Buddy Rice Still Active at IMS 15 Years after his Greatest Win; He remembers many things in 2004, but works in 2019
SPEEDWAY, Ind. (May 23, 2019) – For 2004 Indy 500 champion Buddy Rice, the memories are still vivid 15 years after the greatest day of his racing career.
But the personable Phoenix, Ariz., racer doesn’t return to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway now to talk about that memorable May 30, 2004 “Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” He is too busy as an important element of the Dreyer & Reinbold Racing team.
If you can get Rice, now 43, to sit down and talk about the month of May in 2004, it is a rare moment. For the former Toyota Atlantic champion, he serves a variety of positions for the DRR organization in May and beyond. In May, Buddy is the turn one “spotter” for driver J.R. Hildebrand at the Indy 500, as Rice stands high above the IMS turn one grandstands and guides Hildebrand in the 33-car traffic for over half of the 2.5-mile oval.
In addition, Rice works behind the scenes with Hildebrand and his DRR teammate Sage Karam as a special consultant regarding car setups and driving analysis. After the Indy 500, Buddy is then the technical director of the Dreyer & Reinbold Racing ARX2 Rallycross team, which begins its 2019 campaign at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course on June 8-9.
So, the former high school baseball player doesn’t really follow many of the past Indy 500 champions with autograph signings, speaking engagements and sponsor commitments.
When you can stop him for a few minutes in the garage area at IMS, Rice can reminisce about the 2004 Indy 500 and all of the events which surrounded his Rahal Letterman Racing triumph.
“Yes, I think about the 2004 Indy 500 every once in a while,” said Rice. “But, to be honest, I’m still every busy in the sport with coaching young racing talent and helping Dennis Reinbold’s racing team. But I don’t think about that crazy race unless I look at my “Baby Borg-Warner” trophy at the house.”
After impressive performances with the Red Bull Cheever team in the early 2000s, Buddy was secured to drive the No. 15 RLR Argent/Pioneer Honda G-Force in the 2004 season when RLR primary driver and 1999 Indy 500 winner Kenny Brack was severely injured in the 2003 IndyCar Series finale at Texas.
“I had always had a good relationship with Bobby and his head man, the late Scott Roembke,” Buddy explains. “They contacted me after Kenny’s crash and they had a good program with Honda. So, I was anxious to work with Bobby and Scott’s team.”
Rice came to IMS in 2004 as a slight underdog against the Andretti, Penske and Ganassi squads, but RLR had a solid, strong three-car effort with Rice, Vitor Meira and Roger Yasukawa.
“I could feel that the team and the car were good when we started practice in May,” said Rice. “And we won the pole on a cold, damp day that started late due to the weather. It was kind of the theme for the month with the weather. In practice, the G-Force was good in traffic too. So, we felt good about its speed and handling in traffic.”
The next week, the Rahal Letterman Racing pit crew captured the prestigious Pit Stop Challenge on Carb Day and entered the May 30 200-lap Classic as a favorite. But no one knew what was in store for Rice, his team and his competitors as rain hit the track early on race day.
“There was a lot of waiting around as the track dried and then the weather changed again,” he remembers. “I think we started the race around 1 o’clock (1:07 pm) but they stopped it at about 25 or 30 laps in (after 28 laps). And we sat in the garages for nearly two hours, hoping we could get the race in.”
But weather continued to play a role in the 2004 Indy 500, including an F2 tornado heading directly to IMS in the afternoon. At 3:30 p.m., the race resumed with Rice in command, leading 91 circuits. It was the most of any driver that day.
But the race wasn’t without drama for Rice too as his engine stalled in the pits on lap 95. He fell back to ninth and had to work his way through the field.
“Late in the race, the car was still good, but the rain was coming to the track again and we didn’t know if the race would be called after the halfway point,” Rice said. “All I remember was Scott saying on the radio, ‘We gotta go to the front now! The weather is coming.’ So, I drove hard and worked my way to the lead again.”
On lap 174, the yellow flag flew for wet conditions and the RLR team warned Rice to keep the car straight with the rain getting harder on the racing surface. After the 180th circuit, the checkered and red flags flew, and Rice was the 2004 Indy 500 champion. With the hard rain and the F2 tornado headed towards the Indianapolis area, the victory celebration was moved from the famed winner’s circle area to underneath the IMS Pagoda.
“Our celebration was unique because we were under the Pagoda and the Speedway had to be cleared immediately after the race due to the tornado coming,” said Buddy. “I still remember looking at Dave Letterman’s face sitting next to me on the race car. Being an Indy native, he knew what winning Indy meant. Heck, I won the race, but I felt better for him that day. We didn’t know what was happening outside with the weather other than it was raining. We are just glad no one at IMS was injured by a tornado.”
The F2 tornado actually went south of IMS but a record 3.80 inches hit Indianapolis, the most ever for May 30 in the city.
After Rice’s 500 win, he experienced several highlights throughout the 2004 racing season including visiting the White House and Oval Office with President George Bush, throwing out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium and driving a ‘fighting vehicle” (tank) at Fort Carson in Colorado.
“I really loved throwing out that first pitch at Yankee Stadium,” said Rice. “And I got to meet Reggie Jackson and Derek Jeter before the game. Being an ex-baseball player, that was pretty special.”
And winning the Indy 500 can be pretty special too, just ask Buddy Rice.