Victory Lane at the Indianapolis 500 used to be reserved for names like Unser and Andretti, Foyt and Mears.
Now, there's room for the Eddie Cheevers of the world.The 40-year-old Cheever had only one significant victory in two decades of racing - and that because of fortuitous timing - but the Indy 500 is all about opportunity now.
This is what speedway president Tony George had in mind when he turned the sport upside down by launching the Indy Racing League. He wanted to give the little guys a chance and end the domination by the super-rich, super-famous teams.
Indy's brave new world was on full display again Sunday as Cheever took the checkered flag in a teal-colored car sponsored by a small potato chip company. He beat out Buddy Lazier, whose only victory in an Indy car is the 1996 500, the first of the IRL era.
"There's really nothing to defend," Cheever said defiantly. "The IRL is America's premier oval, open-wheel racing series. Yes, the IRL is still growing, but the competition is fierce."
Indeed, all the elements of a typical Indy were on hand - the 400,000 fans, Jim Nabors singing "Back Home Again in Indiana," and the loud roar of 33 cars circling the oval at more than 200 mph.
And, in all fairness, the group of drivers that George has assembled does show promise. Take the case of 21-year-old J.J. Yeley, the youngest in the field.
The rookie spun out on the first turn of the initial lap and nearly took Cheever with him. But a deft bit of driving kept Yeley's car from sliding into the wall, and he made it back to the pits for a new set of tires. By the end of the day, he was ninth.
"The first lap was kind of a bummer," Yeley said. "But it was a lot of fun. We had to come back from 33rd in the pack to finish ninth. I guess that will make my first Indy 500 a memorable one."
While the IRL cars had a habit of breaking down - pole-sitter Billy Boat and top contenders Tony Stewart, Scott Goodyear and Arie Luyendyk all were taken out by mechanical problems - there was only one serious crash.
Jim Guthrie suffered a broken right elbow, a broken left leg and cracked ribs when he slammed nearly head-on into the wall on lap 50. He underwent surgery at Methodist Hospital and was expected to take about a month to recover.
All in all, a pretty good show, and there was even an Unser - make that two - to give the place some link to its roots.
"I'm not even sweating," said Robby Unser, son of three-time winner Bobby and a fifth-place finisher as a rookie, driving Cheever's second car. "When you love something this much, it just comes naturally."
The top rookie was third-place finisher Steve Knapp, the only other driver on the lead lap. Robby's cousin, Johnny, was taken out by a blown engine and settled for 25th.
Both Unsers had to settle for a supporting role on this day. The star was Cheever, an American who grew up in Italy and started out in Formula One. He switched to Indy cars in 1990 and had three top-10 finishes in eight previous Indy 500s.
His only victory came at an IRL race in Florida last year, when he inherited the lead after a crash and wound up in the winner's circle because of rain one lap later.
"The first time I came here, it terrorized me," Cheever admitted. "I didn't understand the speed. I'm still learning ovals. . . . It takes some time to get used to - just going that fast with walls around you."
He looked like an old pro Sunday, leading 76 of the 200 laps. After the last of 12 caution periods, he burst away from Lazier on the restart and won going away by 3.191 seconds, about half the length of the front straightaway, with an average speed of 145.155 mph.
"I'm still in a bit of a haze," said Cheever, who came perilously close to the wall several times as he fought off Lazier. "The last 20 laps were the hardest I've ever driven."
Cheever overcame plenty of obstacles to put his face on the Borg-Warner Trophy. There was that near mishap on the opening turn. A fuel hose stuck in his Dallara-Aurora during a pit stop on lap 85, and he nearly pulled away with it attached.
"I was sure (the car) was going to break," Cheever said. "There are so many gremlins that run through your head. I got hit with a crosswind, and it changed the sound of the engine. I thought, `Oh no, here we go again.' But the car was impeccable."
He can take a bow for that, as well, since it's his car. Cheever is the first owner-driver since A.J. Foyt in 1977 to win at Indy, though it's not been easy to keep his team together.
Cheever didn't pick up his primary sponsor until a week before arriving at Indy.