Eddie Cheever! Now that’s a blast from Formula 1’s glorious past. The American who raced in the top flight for over a decade made a welcome return to the sport’s radar when he opened up in a lengthy and engrossing interview with F1 Weekly Podcast.
In a must-listen interview with Nasir Hameed, Cheever spoke of his career in motorsport, including a large chunk of it in F1 where he competed in 132 Grand Prix races, finishing on the podium nine times, twice in second place but never a winner, at a time when F1 grids were made of 30-plus entrants, even 40! All competing for 26 places on the grid.
They were different times. To sum up Cheever’s career at the pinnacle of the sport, it would have to be the Well-Travelled-Nearly-Man-of-F1 with so many amazing stories to tell of a perilous but fascinating time in the sport, deserving Netflix series in itself.
F1 Stats show Cheever raced for nine teams with the most starts for Arrows (46), Alfa Romeo (31) and Renault (15) – but his arrival at Renault, for instance, was not when the French team was a force. And timing was not on his side when he made it to F1.
For boomers who still have memory, the sharpest ones will remember how young Cheever was when he broke onto the scene, getting his first taste of F1 in his late teens during an error when drivers of the time were normally in their late twenties or older. Death was still ever-present in F1 at the time.
During Cheever’s time in the sport, a dozen of his peers died in F1 alone. Not to mention other disciplines that robbed drivers so regularly in those days. Cheever elaborates on the mates he lost during the interview which is too long to publish here, to do it justice.
Teenager Cheever got a call from Ferrari to test at Fiorano
However, highlights and lesser-known revelations that stood out are his courting by Ferrari when he was just a teenager. The Maranello marque, led by founder Enzo Ferrari, took an interest in Cheever (the American kid living in Rome with his parents) doing impressive things in Formula 2.
At a time when the F1 feeder series was a place where wannabe constructors and drivers prepped for the top flight. No one-make series which F2 is today.
Now 65 years old and living in the USA, Cheever recalled the episode of his life when his mother called him to say Ferrari was on the phone: I had just come back from the Formula 2 race at Enna. I was second chasing Keke Rosberg, and he went over the curbs, put it dirt in the truck and I made a big mistake and spun off. So I was a little bit annoyed at having it had a bad race.
“And my mother tells me that Ferrari was on the phone. I thought it was one of my idiot Italian friends making fun of me. So I didn’t answer it. They probably called two or three times before I went to the phone. It was Daniele Audetto who I knew it was when he said his name because he was a team manager at Ferrari.
“I was happy, anxious that I had spoken earlier that year to Bernie Ecclestone with Ron Dennis [Cheevers entrant in F2 at the time running Project 4 team) about doing some testing in his car, a Brabham. So I was excited. My life changed dramatically with that one telephone call.”
Eddie meeting with Enzo lasted over two hours
Asked if he remembered his first meeting with motorsport legend Enzo Ferrari, Cheever said: “I even remember the colour of shoes I had on. They told me to drive from Rome, told me to stop at a certain bar and somebody would pick me up with a car. When we got there I was led through Maranello and ended up in the Commendatore’s office.
“His desk was up higher, two or three feet higher than it normally would be. The male secretary just left me standing in front of his desk. He was busy writing something I probably stood there for 30 seconds not knowing what to do. And then he started talking.
“He said, when you drive my cars, you don’t go over the curbs, which I think was in reference to the problems I had at the Enna F2 race. Then he came down and we sat in comfortable leather chairs. He started talking. The meeting lasted over two hours.
“Of all the things that I’ve done in racing, none even come close to the value that I give to those two hours. After that, I signed a contract with Ferrari. Everything was good.”
Ferrari at the time had Niki Lauda and Carlos Reutemann driving for the team. Two wily veterans and legends of the sport even at the time. When F1 testing was unlimited Fiorano was built a stone’s throw from the factory so that the team could test without constraints.
An amazing week with Ferrari
Cheever recalled his first taste of F1 with the sport’s most famous team as a 19-year-old: “I tested the car for a week. Reutemann was the one doing all the first tests for Michelin tyres which Ferrari was changing over to. So he would either be on track or I would be on track.
“Amazing! It was an amazing week. I learned things just by listening to what Reutemann was saying. I saw things that I’d never seen before. I had jumped from an F2 car to an F1 car, but not just an F1 car Niki Lauda’s F1 car. I was absorbing a lot of information in a very short time.
