Buddy Rice  
 


In the fast-paced world of open-wheel racing, patience isn’t always a virtue. Indy 500 champion Buddy Rice did everything he was supposed to on the way up the motor sports ladder, paying his dues and proving that the heart of a smart, steady driver beat beneath his surfer-dude demeanor. But he still found himself on the outside looking in. Not until someone left the door open a crack did Buddy get his chance—and kicked it wide open! This is his story…

GROWING UP

Buddy Rice was born on January 31, 1976, in Phoenix to Bud and Nancy Rice. Racing was in Buddy’s blood. His grandfather grew up in Indianapolis and was a big fan of the Indy 500. The Rices moved to Arizona when Bud was just a kid, but he got the racing bug anyway. He built and ran hot rods, and won a few championships as a drag racer. Buddy attended his first race at the age of six weeks. His little sister, Alyssa, made her first racetrack appearance at five weeks.

Buddy worked with his dad starting around the age of eight. Three years later, he began racing go karts. It was Bud who encouraged him to pursue oval tracks instead of the drag strip.

Buddy loved anything that was fast and dangerous, including minibikes, skateboards, snowboards, surfboards, and roller coasters. His first sports hero was Aryton Senna the great Formula 1 driver. Buddy also loved baseball, and idolized Ozzie Smith. He was a pretty fair infielder himself—good enough, in fact, to draw attention from pro and college scouts as early as his sophomore season for Shadow Mountain High School. He still believes he could have had a good baseball career, though he admits there aren’t too many 150-pound All-Stars in the majors.

Buddy brought tremendous passion to every sport in which he competed, but never devoted himself enough to any one. That changed around his 16th birthday, when his father sat him down and explained he’d have to start focusing on one if he intended to make sports into a career.


 
 

Buddy chose motor sports. Sure enough, once he devoted himself to kart racing, he began tearing it up. Ironically, Buddy’s first break in this sport came courtesy of a baseball player, Robin Yount, a fellow karting enthusiast. Yount raced against Buddy, immediately recognized his potential and hooked him up with some better equipment. He later introduced him to Bobby Rahal, who had won the Indy 500 when Buddy was 10.

As Buddy ventured further out from Arizona and up the motor sports ladder, he became the instant favorite of virtually everyone he met—the fans, the pit crews, the other drivers; everyone loved the guy. He was a product of the surf-skate culture, a genuine rock'n'roller who just happened to be one of America’s best up-and-coming open-wheel men.

At the age of 20, Buddy graduated to the Dodge Shelby Pro Series and won the Las Vegas race from the pole. That same year he qualified second in a US F2000 event in a six-year-old car, and went on to finish eighth in the race. He was not a miracle-worker, like Jeff Gordon at the same age, but most everyone agreed Buddy would have a great career if he could get a good car and the right team behind him.

ON THE RISE

In 1997, Buddy competed in the US F2000 series for Lynx Racing/DSTP Motorsports. He won one race and ended the year fourth in the standings. He also earned Valvoline’s Team USA Scholarship, and got to represent his country in the Nations Cup in Europe.

In 1998, Buddy joined the Toyota Atlantic Series, a breeding ground for future CART talent. With one win and a seventh-place finish in the points standings, he managed to hold his own.

IThe following year, Buddy started like a house afire, faded toward the end of the year, but still wound up fifth in the standings. In 2000, he won five races, finished second twice, and outdueled another up-and-comer, Dan Wheldon, for the Toyota Atlantic Championship.


Robin Yount, 1980 Topps

 

 
 

This got him noticed by driver-hungry CART owners like Chip Ganassi and Carl Haas, as well as Rahal, who had been monitoring Buddy’s progress since Yount made his initial introduction. In 2001, Rahal hired him to drive for his Formula Atlantic team, and Buddy also functioned as a test driver. He attended all the IRL races, but did not get a start.

Buddy did well enough in Formula Atlantic to deserve a promotion, but Rahal could not hammer out a sponsorship deal, so the 25-tear-old was forced to hit the bricks. He tested for Eddie Cheever Jr.’s Red Bull Racing team, but Cheever instead opted for a more experienced “rookie,” Formula 1 star Tomas Scheckter.

Midway through the 2002 IRL season, Buddy found himself on Cheever’s team, albeit under extremely uncomfortable circumstances. Cheever and Scheckter had a falling out, and Buddy was basically hired to motivate the unhappy drive, who had crashed in half the season’s events to that point. Though there were only five races left on the schedule, this was still a major break.

Buddy raced well at this level. He finished second in his first IRL start at the Michigan Indy 400, and placed fourth at the Gateway 250. But what would normally have been a headline-making run for a rookie like Buddy—especially with the Scheckter mess—ended up flying under the radar. That's because half of IRL’s races were decided by a second or less, and five ended in photo finishes.

In November of '02, Buddy was re-hired by the Cheever team for 2003. He qualified for his first Indianapolis 500 and came in 11th, the best showing for a Chevy-powered car. His crew also won the Pit Stop championship, changing four tires faster than any other crew at the Brickyard.

