July 31, 2002 | 12:00 A.M. EST
In the week leading up to the IRL’s Michigan 400 Cheever added another young driver, Buddy Rice, to his team. Then Cheever gave Rice Scheckter’s pit crew and, according to Schectker, some of his car’s best parts.
The 21-year old South African, son of World Champion, Jody Scheckter, said that his boss wouldn’t talk to him but only to his agent.
Talk about mind games. Cheever, not very subtly, was sending a message to get results or else.
After all of this rookie’s potential and laps led earlier this year, the promise turned to ashes due to crashes, including one with his boss in the season opener. His sponsor was going to have to sell a lot of Red Bull athletic drink to pay for all the damaged equipment.
Scheckter should have been a mess going into that race.
“I really wasn’t looking forward to going to Michigan,” he said adding “I don’t want to say I was a little bit bitter during the week.”
The end result was that Scheckter won the pole, the team started one-two-three, and finished one-two with Rice following in Schectker’s Infiniti’s exhaust.
Cheever admitted that all the team changes were a tactic.
“Absolutely,” he said right after the race. “I wanted the best that Tomas had to offer. I don't know how he could have done a better result today, or Buddy. I want and demand and the team demands the best that everybody has to offer.”
Whether you like Cheever’s tactics or not, the result was a clear victory.
“I could have won without the drama of the week because it hurt me personally more than anything. I'm sitting here with a win now. You know, maybe it was right,” Schectker said.
There may be some of you out there that finds all of this very distasteful, but it’s really a tradition in racing.
Dan Gurney told me one time, discussing the legendary Enzo Ferrari, that the Italian synonymous with blood red racers, would berate his under-performing drivers in the press to get them to turn up the speed.
How did Gurney handle that? “I was so crazy, he didn’t have to do that to get me to driver harder” he said with a big laugh.
Anyone in the racing business will tell you that the “sport” is a matter of egos. At some levels a team owner will try to use this psychology in contract negotiations to keep a driver’s salary lower.
In terms of drivers, if you are a Michael Schumacher, you can forget about the owner trying to get him to take less.
When you hear of driver contract negotiations going on and on like an Energizer Bunny, most of the time it’s one of those mind games.
This time it was about the driving.
That Cheever turned up the screws by adding Rice, switching crews and car parts, it meant he was really against the wall. Until this last weekend, nothing else worked. Even though the results make Cheever look like a genius he wasn’t comfortable with the past week.
“We're going to find a different method next time,” said Cheever. Can we move on to a different subject? I have to call his manager for an appointment first. I'll call and tell you how the discussion goes, if you'd all like to know,” he added in his typical flip style.
For now all of us will have to wait because Cheever went on a scheduled family vacation away far from communication. Schectker’s still a little bit in dark about what is in store for the future.
Tactic or not they’re winning and for now that’s all that matters.