The last I looked, I earned the label of Indy 500 champion; those lobbing unfounded accusations at me have not."

Ouch! That last remark was definitely aimed below the belt. In response, I would argue that the quality of the Indy 500 field declined dramatically during 1996-99 and that Cheever's Indy win in 1998 represents the absolute low-water mark for the famous race.

There was no one named Andretti in that race and the only Unsers were Robby and Johnny.

Why is the 48-year-old Cheever racing in the IRL this year in the first place? Most likely as a favor to his friend Tony George to help prop up the dwindling numbers in the IndyCar Series, which even with Cheever Racing's entry is down to 19 cars.

I'm reasonably confident that Cheever would not intentionally force another driver off the track, but I doubt the Andrettis share that opinion.

Marco Andretti
Fans watch Marco Andretti vent his frustration on a big screen at Watkins Glen after he was knocked out of the race by Eddie Cheever.

Mario dealt with Cheever during the latter stages of his Formula 1 career in the early 1980s and he probably wasn't that thrilled when Cheever joined the CART Champ Car series in 1990.

Mario and Eddie had several on-track skirmishes in 1991, almost coming to blows at Elkhart Lake. And at Long Beach in 1992, Bobby Rahal witnessed Cheever brake-testing Mario at the end of the backstretch, eliminating them both on the first lap.

Robby Gordon and Mauricio Gugelmin (among others) also have vivid tales to tell about Cheever's erratic driving.

The message is clear for all competitors: Pass the Cheever car at your peril.

"Virtually everybody has had an incident with Cheever -- he's an amazing cheap-shot artist," observed Gordon Kirby, who covered Cheever's career in Formula 1 and Champ Cars during his 30-year tenure as American Editor of Autosport magazine. "I've never seen another driver who short brakes, chops, or runs over wings as often as Cheever."

Over the years, I have wanted to like Cheever. I hoped his presence would bring more American involvement into Formula 1, and it is richly ironic that the American driver who followed him into that series was Michael Andretti, whose travails in 1993 soured F1 on Yanks for more than a decade. Though they share the same nationality, Michael Andretti and Eddie Cheever are about as diametrically opposed as two racing drivers can be.

Maybe that's why Cheever and the Andretti family don't get along, even though they share Italian heritage. They just don't like each other. But that doesn't give a man a license to run another man (or woman) off a race track.

That's an especially important point heading into this weekend's IRL race at Texas Motor Speedway, by far the most dangerous track on the IndyCar schedule. Head games and intimidation don't belong on any kind of racetrack, but particularly on high-speed ovals, where going an inch off-line could launch a car into the grandstands.

At least Marco is likely to be so far ahead of Cheever at Texas that the only time they'll be in proximity to each other on the track is when Eddie gets lapped.

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.