The difference between 2004 and 2005 for Buddy Rice, pilot of the ...
The difference between 2004 and 2005 for Buddy Rice, pilot of the #15 Argent Mortgage/Pioneer Panoz/Honda/Firestone entry in the Indy Racing League's IndyCar Series? Try night and day.
Last year at this time, Rice was still basking in the glow of victory in the 88th Indianapolis 500 and would amass two more victories and accumulate five pole positions, taking third place in the season-long point tally. The 29-year-old Arizona native led eight races for a total of 342 laps last season and was in the hunt for the championship almost to the end.
This season has been quite a bit different - and not for the better. While Rice began the 17-race campaign with a fourth place start at Homestead- Miami Speedway, mechanical difficulties knocked him out of that race. He qualified tenth at home in Phoenix but an accident rendered him first out of the contest, 22nd.
Rice had a good run in St Petersburg, starting a miserable 17th but finishing seventh as he showed inbred road racing genes. At Twin Ring Motegi he started 11th and finished on podium in third, just in front of rookie teammate Danica Patrick.
Things were looking up heading into the month of May, but a practice accident on May 11th sidelined the defending champ and stifled his abilities to repeat in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. It was tough to give up his seat, but at least the replacement driver was familiar, as were the circumstances.
Yes, the man for whom Rice took over, Kenny Brack came back to serve as replacement for Rice at Indy, setting the fastest qualifying average of the month and doing well until a five-cent steering piece relegated the Swede to the sidelines. "I was okay with it because it was Kenny in the car. After all," Rice admitted, "he had to watch me in his seat all last year.
"Kenny showed he can still do it and I think it closed a chapter for him." Might there be a fourth car in the Rahal Letterman Racing stables for Brack to compete again later in the year? "It's not going to happen," Rice declared. "I can't speak for Kenny but he's pretty satisfied, I'd think. I don't think you'll see him in an IRL car or any open wheel car anytime soon."
Part of the reason for Rice's great success in the 2004 IRL season was the great synergy at Rahal Letterman Racing. Working well with another castoff driver who had helmet in hand at the start of the year, Rice and Vitor Meira became great teammates and respectful competitors for one another.
"Team chemistry is important to good racing and here," Rice said, "everyone works well together. Having Vitor as my teammate in 2004 was a great benefit and now, with a third car [for Danica Patrick] we're all in sync.
'We're moving the right direction and the chemistry is very good. We're just as happy to cheer each other on and, quite frankly," Rice emphasized, "I'd be happy to finish second to Vitor any day. I'm looking forward to his first win."
This weekend, after finishing 11th at Richmond International Raceway's 3/4- mile bullring following another mechanical DNF on the Texas Motor Speedway 1.5-mile oval, Rice is looking forward to returning to the scene of his second IRL victory at Kansas.
The 2004 Argent Mortgage Kansas Indy 300 remains the League's second closest finish in its ten-year history, with Rice prevailing over Meira by a scant 0.0051 seconds, the blink of an eye. "We had a good setup there in 2004 and I think we should have an edge again. We should be in the top three without any problems; that's not an issue," Rice insisted.
"If we put some things together and have a good solid race we'll be strong for the next few tracks. One smooth weekend," something that has eluded him thus far in the year, "is all we need."
This year's competition is even more pronounced than it has been in the few years that Rice has competed. "Between the engine, chassis and teams, you just can't make any mistakes. You've got to be on top at the end but so far, every week we've had a problem," he explained.
"It's never the same things but you can't let it go to your head. You've just got to try and shake it." Not losing confidence is a tough thing when a black cloud is over your head - just ask Tomas Scheckter - but Rice feels "if we get the fun back it'll be alright. Vitor has been super strong all year. He's such a calm guy who does his own thing," Rice said.
Keeping his confidence level up has to be important for Buddy Rice, because the Indy Racing League's competition level - between engine makers, chassis constructors, teams and drivers - just keeps getting tighter.
"I think it's very stout to have all three engine makers up front at this point in the season; we've got four races in the next five weeks and we're just ready to put a string together" of strong finishes."