Unfortunately, that was probably the highlight of the season for Buddy. It never really clicked for him on the Red Bull team, and with three races left in the season, Cheever—a notorious taskmaster—became dissatisfied with his progress. With just four Top 10 finishes in 13 starts, Buddy was replaced by Alex Barron. The knock on him was that he lacked focus and commitment.

For a 27-year-old in search of a steady ride, this was a catastrophe. It meant that other teams would probably look upon Buddy with suspicion when filling spots for 2004. He was actually prepared to move down a rung to sports cars, but as often happens in auto racing, one driver’s misfortune opened the door for another.

In October of 2003, Kenny Brack crashed in the IRL season finale at the Texas Motor Speedway and broke both ankles, his femur and his sternum. Rahal played a hunch and hired Buddy in December, with the understanding that he would step aside once the Swedish star was recovered. Buddy jumped at the chance.


Bobby Rahal, 1991 All World
 
 

The Brack crash was a devastating setback for Rahal and his partner, David Letterman. In 1995, the TV star—who was an Indianapolis native and a huge fan of the Indy 500—had bought into Rahal’s racing team with aspirations of hoisting the Borg-Warner trophy one day. One year later, however, Rahal stayed loyal to CART when the 500 was made part of the new Indy Racing League. When he refused to run at the Brickyard, Dave’s dream of winning at Indy were put on hold until 2002 until Rahal finally returned to Indianapolis.

In 2003, the driving legend fielded his first IRL team, headlined by Brack. Though victory at the 500 eluded Rahal-Letterman Racing, they had a bona fide superstar and a real shot in 2004. Before Brack's crash. Rahal felt Buddy would be a more than adequate fill-in, and believed he might have a bright future as a second banana to Brack. But not even he imagined how quickly Buddy would blossom.

In the first event of 2004, at the Miami-Homestead Speedway, Buddy beat everyone in qualifying, delivering the first IRL pole ever for RLR with a record speed of 217.388 mph. He finished seventh in the race, and followed this with two more Top 10 finishes at events in Phoenix and Japan. (Buddy’s old rival Wheldon finished first at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan for his first IRL victory.)

After Buddy’s solid performance in Asia, Rahal decided to make him a permanent team member—though technically he was still a stand-in for Brack, whose recovery was going slower than expected. Buddy arrived on the circuit without much fanfare. He had not won an IRL event, and despite his good showing earlier in the year, the plan was still for him to keep the seat warm for Brack. But when it became clear the star would not be healed in time for the 500, Buddy got another ride in car #15.

MAKING HIS MARK

Needless to say, Buddy was not counted among the favorites at Indy, despite being one of the fastest drivers in practice. That changed with a brilliant clocking in qualifying, as Buddy won the pole with a speed of 222.024 mph—a moment he described as the greatest in his life. Another highlight was a second straight Pit Stop championship, as his crew—led by chief mechanic Ricardo Nault—edged Team Penske, changing four wheels in 12.3365 seconds.

Nasty weather delayed the beginning of the 2004 Indianapolis 500 for more than two hours. When the starter’s flag dropped, Buddy sped to a three-second lead and held it for 11 laps. He pitted with the other leaders when AJ Foyt IV crashed in turn one. Bryan Herta, Ed Carpenter and Wheldon—who took the lead briefly—grabbed the top three spots. Then the rain began to fall again and the race was halted.

One hour and 47 minutes later, the 500 was back in business. Buddy reclaimed the lead, and found himself holding off Sam Hornish, who managed to box him in traffic and pass him for first place on Lap 50. Buddy kept his cool, even after his engine stalled during an early pit stop, sending him back to eighth place. There was plenty of racing to go.

Meanwhile, Hornish held the lead for the next half-hour, until Larry Foyt crashed. Hornish pitted, but a broken vent hose forced him to re-pit two laps later, taking him out of the mix.

Tony Kanaan took the lead on the restart, but the race bogged down again on Lap 104 when Daren Manning and Greg Ray collided and Hornish smashed into them. After the debris was cleared, Buddy was ready to go after Kanaan. Junqueira, running with a light fuel load, was able to pass them both, but had to pit on Lap 151. Kanaan regained the top spot, but Buddy slid into first place moments later. Vowing not to get boxed in again, he avoided traffic, and left his pit strategy up to GM Scott Roembke.


Kenny Brack, Ford Racing Promo
 
 

Roembke kept his driver out a little longer than expected, bringing him in on Lap 168. This moved Buddy back a bit in the pack, but when leader Adrian Fernandez pitted on Lap 171, Buddy surged forward to grab the lead for the fifth time in the race. Three laps later, a light rain began to fall and out came the yellow flag. Track officials waited a few minutes and, convinced the weather would only get worse, brought out the checkered flag on Lap 180 to give Buddy his greatest victory.

Buddy’s win was viewed with suspicion by some fans, who doubted whether he would have held the lead for the last 50 miles, especially with Kanaan on his tail. But the Brazilian star dismissed any thought that he could have caught Buddy on this day. Indeed, the Rice G-Force Honda was clearly the fastest car on the track this rainy May afternoon.

