On a recent Las Vegas summer night, the neon-lit Strip glowing with the wattage of a thousand suns, racing legend Eddie Cheever buckled into a Ferrari 296 GTS and went back in time.
“I’m 65 years old, so asking me to drive a Ferrari down the Las Vegas Strip at 2am. is a bit insane,” Cheever says, with a laugh. “But just sitting in that Ferrari was so great. I was like a teenager blipping the throttle.”
The reason the America-born, Italy-raised racer hopped in that 296 GTS in this fabled Nevada city was to retrace a small portion of a Formula One racetrack that is being resurrected for the F1 Heineken Silver Las Vegas Grand Prix 2023, to take place on the 18th of November.
The last time F1 cars roared in ‘Sin City’ was 1982, and Cheever almost claimed that race in his Ligier-Matra, settling for third after he damaged a suspension part. He recalls the intense heat of the race – literally. That contest, incredibly, was run during the day when desert temperatures often push 100 degrees Fahrenheit. For November’s race, drivers will take in Las Vegas in all its artificial-light splendour as the starting flag drops at 10pm local time.
Currently an International Development and Strategic Advisor for NASCAR and IMSA, Cheever spent a decade in F1 with teams such as Tyrrell, Alfa Romeo and Renault. And while he may not have raced for Ferrari during his time in motorsports, he came as close as anyone to joining the Prancing Horse stable under the personal invitation of il Commendatore Enzo Ferrari himself.
One day in 1977 a barely 18-year-old Cheever, fresh off impressive performances in karting and then Formula 2, heard his home telephone ring. It was Ferrari, and before long he was sitting in front of Enzo himself.
It was almost all set. Cheever had been optioned to race and test exclusively for Ferrari in the 1978 season, but his racing programme had not yet been defined. “It was more than I could absorb,” he says softly.
But fate cruelly intervened. Cheever was still obliged to complete a six-hour race in Italy for BMW. As he was heading down a straight at 140mph and easing into a right-hand turn, his suspension gave out. The crash totalled the car and left Cheever with five broken bones in his left hand.
“I spent the week in hospital, and there I read that Ferrari had signed a friend of mine, Gilles Villeneuve,” Cheever recalls. The passion to drive in F1 immediately led Cheever to ask the Ferrari team to release him from his contract.
“Of all the decisions one makes in life, that was maybe the biggest regret,” he says. “I made it because I was in a rush, I didn’t want to get off the wave I was on. So, I went from the best F1 car out there to the worst.”
Inevitably, Cheever’s thoughts drift back to the 296 GTS he briefly danced with on the reborn Las Vegas F1 track. So, maybe it’s time for a 296 GTS to join the Cheever family?
He laughs. “Maybe, maybe,” he says, adding that he’s been asking IMSA series pit experts about the new Ferrari, his curiosity piqued. “There is something about these cars.”
Cheever may be an American racer, but it seems his blood runs Rosso Ferrari.