Saturday, August 14, 2004

Indy win changed reality for Rice


Driver started IRL season as replacement

By Dustin Dow
Enquirer staff writer

SPARTA, Ky. - There was a time not long ago when Buddy Rice was just another driver in the Indy Racing League.

That all changed May 30 when Rice became the first American in six years to win the Indianapolis 500.

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As he prepares to qualify today for Sunday's Belterra Casino Indy 300 at Kentucky Speedway, Rice, 28, is the new star of the IRL, a league that has lagged behind NASCAR's Nextel Cup in popularity.

Since winning the Indianapolis 500, Rice has climbed all the way to second place in the standings entering Sunday's race. Indianapolis was his first career IRL win. He added victories at Kansas Speedway July 4 and two weeks ago at Michigan International Speedway.

"I think the whole thing, even the 500, is still a little bit of disbelief right now," Rice said. "It's just so much. You work so hard to try to get there."

This from a driver who began the season as a substitute for injured Team Rahal driver Kenny Brack. Before this season, Rice had listed a Toyota Atlantic Series victory from four years ago as one of his most memorable moments.

Part of Rice's allure is that he's an American, the first U.S.-born winner of the Indianapolis 500 since Eddie Cheever Jr. won in 1998.

"I think it is a big help for the IRL," Rice said. "That's what I keep hearing, that fans had been waiting for an American (to win)."

Rice will attempt to earn the pole position for the fifth time this year in today's qualifying session at Kentucky Speedway.

While driving for Red Bull Cheever Racing in 2003, Rice's best starting position was 10th and his best finish was ninth.

At Kentucky, he started 10th and finished 11th. That type of consistency landed him in 16th place in the season-ending standings.

Now with Team Rahal, he's 57 points behind series leader Tony Kanaan. Even with a win Sunday, Rice can't overtake Kanaan this week, but the competition is getting tighter with six races left in the season.

"It's very satisfying," Rice said. "I made a huge step up in teams, and now I'm with one that knows how to run up front for championships. The other team doesn't know how to do that."

Life changes when you win the Indianapolis 500. Not only did Rice start winning, he became famous.

Late-night talk-show host David Letterman is a part owner of Rahal Letterman Racing, so of course, Rice made an appearance on the show.

He also visited with George W. Bush in the Oval Office and has thrown out first pitches at numerous baseball games, including Friday's night's game between the Reds and San Diego Padres at Great American Ball Park.

"There's a lot of things I was able to do that were just, without winning, I probably wouldn't have been able to," Rice said.

"I think definitely throwing out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium was pretty cool. Obviously, I'd been to the White House once before, but I didn't have my own personal tour. We weren't able to meet the president."

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E-mail ddow@enquirer.com




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