BMW celebrated the 50th anniversary of BMW M with a special event during this year’s 24-hour race weekend at the Nürburgring. One of the drivers invited for the occasion was Eddie Cheever, who formed the now legendary BMW Junior Team together with Manfred Winkelhock and Marc Surer back in 1977. Cheever is one of the few American racers who began their careers in European motorsport, as he grew up in Rome, where his parents ran a chain of fitness studios. As a child, his father took him to a sports car race in Monza – and little Eddie was immediately fascinated. We were on site at the Nürburgring and had the opportunity to interview Cheever exclusively about his time at BMW and his later Formula 1 career.
AUTOMOBILSPORT: When you signed for the BMW Junior Team for the 1977 season, you had your sights firmly on Formula 1. The BMW deal was likely to lead to a Formula 2 engagement, which it did. Did Jochen Neerpasch speak to you about a long-term plan for Formula 1?
Cheever: Everything you said is factually correct, just the order I need to adjust. I was racing for a gentleman called Ron Dennis, who at the time had a company called Project Four. When I won a Formula 3 race at Silverstone, somebody introduced me to Ron. He said, ‘would you like to test my Formula 2 car?’ I think it was a March Formula 2 car. My dad said yes. So I went, I tested, my father and Ron made an arrangement where he would run our Formula 3 car for the rest of the season. I did two races, I believe, in Germany. And then the next season I raced for Ron in Formula 2, where it was very much hand to mouth. When we had $2, we would spend $2, when we had $3 we spent $3. I had one or two good results. Ron Dennis is the one who negotiated with Neerpasch to get the official BMW engines.
AUTOMOBILSPORT: For Formula 2?
Cheever: Yes, for Formula 2. Part of the deal was that I had to race in the German Group 5 championship for BMW with the new Junior Team, which was the beginning of everything. Once we were in the sphere of BMW, they had the best Formula 2 engine. And there was a big push to win the championship. I thought when I signed for BMW I would turn up at a test session and we would do a few laps and then we would go racing. It was exactly the opposite – as if I was a Formula 1 driver already. They put us all in these cars and we went to St Moritz and trained like crazy people. For two weeks up early every morning, doing gymnastics and talking and all this competition. I was exhausted at the end of it, but it really was my introduction to racing.
I never talked to Jochen about Formula 1. But at the end of the year, I won at the Nürburgring, I won in Rouen and I went into the last race in second place. And I broke my hand one week before the last race in Vallelunga driving a Jägermeister BMW. That is the chronological sequence
AUTOMOBILSPORT: Did you have an eye on BMW before, in terms of racing? …
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by Robert Weber
Photographs: BMW, Thomas Dirk Heere, Robert Weber, Kräling, Motorsportimages, McKlein