INDIANAPOLIS, May 16, 2005 - Flying under the radar is something Buddy Rice and Rahal Letterman Racing accomplished last year in the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. Leading not one day of practice, the team concentrated on running solo and just doing their own thing, preparing for race day.
New to the Indy Racing League as CART/Champ Car expatriates, RLR started with a bang from Buddy with a pole at their first event at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The follow-through wasn't there for real until MBNA Pole Day at Indianapolis - and on race-day itself as Rice reamed the competition and won the rain-shortened race.
In 2005, of course Rahal's squad is severely over the radar with the sudden emergence of Danica Patrick as an accomplished oval racer and fan favorite. While qualifying and racing in Japan, in practice and qualifying sessions here in Indianapolis Patrick has looked like a seasoned pro.
Albeit one whose every waking moment is now being scrutinized and followed as if she were a movie star. Perhaps if she's smart Danica will take a moment or two to get some tips from another member of the IRL community Ashley Judd?
Among the more popular drivers in the IndyCar Series are Sam Hornish Jr and A.J. Foyt IV. At any race the space behind their pit stalls is jammed with supporters and hangers-on who want the aura of being close to Hornish (and his team led by Roger Penske) and Foyt, whose claim to fame right now is his lineage as the grandson of the first four-time Indianapolis 500 race winner A.J. Foyt Jr.
This year - while there are still plenty of folks behind the barriers who hover at the feet of Foyt and Hornish - the no-walk zone in the pits at Indy surrounds 23-year-old Patrick and her Rahal Letterman Racing team. It's been a mob scene out there, one that barely allows a 5'2" lady some air to breathe!
And still Patrick is handling it all extremely well. Fastest in practice leading up to Pole Day, Patrick has given the Indy Racing League's marketing department a built-in hero. She's performed nearly without flaws.
Except for a bobble on her first qualifying lap Sunday in the first turn of the Brickyard's tricky 2.5-mile oval Danica Patrick has been near perfect. Despite putting up the fastest single-lap speed in four-lap qualifying, Patrick was relegated to position four in the 33-car starting lineup due to her error.
There was always the possibility she might go back out again, so that inevitable crowd stifled traffic around Patrick's pit box all afternoon, just waiting for that option to become fact. It never did; team co-owner Bobby Rahal figured it was best to be satisfied with this fine result.
What all of this attention focused on Danica Patrick is doing is quite simple: it allows teams and drivers who might otherwise be at the forefront of public adoration to accomplish what Buddy Rice and Rahal Letterman Racing did last year: fly under the radar.
It's a heck of a lot easier to accomplish your directives when the whole world isn't watching and that's just what Andretti Green Racing and Tony Kanaan achieved on MBNA Pole Day for the 89th Indianapolis 500.
Among the first to take the 10-mile drive on a cool, blustery and cloudy Sunday afternoon, Kanaan rattled off laps that turned out to be the most consistent and quickest of the afternoon, at 227.556mph.
While he received huzzahs for the feat, Kanaan had to wait for Patrick, for Hornish Jr., for two-time Indy winner Helio Castroneves and a swarm of other fast drivers - including his own three teammates - to try and knock him off.
The four-car Andretti Green Racing team has been unstoppable since entering the Indy Racing League's IndyCar Series in 2003. Its quartet of drivers have all taken trips to Victory Lane and, in the process become the squad most everyone needs to beat.
But still, the attention wasn't trained on Kanaan this past week, making it easier for the deep AGR engineering squad to ready the cars for action.
Despite the setback of an automobile accident in San Francisco after the League's open test at Infineon Raceway Sears Point last month that caused severe internal injuries to two of their essential engineering employees, Scott Graves and Tino Belli, AGR marches on.
Both Graves and Belli are back to work - part-time at least - and doing their best to ensure success for their entire team. Like everyone else who meets triumph in this tough business, Graves and Belli eat, sleep and breathe their love of racing, living for the heady, sweet scent of methanol.
And so ebullient Tony Kanaan secured MBNA Pole Position on Rubberqueen (really) qualifying day at the Brickyard oval this past Sunday and did it (mostly) without spotlights trained upon him.
In his first two attempts to take home the Borg Warner Trophy symbolic of the Indy 500 winner, Kanaan has finished third and second, respectively. He's now on the precipice of making that top podium step and drinking the winner's milk.
Happy to let Danica Patrick take the bulk of media and fan scrutiny, Kanaan just goes about his job with the astute professionalism he's displayed since coming to the United States with Steve and Christine Horne's Tasman Motorsports in 1996 and securing the Indy Lights crown at year later.
It's no accident that Tony Kanaan is a well-rounded racer and grounded person. Coming up the hard way (without major family financial backing) and emphasizing true work ethic, teamwork and camaraderie has made Tony the leader of his pack.
He might be under the radar this month of May but come the 29th and race day, look for Tony Kanaan to put his mark on the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. He's earned it.