Eddie Cheever had always been just another name at the Indianapolis 500. Not anymore.
On Sunday, he not only drove the winning car, he owned it, too.
Cheever narrowly avoided a first-lap accident, was able to overcome a pit mistake at midrace, and then held off Buddy Lazier to earn the biggest victory of his life.
"I had about 15 guardian angels with me. I had a couple of close calls and I came out of them OK," he said.
The 40-year-old Cheever, whose only other victory in an Indy car came in January 1997 in a rain-shortened race at Orlando, Fla., was nearly speechless when he first stepped out of his Dallara-Aurora race car.
But he quickly got into the spirit as many in the the usual sellout crowd of nearly 400,000 stood and cheered.
"I was either going to win or not finish at all," said Cheever, who came perilously close to the wall several times in the last 10 laps.
"I turned into (turn) one at the start of the race and somebody bumped me in the rear and turned me sideways," Cheever said. "I thought, `I don't want it to end this way."
His next big problem came during a pit stop on lap 85 when the nozzle from the fuel hose stuck in his car and he nearly pulled away with it still attached.
"We made a mistake halfway in the race, but it didn't effect us," explained crew chief Owen Snyder, who also led brother-in-law Al Unser Jr.'s crew to a win here in 1992. "We got back on our game plan and Eddie used his experience all day. He was on his game."
This was also a victory for Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George, who started the Indy Racing League in 1996 with the express purpose of giving teams and drivers without big dollar sponsorships a hance.
Cheever, who took his victory lap around the 2½-mile oval in a convertible with George at his side, definitely falls into that category.
The Indy 500 rookie of the year in 1990 came within a few laps of victory at Indy last year as an owner.
Cheever owned the car Jeff Ward drove to third place last year in his Indy 500 debut. Ward, the race's rookie of the year, was leading in the closing laps but had to stop for fuel.
Arie Luyendyk inherited the lead, and drove to victory.
On Sunday, Cheever's teammate was rookie Robby Unser, who finished fifth.
Cheever, who started 17th in the 33-car field, is expected to take more than $1.5 million from the nearly $9 million purse when it is presented Monday night at the annual victory dinner.
He pulled away from Lazier, the 1996 Indy winner, after the 12th and final caution period, racing off to a 3.l91-second win -- about a third of the last straightaway -- to become the first driver-owner to win since A.J. Foyt in 1977.
"At the start of the race we really went down," Lazier said. "We had to make an unscheduled pit stop, but my guys never lost heart. They pushed hard, got me back into contention. We just didn't have enough for Eddie."
Not everyone avoided first-lap problems.
The race began 40 minutes late because of early morning rain and was almost immediately under caution when J.J. Yeley spun in turn one, but somehow avoided the wall. He stalled the engine and had to be towed but came back to finish ninth, one of four rookies in the top 10.
Tony Stewart, the 27-year-old Indy Racing League champion and the favorite to win his first Indy 500, started fourth and finally got to the lead on lap 21, passing surprising front-row starter Greg Ray.
But the lead lasted only seconds as smoke began billowing from Stewart's vaunted Team Menard Dallara-Aurora as he sped toward the first turn on lap 22. The disgusted Stewart stopped at the exit of turn one, yanked his steering wheel from its stem, scrambled from the car, stripped off his gloves and pitched them into the empty cockpit.
He then turned to the packed grandstand and raised his arms high in the air in a gesture of frustration.
Robbie Buhl, Stewart's teammate, was also had an engine failure early in the race.
Ray was no luckier than Stewart, going out while leading on lap 32 when his transmission broke.
Transmission problems also cost two-time winner Luyendyk big.
He lost first gear early in the race and had to be pushed out of the pits after each stop. He was leading on lap 150 when he made a routine stop, but left the pits slowly and finally stopped on the warmup lane, done for the day.
"The clutch was a problem all day," said Luyendyk, who was trying to become the first repeat winner since Al Unser in 1970-71. "It really hurt me on the restarts."
The biggest accident of the day came on lap 50 when rookie Sam Schmidt got his left-side wheels into the thirdturn grass and spun into the outside retaining wall. Mark Dismore and Stan Wattles tried to slow behind him, but got together and slid into the wall. Jim Guthrie then ran through the grass, over a piece of debris from Schmidt's car and skidded almost head-on into the wall.
Guthrie was taken to Methodist Hospital where he was undergoing surgery for a broken right arm.
Steve Knapp, another of the eight first-year Indy starters, finished third, the only other driver on the lead lap. He was followed by Davey Hamilton, Unser and front-row starter Kenny Brack.
Brack was in contention until he ran out of fuel and had to coast slowly from the backstretch to the pits on lap 88.
Pole-sitter Billy Boat, Brack's Foyt Racing teammate, had gearbox problems and wound up out of the race after 104 laps.
Cheever, who led 76 of the 200 laps, took the lead for the final time on lap 178 when he beat Lazier off pit road after the leaders made their final fuel stops.
Following the restart on lap 183, Cheever moved off to a lead of more than three seconds as he drove laps over 213 mph. But Marco Greco's blown engine on lap 191 gave Lazier one more shot at Cheever.
It wasn't enough as Cheever steadily pulled away after the green flag waved for the start of lap 195.
Cheever, who began his career in Europe in Formula 3000 and Formula One, said, "The first time I came to this place it terrorized me. I wanted to go home."
"I'm relieved that finally I've done something in my career that will stick."
When it was over, he dedicated his victory to his father.
"My father told me, "If you're going to win one race in your life, win Indy.' This one's for my dad."
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