Buddy Rice on the Rim of Greatness

Anne Proffit
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INDIANAPOLIS

Buddy Rice has a point to make. After winning the CART Toyota Atlantic championship in 2000 for DeDe Rogers' DSTP Motorsports, he expected to earn the traditional climb to the next level of racing. He signed with Team Rahal to do some testing and learning in 2001 and ended up doing, well, very little.

Rahal had two drivers signed to compete in Champ cars that year, Kenny Brack and Max Papis and really didn't have the need for Rice's services. He hung at the tracks with them, listened on his scanner to team communications, sat in on the engineering briefings and continued to look here and there to find the ride he felt was rightfully his.

A November test with Red Bull Cheever Racing begat work in the middle of the 2002 Indy Racing League IndyCar Series campaign; Rice joined the team at Michigan and promptly qualified and finished second, leading 15 laps in the process with a fast Dallara/Infiniti package.

There were no wins in 2002, but two top-five and four top-10 results in only five starts, so Buddy Rice figured he'd have sufficient opportunity to remedy that lack in his second season with the Cheever squad after signing a three-year contract.

Didn't happen. What did occur was the departure of Infiniti from the IRL and Cheever Racing's acceptance of the moribund Gen III Chevy Indy V8, a dog of a motor if ever there was one.

Cheever decided to go with longtime IRL engine supplier General Motors, whose Aurora power mill was pretty much omnipotent during its run. The Chevy that supplanted it certainly was not, making for that old cliche: a character-building season.

In the first 13 races of the 2003 season, Buddy Rice managed only four top-10 results and he was dismissed for the final three events of the campaign. Alex Barron took over the seat just as the Gen IV motor arrived for all Chevy runners to use. That left the Phoenix, Arizona native on the sidelines. Barron got one top-10 (7th) in his three drives for Cheever last year, but that was about it.

Rice's next opportunity occurred for all the wrong reasons. Kenny Brack, who returned to the Indy Racing League with Bobby Rahal in 2003 - he was the 1998 IRL champion and the 1999 Indianapolis 500 Mile Race winner - had a terrible accident in the season finale at Texas Motor Speedway and would not be available to the team until well into the 2004 campaign, if at all.

When Rahal called, Rice took the opportunity to run for [re-named] Rahal-Letterman Racing. "It was probably going to be one of my last opportunities," Rice admitted. "Obviously, not everything works out the way you think it's going to sometimes. Not everything's always ideal. But this situation presented itself and I couldn't step away from it."

No, Buddy Rice jumped in and, in his first race for Rahal-Letterman earned MBNA Pole Position and finished seventh, leading 49 laps along the way in the Toyota Indy 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. A cut tire after his first pit stop put Buddy out of the hunt for podium honors.

A few weeks later, racing at home he qualified 12th and finished ninth with a handful of a car. At the Japan Indy 300 Rice sat fifth on the grid and finished sixth, carrying seventh place points as the IndyCar Series next ventured to the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

Aided by two new teammates Roger Yasukawa and Vitor Meira, Rice suddenly had the benefit of feedback from a couple of peers and a deep Rahal-Letterman engineering staff that includes Todd Bowland, Tim Reiter and Don Halliday. Add to that the knowledge of 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner Bobby Rahal, his team co-owner and Brack's information as the still recovering star stands atop Indy's spotter's lair.

It all worked out for Rice, who became the first American driver to take MBNA Pole Position at the Indianapolis 500 since Scott Sharp in 2001. His car #15, carrying the colors of Argent Mortgage and Pioneer electronics is the first #15 to take the top starting slot in the 88-year history of the 500-mile race. His Panoz G Force chassis is designed and built in Georgia; Rice's Honda engine is an American Honda project from Honda Performance Development in California and Ilmor Engineering in Michigan.

It's all very red, white and blue. And that's perfect for the Memorial Day Classic.

For the people who have been yelling for more American drivers in the open wheel category who can appeal to the casual fan, Buddy Rice is your guy. On the verge of winning his first IRL race, with two MBNA Pole Positions in the first four events, 28-year-old Rice is The Man.

Buddy Rice likes to surf, snowboard, mountain-bike and kart. He has a radical Chevy truck for his daily driver and a 1967 Chevy 2 Nova hotrod he uses to terrorize the Phoenix area. He prefers to wear his team cap backwards, for crying out loud. Too bad somebody won't let him do that anymore.

Rice stayed pretty much below the radar screen in the week leading up to MBNA Pole Day, sticking with the program Rahal-Letterman planned from the start. Before rain rendered Fast Friday an anomaly, he'd worked his #15 Argent/Pioneer Panoz G Force/Honda into ninth place on the speed charts at 220.778mph over 155 laps.

On Wednesday he alluded, "We aren't too far off where we want to be for Saturday," after expressing pleasure with the luxury of working strictly on qualifying setup for the race. Having two teammates like Meira and Yasukawa, the latter significantly quicker in fifth place after that day's practice was complete at 221.248mph certainly made life better.

As we all know, whatever transpires in practice for Indy has little to do with qualifying and racing on the tricky Brickyard oval. By sticking to a program and accomplishing what the team thought it needed to do prior to MBNA Pole Day. Rice thought that, "Even with the weather [changes] we cold have gone for the pole position."

And so emerged Mr. Rice's wild 10-mile ride. His third and final warm-up lap was close to 221mph, and Buddy looked like he was on the edge of losing the car every time by. On each of those four laps, there appeared to be no more than a slice of paper between his Firestone tires and the whitewashed IMS walls. "We had the car pretty trimmed out and it was loose into Turn 1 every lap," Rice revealed. "It was a pretty pressure-packed ride."

That pressure is over, even as Rice now happily tends to the public relations duties any Indy 500 polesitter must deal with.

Buddy Rice predicts a pretty fast race on May 30th and plenty of action for fans on site to observe, as the Indy cars have lost five gallons of methanol in their tanks and will need another 2-3 pit stops, placing the onus on crew work.

"I think you'll see sprints between the tire stops just like you do at all of our races." The pace, he believes, will be in the 215-6mph range, plenty quick enough to show off the daring of, hopefully, 33 competitive cars.

On that Sunday, fans will get to see the bravery and skill of IndyCar Series drivers at work over 200 laps, 500 miles.

Buddy Rice hopes they'll get to see him quaffing some milk by the end of the day. And he's also thinking a good result will net him a ride at Rahal-Letterman Racing for the balance of the IndyCar Series season. If his dreams come true, it couldn't happen to a more deserving driver.

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