The ten days following the 500 were crazed. Buddy went on a media tour that had him in Indianapolis, New York, Washington, Richmond and Texas. He threw out the first ball at a Yankee game, chatted with Reggie Jackson about Ferraris, and had his picture taken with Derek Jeter. And, of course, Buddy appeared on his boss’s show.

Buddy’s life changed in unfathomable ways after his Indy victory. Known and loved by the racing community as one of the boys, he now had to assume the clean-shaven, coiffed, corporate sheen that accompanies a win at the Brickyard. The spiked hair and the soul patch had already been eliminated (by Rahal’s orders) and the baseball cap was no longer worn bill-backward (at least not where reporters could comment on him or photographers could snap his picture). Now Buddy had to be a “personality.” He pulled it off beautifully, bantering glibly with TV hosts, rubbing elbows with corporate types, and handling the media like a pro. These were just cosmetic changes, he assured fans in the countless interviews he gave in the after his victory. The same old Buddy was still in there.

Buddy craftily used this wave of media time to lobby for drivers like himself, who played by the rules, worked patiently up the ladder, and then stalled. He billed himself as the embodiment of what young American drivers in his sport could accomplish if given the chance.

Buddy’s next race was the Bombardier 500 in Fort Worth. He qualified second and was running well when a crash took him out late in the event. In his next race, he finished sixth in Richmond.

Buddy’s second career victory came in Kansas, at the Argent Mortgage Indy 300. After taking the pole with a qualifying run over 210 mph, he shadowed Kanaan, the leader for much of the race, before pulling in front with teammate Vitor Meira. As they streaked through the final lap, Meira nosed in front of Buddy on the outside. But Buddy fought back and claimed the checkered flag by .0052 seconds—the second-closest race in IRL history.

A break in the schedule provided Buddy with an opportunity to chill out at home by his swimming pool and recharge his batteries. He also visited the White House, where President Bush offered his congratulations to him and his crew. Buddy made his next start at the Michigan Indy 400. He loved the big, wide track, remembering it from the days his dad used to race hot rods there.

On a day when Kanaan’s Dallara-Honda dominated the field, Buddy stayed right on his tail and managed his fuel brilliantly. Kanaan, who led for 183 of the first 189 laps, was ordered by his crew to allow Buddy to pass with 11 laps left, in the belief that he would have to pit for fuel. Their math was wrong. Buddy edged him by less than a second, and recorded the fourth-fastest race (182.123 mph) in IRL history. Ironically, Kanaan had won on this very track in 1999, when leader Max Papis ran out of fuel on the final lap. Wheldon finished third, and Hornish—who Buddy was now rivaling as IRL’s top American-grown driver—came in fourth.


2004 National Speed Sport News
 
  Buddy’s victory put him 60 points behind Kanaan in the IRL standings, giving him an outside shot at the championship. But with three races to go, he crashed at the Chicagoland Speedway at the Delphi Indy 300, leaving him with almost no conceivable chance of catching up. At the time of his wreck, Buddy was in fifth place, but Darren Manning’s right front tire made contact with his rear left tire, lifting Buddy's car into the air. Its nose dove into the track, and then Buddy slid upside down into the wall. When his crew tried to contact him by radio, there was no answer. After some anxious moments he popped up unhurt. Just prior to accident, Buddy and Kanaan bumped twice in a game of chicken. Buddy was furious after the race—not at Manning but at Kanaan, who he felt owed him a little more respect.

 
  Kanaan, who became the first driver in a major series to complete every lap of every race, took the 2004 championship with a strong finish. Wheldon edged Buddy for second place. All three drivers ended the year with three victories apiece.

 
  With Brack on the mend, Rahal-Letterman should have quite a team in 2005. He and Buddy became very friendly during his convalescence, and he imparted much of his wisdom to his replacement over the course of the year. As teammates and competitors, the smart money says they will raise each other’s performance. Buddy, meanwhile, has established himself as a driver with talent and staying power at the sport’s top level. After years of proving he belongs, he has finally turned the corner.

 
  BUDDY THE DRIVER

 
 

Buddy has an ideal mak-up for open-wheel driving. He is small, but extremely athletic, fearless but not reckless, and surprisingly cerebral for a guy with a surfer-dude reputation. Buddy understands the complex strategies of his sport, from the math of fuel economy, to the science of drafting, to the effects of climate and weather on performance.

Buddy is different than his peers in two interesting ways. He is not the least bit superstitious, which enables him to focus 100 percent of his attention on racing. And he loves to run against the clock, which makes him a terrific qualifier.

Buddy’s best quality is his patience. Early in his career, this was sometimes misinterpreted as a lack of aggression or interest, but with a strong car and a great team behind him, his genius for lurking in the shadows is now fully appreciated. He has become adept at waiting for an opportunity to arise, and then grabbing it with expert efficiency. As Buddy gains more experience, he should get even better in this department. He is one of those guys who will always be hanging around at the end of a race, always breathing down the neck of the leader.


2004 RACER
 
 

Buddy Rice

 
   
 

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