As the last American to race for a US team in Formula 1, and the only American ever to race for Renault, it only seems appropriate to revisit the abundant career at the pinnacle of racing of Eddie Cheever Jr.
Eddie Cheever's path to the pinnacle of racing followed a decisively un-American way. The roots of his passion were not to be found in sprint cars, dirt tracks or any other form of American racing, but under the traditional routes of European road racing.
Although he was born in Phoenix, Eddie grew up in Rome, Italy where his father, Edward, had brought fitness and health clubs to the country for the first time. He began racing karts at the age of 13 and the action-packed, wheel-to-wheel battles in the nimble little machines, where he fought against future F1 rivals Riccardo Patrese and Elio de Angeles, fueled his ambitions from the get-go.
At 16, he seamlessly graduated to cars, moving up the junior formulae ranks at a blistering pace. In 1977, he was perceived as such a great talent that even Ferrari courted the 19 year-old for a full-fledged works drive in F1 the following year! In the end though, it would be another prodigy - Gilles Villeneuve - who would inherit that prime spot.
It was a clumsy first step up the Grand Prix ladder however as his first outings resulted in two non-qualifications with the low-budget Theodore racing team and a lackluster one-off with Hesketh Racing. A tad unripe for the big time, Cheever retreated to F2 with the Osella team in 1979 and then followed the small Italian squad back into F1 for his first full season, albeit one which was dogged by poor reliability and performance.
Always the talent-spotter, Ken Tyrrell offered Eddie a better environment in which to learn his trade in 1981, the American scoring his first championship points at Long Beach in his very first race with the British team. He would enjoy four more top-six finishes that year in the Tyrrell Cosworth. Now a firmly established member of the F1 fraternity, Cheever switched to the French Ligier team for '82, racing alongside Jacques Laffite and achieving his first of three podiums at the Belgian GP at Zolder.
The engaging role of 'An American in Paris' was quite enjoyable to Cheever whose fortunes rose considerably when he was chosen to partner Alain Prost in the works Renault team in 1983. Armed with the mighty power of the car's V6 turbo-charged engine, he was a regular top-ten contender in qualifying all season but reliability issues undermined his efforts in half of the races. He nevertheless secured three thirds, in France, Belgium and Italy, and one second in Canada, the highlight of his year.
In retrospect, there had been no shortage of commitment or enthusiasm on Cheever's part, or talent for that matter as he showed finesse and skill, especially on streets circuits. But playing a supporting role to Prost's championship bid, or just being compared to the phenomenal Frenchman and future four-time World Champion, definitely reduced his achievements which perhaps enticed Renault not to renew the American's contract for the following season.
Cheever found refuge with the Benetton-Alfa Romeo squad for 1984 and 1985, but there was only a single points finish (ironically in his first race with the team) in the two lean years he was there, driving a car powered by a thirsty and very unreliable Alfa V8. His momentum lost, Eddie Cheever was out of F1 in 1986 - apart from a guest outing for the Haas-Lola team in Detroit, where he became the last American to race for a US F1 team.
He did return to the pinnacle of motor racing however in 1987 for a three year stint with Arrows. But a few points and two podium finishes were all the lanky driver was awarded in that period. His final year of Grand Prix racing was particularly painful, literally, as Cheever was forced to compose with the low line Arrows A11 in which he barely fit. In spite of often enduring cutting agony in the machine's cramped cockpit, he set it all aside in his home town of Phoenix in 1989 when he enjoyed an emotional run to third and his last ever podium finish in F1.
For many, Cheever's time at the top had been marked by a potential never realized. True, he rarely disposed of machinery worthy of his ability, and when he did, bad luck or mechanical failures were the norm rather than the exception. But in all fairness, there were also clear traits of inconsistency in his performances, as a spirited drive was often followed in the next race by an anonymous mid-field run.
In the end though, Eddie Cheever holds the record for achieving more Grand Prix starts, 132, than any other American driver in history. Life after F1 brought him success in sports cars with the TWR-Jaguar team before he carved out a niche for himself in Indycar racing back home, becoming one of the most popular drivers within the IRL community. In 1998, after setting up his own team, Eddie Cheever took the biggest prize of his career when he won the Indy 500 from 17th position on the grid.