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Slow Road to Fast Lane

Buddy Rice will be on the pole at the Indy 500 after years of struggle to get to drive either a CART or IRL car.

May 17, 2004|Shav Glick | Times Staff Writer

INDIANAPOLIS — When Buddy Rice was a sophomore at Shadow Mountain High in Phoenix, he was a good enough infielder to attract attention from college and pro scouts at summer baseball camps. He also was racing karts in Arizona.

His boyhood idols were Ozzie Smith, the ultimate shortstop, and Ayrton Senna, the ultimate racer.

When he was 16, his dad told him he had to make a choice: to make good in either sport, he had to give it his full effort.

Rice chose racing.

On May 30, he will be on the pole for the 88th Indianapolis 500, the point man in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing as he brings the field to the green flag.

Still, he wonders.

"I go to Diamondback games all the time, and I still look at those guys out there and wonder if I'd have made it," Rice said Sunday after taking part in the traditional front-row photo shoot on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway start-finish line.

Curiously, it was a baseball player, Hall of Famer Robin Yount, who gave him his first break in professional racing.

"Robin loved to race too, and he and I were racing go-karts together in 1996 when he helped me with some better equipment, and then later he got me acquainted with Bobby Rahal," Rice said.

Rahal is the owner of the Honda-powered G-Force that Rice qualified at 222.024 mph Saturday to win the pole, and Rahal also is the man who called Rice when he needed a driver to take Kenny Brack's place after the 1999 Indy 500 winner was seriously injured.

Rahal, a three-time Indy car champion and the 1986 Indy 500 winner, has been championing Rice since he first watched him in the Formula Atlantic series in the late 1990s. It has not been a smooth road, however, for the ruddy-faced Arizonan.

"I won the Atlantic series in 2000 and I had always been told that it was a step up the ladder system to the IRL, but it never happened," said Rice, somewhat bitterly. "To be honest, young American drivers really haven't been getting the chance to move up in the sport. I had won the title and Rahal signed me as a test pilot and tried his best to find me a full-time ride, but nobody called.

"It finally took something I'd rather not have happened for me to get a break. I wouldn't be here if Kenny hadn't got hurt. It's not the most perfect situation, it's Kenny's car when he gets back. There's talk of a two-car team, but that is something that will have to be worked out when he is ready to drive."

Brack is here, working with Rice and teammates Roger Yasukawa and Vitor Meira, as well as performing as a guitar virtuoso on Carburetion Day with the Subwoofers, who are acting as the lead-in for Grammy Award-winning artist Blues Traveler.

No date has been set for Brack's return.

"For what's happened and how the month has gone for the Rahal-Letterman team has been unbelievable," Rice said. " ... To have started with a one-car team and make it into a three-car team in a little over two months is absolutely remarkable.

"It has been a cooperative deal. Vitor has been working on full tanks most of the month so Roger and I didn't have to focus on that. Vitor and I have similar driving styles, so it was good to have him working on the race setup, while I worked on qualifying trim. I think without having the multiple-car effort, even if we qualified like we did -- three in the first four rows -- we'd be having to struggle next week to make sure we had a solid full tank car."

Although nothing has been announced, team insiders say that Brack and Rice will be full-time teammates when the Swede returns, with Meira becoming Brack's backup. Yasukawa is contracted with Rahal for this race and perhaps one other.

Rice knows what it is like to struggle. After starting out 20 years ago watching his father, Bud, win Division 7 drag race championships, Rice wondered if he would ever make it to where he is today.

"I played around with karts with guys like Yount, and in 1996 I got my first chance in a pro race with the Dodge Shelby Pro Series," Rice said. "One of my best memories is of winning from the pole at Las Vegas."

After working his way up the ladder, through U.S. Formula 2000 to Toyota Atlantic, he won the Formula Atlantic championship in 2000 and thought that he was on top of the world. He sat back and waited for offers to drive a CART or an IRL car.

"It never happened, for whatever reason, and it's never happened repeatedly over and over," he said. "At that time, I became a backup driver at Rahal and I'd already been working for them quite heavily. Some of our opportunities that we were trying to make just didn't come together. The whole year 2001 was a wipeout. But that didn't discourage me."

In 2002, he finally got a chance with the Red Bull Cheever team for the final five IRL races. In his first start, at Michigan, Rice started and finished second, behind rookie teammate Tomas Scheckter.

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