IRL: Rice still on the run

IRL: Rice still on the run

The whirlwind tour for the winner of the 88th Indianapolis 500, Buddy Rice, is just about over. Just one more day in Salt Lake City, another trip to New York City for his appearance on Rahal Letterman Racing co-owner David Letterman's late-night...

The whirlwind tour for the winner of the 88th Indianapolis 500, Buddy Rice, is just about over. Just one more day in Salt Lake City, another trip to New York City for his appearance on Rahal Letterman Racing co-owner David Letterman's late-night show and a quick flight to Dallas Ft-Worth awaits the driver of the #15 Argent Mortgage/Pioneer Panoz G Force/Honda.

Buddy Rice with his car and the Borg-Warner Trophy.
Photo by Michael C. Johnson.
It's been a heady month for Rice, who parlayed his Indy 500 MBNA Pole Position, Checkers/Rally's Pit Stop Competition win and victory in the Indy 500 on the 30th of May into a massive media tour, going to the island of Manhattan, Washington, DC, Richmond, Texas and then a breather at home in Phoenix before heading out to Utah for even more personal appearances.

Winning the biggest race in the United States and the largest single-day sporting event in the world can change people, but it doesn't appear to have changed Buddy Rice. Yet. "It has sunk in a little bit," he admitted this afternoon. "It will take a while to understand everything and it's still very hard to believe," Rice said.

Looking at the newspaper clippings and watching the ABC race telecast long after he lived it, Rice has had moments, not minutes to reflect. Asked about his monumental front straight restart pass on both Tony Kanaan and Dan Wheldon, Rice "knew it was close but I had to take advantage of the opportunity and get both of them in one shot. It was a risky move but I needed to do it."

Although Buddy had other opportunities in different series over the winter, he chose to take the tenuous position with Rahal Letterman Racing, a gamble that is paying off with his victory in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing and Rice's current third place in the point standings. "This is a huge accomplishment for everybody on our team.

"It's pretty amazing to take part, to do it and to win it, particularly for Bob and Dave. Bob's been there as a winner, but it's been a long time (1986). Dave was super-excited after we won. But mostly," Rice noted, "It's people like DSTP Motorsports, like Lynx Racing in Toyota Atlantic. Those people are very excited."

Rice chose open wheel racing - competing in the Indy Racing League's IndyCar Series for the simplest of reasons: "This is what I like to race. You have to be so precise with the open wheel cars."

While his door is "always open to anything in this ever-changing world of racing, I had options to go fulltime in other stuff but that got pushed aside" when the opportunity came to drive for Rahal Letterman Racing in the IRL. "This is where I want to be."

While it might be interesting to consider the way racing once was, when drivers would move from one type of motorsports to another on different race weekends - or even times of day - Buddy Rice realizes that "you can't bounce around anymore."

Each type of professional racing requires such dedication on a daily basis and learning the ins and outs of each discipline, that's simply out of the question at this point. "You have to run what you're gonna do."

This weekend in Justin, TX, Buddy Rice gets a bit of respite from his media tour, getting back into the car and working to move up the points ladder to second, or even first place. The two guys he's following, Wheldon and Kanaan are familiar competitors, particularly the Briton Wheldon, who finished second to Rice in the 2000 Toyota Atlantic championship.

"Dan's an awesome driver, he works really hard at his craft and we have respect for one another," Rice said. "Both he and Tony give good, close racing. Actually, that's what you find throughout the IRL field."

Once Rice is at Texas, the media tour takes a back seat, but "I guess we'll be available to do some media stuff on Friday, when stuff slows and there's little going on" for the IRL troops, who qualify Thursday night. "That's one of the great things about being with a top team like Rahal Letterman Racing; they know how to schedule stuff.

"We're all focused on the same things: we're working on points for the championship and we're all pushing really hard. Remember," Rice reminded, "we've only done four races and there are 12 more to go!"

The IndyCar Series' races at Texas Motor Speedway are always competitive, and Rice is looking forward to that. "The night races bring a different aspect" to competition. "I think you see really good racing on tracks like Texas, the 1.5-mile high-banked tracks like that."

This weekend Rice will have Vitor Meira as his teammate once again, the Brazilian who finished sixth (and might have given Buddy a run for the Indy 500 drink of milk had he not run over an air hose in the pits). "Vitor has done a really good job since Twin Ring Motegi," Rice recognized. "He has made only one mistake and he's run really well in Texas.

Not content with victory on the longest oval track the Indy Racing League visits, Rice is looking forward to the short tracks ahead. "The rules package the IRL has put together is really good for places like Richmond and Milwaukee, where I think we'll be really fast. I tested at Nashville (right after winning the Indy 500 pole slot) and I'm very pleased with the way things went. I think we've got the short tracks sorted out already and I can't wait!"

Buddy Rice is also looking forward to new venues where the IRL might compete next year and in the future. "Road racing would add a new and different spice to the IRL. I don't think we need lots of road racing, but a little would be good."

Conversation, though, just keeps coming back to his accomplishments in Indianapolis and why not? It was only "a lap or so before the [final] yellow that I thought I might have the race in hand. I knew I was leading; I looked at the pylon and thought, 'If the race ends this way we've won the thing'."

It was a monumental time in his career and Buddy Rice finally recognizes it. "I know what a big deal this is and everyone handles it differently. There's a lot to absorb" when you win the Indianapolis 500 and, according to the latest victor, "Nothing prepares you for this."

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Tony Kanaan , Dan Wheldon , Buddy Rice , Vitor Meira