“No teenager had ever been invited to an F1 team like Ferrari to test, in the history of racing. So I was looked upon as something abhorrent by the older drivers, something that shouldn’t be there. So I only had one interest: to go as fast as I could. And I went too fast once and had a big accident.
“I went through like three rows of catch fence. I thought I was going to be sent home and they just said, what did you learn? Did you learn anything? And I explained it, and we went testing the next morning,” recalled Cheever. During the interview, he goes on to explain why Ferrari did not happen for him.
Cheever: 90% of what I know about racing I learnt racing for Ron Dennis
Not only did the Phoenix, Arizona native work briefly for racing icon Enzo Ferrari, but he was a key driver in Ron Dennis’ early rise as an entrant in F2 with his Project 4 operation, also famed for running a BMW Procar and an F3 team.
Even in those days, Dennis was setting the bar on how to go racing. His operation impressed the right people at Philip Morris, aka Marlboro, who orchestrated the Briton’s takeover of the McLaren F1 team when Teddy Mayer was sent packing. Upon which Dennis went on to build one of the mightiest F1 dynasties of all time, only second to Ferrari in F1 success.
Looking back, Cheever recollected the chance first meeting with Ron: “I noticed that when you won races, all these people come up and talk to you. I met a certain one – Dennis – after the second place I had at Silverstone. I had no idea who Ron Dennis was. I don’t even think Ron Dennis had any idea who he was! It’s just a question of being in the right place at the right time.”
As for how much he learned about the sport in the three seasons driving for Dennis, Cheever said: “I will say that 90%. When you’re young, you absorb things very, very well, you’re very receptive to things. So I met him in F2, after racing F3.
“He had an F2 car, he wanted me to test which I did. He and my father sat down and they made an arrangement where Ron Dennis would prepare and run the F3 car for the end of the season. We went on to win two races in Germany.”
Cheever: Only one time did I have a discussion with Ron about driving for McLaren
“After that, the next year, we did an F2 programme,” continued Cheever. “I started racing consistently for Project 4. And at my age, just about everything I’ve ever worked in racing or learned about was from Ron. I would say Ron knew more about racing than anybody I’ve ever been around because he was a mechanic, and chief mechanic for people like [Jack] Brabham.”
“Then Ron set up four companies, three of which failed, but he kept getting better and better at what he was doing, and what Ron did at McLaren was incredible. He was my source of information and my source of criticism.
“In the last season 1977, we probably would have won the F2 championship, had I not broken my hand at Vallelunga. I finished second. I would say that I don’t know if it was because I was young and just learning more because Ron just had so much information. But he was very good at guiding you.”
When Dennis got control of McLaren in September 1980, he was considering drivers for his F1 project, although Cheever was probably on the shortlist he explained why it never happened: “I don’t think I was very close. I was probably on a list of three or four drivers that he was calling to speak to.
“I think the disagreement was about money. I wanted a certain amount which I don’t remember… Only one time did I have a discussion with him about McLaren. I think I already had an offer; I was married and I had a family. So I was probably focusing on the wrong thing, which was money at that point,” ventured Cheever.
Eddie drove in the first two Grands Prix races in Las Vegas
Notably, in the early eighties, Cheever raced in the first two editions of the Grand Prix in Las Vegas, basically a Caesars Palace carpark turned into a GP track. Finishing third driving for Ligier-Matra in the 1982 race. When F1 was hardly on the radar Stateside.
As for the current F1 boom in the United States which never happened in his time, Cheever said: “Excellent. I think it’s wonderful. I’m jealous that I did not have that many races and F1 wasn’t that popular when I was racing. I think it’s great. I love racing. I love all forms of racing. I enjoy NASCAR, Sportscars, and Formula 1.
“There’s a place for Formula 1 in the States, but it’ll only really grow when you know, the American racecar drivers that American fans can identify with. There’s nobody there yet, that can stand a chance to be on the podium,” lamented Cheever.
After F1, Eddie raced in Champcar and then the Indy Racing League (IRL) which eventually morphed into the IndyCar Series of today. He won the 1998 Indianapolis 500, sealing his name in motorsport history for eternity. For the full Eddie Cheever interview check out F1 Weekly Podcast>>>