When Kenny Brack crashed at Texas Motor Speedway last October 12th, Team Rahal had plenty of big decisions to make for the 2004 season. The first-year Indy Racing League IndyCar Series squad had commitments to sponsor Pioneer and partners Honda...
When Kenny Brack crashed at Texas Motor Speedway last October 12th, Team Rahal had plenty of big decisions to make for the 2004 season.
The first-year Indy Racing League IndyCar Series squad had commitments to sponsor Pioneer and partners Honda and Firestone, and they used the intervening time to make a swap of chassis, from Dallara to the Panoz G Force tub that had won both 2003's 87th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race and the IndyCar Series title.
Just last week Team Rahal announced it had enlarged its partnership with Argent Mortgage Co. of California to include co-sponsorship of the #15 Pioneer/Argent Mortgage Panoz G Force which will be driven, at least in the first few races by Buddy Rice.
Rice is no stranger to Team Rahal, which put him under contract after the Phoenix, AZ native had won the 2000 Toyota Atlantic Championship. Initially, Buddy's duties were to observe what happened at Team Rahal during race weekends in the Champ Car series and to perform test duties.
In 2002, Rice got a ride with Red Bull Cheever Racing (he'd had backing from the energy drink for a few years prior) and began his IndyCar career at Michigan Speedway, where he hauled in a second place podium slot. It was a good end-of-season run for Rice, who scored four top-10 results with the team.
The 2003 campaign, though, didn't work out as well as Rice was saddled with the ineffective Gen III Chevy Indy V8 for much of the year. He sat out the final three events of the 16-race year.
Calling upon Buddy Rice to substitute for the injured Swede in 2004 was a no-brainer for Team Rahal. They are familiar with one another and Rice is a regular member of the IndyCar Series fraternity. "I've tried to help Team Rahal in the past as a test and backup driver," Rice said. "This is an excellent opportunity and I can keep the seat ready and up to speed for Kenny's return."
While he did some truck racing toward the end of the 2003 season, Rice "grew up racing open wheel cars and while sometimes the situations aren't always there, I'm trying to stay in the Indy Racing League." He feels the package Rahal puts on the track "is really strong and we can race up front.
"I'm approaching this as an opportunity, but I'm here as a substitute driver. This is my chance to take the car where it's supposed to be, work with the team and sponsors and then," once Brack returns to the ride, "whatever happens later, just happens."
He's still a seat-warmer for Brack, who is heavily into the recuperative process, despite several setbacks, which included having his gall bladder removed around the same time his first daughter Karma was born on New Year's Eve.
"It's been tough to see Kenny's struggle," team co-owner Bobby Rahal revealed. "By the grace of God he's still with us. I hold him in the highest regard. I was so upset by his injury but even with the glitches he's had over the past few months, Kenny still has that drive, that intensity in his recovery."
Rahal feels sure Brack will return to the cockpit sometime this year, but he's also pleased to have Rice on board to help the team. He was "lucky to have Buddy under contract. He has a lot to prove and he can show the world how good he is, give sponsors his best efforts. It's a shame Kenny's hurt, but we're glad to have Buddy with our team."
Brack's recuperation continues apace. "I'm better day by day," Kenny said. "As soon as I got out of the hospital, my recovery accelerated. I've got several hundred percent more energy and mobility than I did before. Now I can do normal things, even though my right ankle isn't healed yet."
Brack still uses crutches to get around and, while he can bear weight on his left leg, he can't do so with the right, due to that right ankle. He no longer has braces on his back and he's doing weight training along with water therapy. "It's amazing how fast your body deteriorates when you're in bed for 6-7 weeks. I have to get my muscles back in shape," he revealed.
Kenny has nothing but positive thoughts about his healing and return, even with all the pain and operations he's endured since that October afternoon. "We all recognize that oval racing is the most dangerous form of motorsport. We have to deal with it every lap. The speeds in IRL racing are extremely high and we expose ourselves to that kind of risk every time we get in the car. It's impossible to make it fool-proof."
There's no set time for Brack's return to competition; he simply has to wait for the broken bones to mend and he's determined not to rush the effort. When asked if he thought this May's Indy 500 was a realistic goal, Kenny could only reply, "I don't know right now. The rehab is going well but I've never been in this position before. It's all in the timing because you can't speed the healing process."
The car will be there for him when Kenny Brack's body is ready for him to drive again. "Both Scott [Roembke, manager of Team Rahal] and I are hopeful that Kenny recovers quickly. If he's ready in time for Indy and Buddy's doing well on the track, it would be foolish not to put Buddy in a car," Rahal admitted.
No one on the team is sure whether - or even when - Brack might appear at the track. "I hope he will remain a member of this team as he recovers and come to the shop. He wants his finger on the pulse of what's happening for us." Brack and his band, Kenny Brack and the Subwoofers did perform for Team Rahal's Christmas party December 12th.
Team Rahal believes in the IRL formula. "It's excellent," Rice declared. "It could maybe use a few little things like more SAFER barriers, but I leave the implementation of rules to them. It takes time to iron things out and I think the cars now are quite safe. The fact that Kenny's still here and hopes to come back is a credit to the League," Buddy said.
Rahal believes that more American drivers will stay in open wheel racing. "IndyCar's legitimacy will bring more money into the series. We've got a lot of manufacturers involved now and more sponsors, too. It really depends on what a driver wants to do with their lives, but for me, there's nothing more exciting than open wheel. In NASCAR there might be a lot more cars, but only a few are competitive," he reminded.
Rice has been "frustrated by the lowering of open wheel racing" on the motorsports food chain. "The last 10 years have not been a lot of fun for those of us who appreciated where Indy and open wheel racing once were. Having said that," he mused, "I think that opportunities are there to regain interest and even be bigger than before. Open wheel can be huge. We've just got to get focused and get back to the right thing. There's always growing pains in any business."
At some point, maybe even as soon as 2005, you might see Team Rahal in sports car racing. "The American Le Mans Series holds great interest for me. That's where I cut my teeth, in sports cars," Rahal recalled. "I won at Sebring and Daytona. We're a racing company and we're looking forward. Some companies like the demographics of sports car racing and, when you've got companies like Ferrari, Aston-Martin and the new Corvette involved, that's a good association."
In the IndyCar Series, Rahal is pleased with the hierarchy he answers to. "With Tony [George] and Brian [Barnhart], you know where the buck stops. I'm comfortable with the changes as they come down. The last 10 years have been fractious [for the sport]. I give all credit to Tony through the pressure and criticism he gets. I see impressive crowds and the racing is so exciting sometimes I can't watch!"