Formula I Grand Prix racing is not the easiest sport for a fledgling to crack. In this tradition-heavy arena, where the world driving championship is decided, there are strict, if unwritten, entrance requirements. A driver is expected to test his mettle first in Formula III racing, where he can learn the intricacies of controlling an open-wheel race car and also get some experience on the same tracks used in the world championship series. Next he should move up to the more powerful Formula II cars, and finally, if he is good enough (or if he has shown a particular talent for getting financial backing for his racing efforts), he will find himself in a spidery 1,180-pound, 500-horsepower Formula I machine.
This involved schooling, which is available only in Europe and offers smaller financial rewards than U.S. oval track racing, has kept most top American drivers from contesting the world championship. The last, and only, American to win the title was Phil Hill, 16 years ago. And because 10 of the 17 events that make up the Grand Prix calendar are held in Europe, the sport makes little attempt to seek out American stars.
That is why it is so surprising that the European racing press has taken to its collective bosom a dashing young American named Eddie Cheever. "Young," perhaps more than "American," is the operative word in this case. Cheever, who currently is second in the Formula II championship standings, is just 19 years old. "In Europe they've made a thing of my age," he says. "Nothing ticks me off more than this Boy Wonder stuff." Still, if Cheever wanted to make a driving career in the U.S., he would have to wait two more years to get a competition license.
Circumstances are such that Cheever not only has been able to become a rising star in European racing, but he has felt at home in doing so. His bio sheet states that he was "born in Phoenix, Ariz. in 1958." It goes on to reveal that "he left the United States as an infant and spent the first years of his life in Australia." When he was four his family moved to Rome, where his father opened four health salons. The family has lived in Italy ever since. Eddie attended American schools in Rome, and speaks both Italian and English fluently.
While Cheever has never raced in the U.S. and has lived here only briefly, he is nonetheless fiercely proud of his American citizenship, occasionally to the point of being touchy. "I'm as much an American as anyone," he says, "and I'm just as patriotic as the next guy." Cheever began competitive driving at the age of 12, when his mother gave him a go-kart. Several years later he was racing for the Birel professional karting team, for which he went on to win three European championships and finish second in the world title competition in 1974. These machines are a far cry from those one sees puttering down suburban driveways or in U.S. amusement parks; they are capable of speeds of 140 miles an hour. Such top Grand Prix stars as Ronnie Peterson and Jody Scheckter are former kart stars.
In 1975 Cheever's father hired a Formula Ford car (of a category yet below the little Formula Ills) for him to drive, and at the age of 17 he won his first race, at Silverstone in England. By July of that year he had earned his International Competition License and moved quickly into a Formula III car. In only his fifth race, again at Silverstone, Cheever won the pole position, then late in the race stunned Alex Ribeiro, the champion, by slipping by him on a difficult corner for his first Formula III win. The following year, Cheever hired a team manager and moved up to a Formula II. He acquitted himself well enough as a private entry to land a contract to drive for the powerful BMW factory team this season.
In six races this year, Cheever has driven his four-cylinder Ralt-BMW to a pair of second-place finishes, a third and a fourth. One of his seconds was to moonlighting Formula I driver Jochen Mass at the N√ºrburgring, the perilous 14-mile circuit that snakes through the Eifel Mountains of Germany. Cheever had started from the 13th position after crashing his car during practice, but he charged through the field and hounded Mass the entire way. As his car crossed the finish line Cheever pumped both arms triumphantly and tens of thousands of spectators cheered "the young American" along with the Munich-born winner.
So what now? Cheever merely wants to be the youngest driver ever to earn the world championship. The late Bruce McLaren was 22 when he won his first Formula I race at Sebring, Fla., the youngest driver to win a Grand Prix. Emerson Fittipaldi became champion at the age of 25. Cheever believes that it is within his reach to eclipse both those marks. He is slightly over six feet tall and solidly built, though there remain a few traces of Boy Wonder fat from his rapidly retreating youth. He has heavy-lidded good looks and is an impeccable dresser who looks as if he should be chasing signorinas on the Via Veneto. But he does not smoke, drink or stay out late. A strict vegetarian, he exercises four hours a day to build stamina and has read every available technical treatise on racing. He has even attended special schools to improve his public speaking.
"Winning the world championship is my only aim in life," he says. "I can think of no one who has entered racing more prepared to win it than I am. Everything I do, eat, think and breathe is directed at that. It has reached the point of obsession."
Whatever its drawbacks may be, Cheever's single-minded life-style seems to be paying off. He has been approached by several Formula I teams and feels almost certain that the right offer will come along before the Italian Grand Prix at Monza on Sept. 11. He would like very much to race there, and at the U.S. Grand Prix at Watkins Glen this October. Former world champion Jackie Stewart, who came up through Formula II on his way to winning the title three times (1969, '71 and '73), believes Cheever is at a critical period in his career.
"Eddie is one of five young drivers in Formula II with considerable potential," says Stewart. "But the step from Formula II to Formula I is a difficult one, and many good drivers don't make it." Stewart says that of those five top Formula II drivers, two may have already "ruined their careers" by signing too quickly with wrong racing teams just for the chance to drive in Formula I. "Many promising careers have been destroyed by ill-chosen affiliations," he says. "This is a very crucial time for a good young driver because there are a lot of people who would like to take advantage of him. There are only a handful of really good drivers in the world, and the attrition rate in Formula I is tremendously high. If he is confident of his ability, the best thing he can do is wait for the right factory team to come along."
For the moment, Cheever has enough on his mind and hands just battling for the Formula II championship. He is second in the standings, in the midst of a furious struggle with point leader René Arnoux, 24, Didier Pironi, 22, and 23-year-old Riccardo Patrese. With six of 14 races run, only 11 points currently separate the four rivals. But Cheever's jump to Formula I does not hinge solely on his taking the title. His performances thus far have been impressive enough to make that move almost a certainty. "The Ralt-BMW is not a car that is complementary to Cheever's driving style," notes Stewart. "He drives a very aggressive race, and he's not afraid to manhandle the car when it's giving him problems."
These days those are the least of Eddie Cheever's problems. Handling his vaulting ambition may take a bit more finesse.