2004 Indy 500 Winner Buddy Rice Happy Out of the Spotlight, Helping Build Sport

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2004 Indy 500 Winner Buddy Rice Is Giving BackTB Communications
  • Phoenix native okay with not receiving the pomp in Indy 500 victory lane following his 2004 win.

  • Rice helping young drivers navigate the racing landscape, avoid pitfalls.

  • A ’49 Mercury Eight hot rod is his biggest souvenir from his 2004 Indianapolis 50o win.

As if his one-in-a-lifetime day in the spotlight at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway hadn’t been crazy enough, Buddy Rice found himself crammed into a Gasoline Alley garage with an eclectic mix of individuals.

Meanwhile, an F2 tornado that eventually blasted through the city to the south was threatening the world’s largest single-day sporting event crowd.


Rain had toyed with the Indianapolis 500 all day May 30, 2004, forcing a late start. The red flag was out by lap 28, a thunderstorm hit again by lap 174, and the race halted at lap 180—with Rahal Letterman Lanigan’s (RLL’s) Rice in the lead.

Rice held off the Andretti Green trio of Tony Kanaan, Dan Wheldon, and Bryan Herta. The win was the first of his Indy car racing career. He won two more that 2004 season—at Michigan and Kansas—and those were his only wins in 99 career Indy car starts.

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Buddy Rice’s traditional drink of milk after winning the 2004 Indy 500 came in the garage as thunderstorms pounded the Indianapolis area.JEFF HAYNES - Getty Images

Despite being the pole sitter at Indy in 2004, Rice was considered a longshot to win. And there he was, the winner of the race—Honda’s first after 10 years of trying at Indianapolis—with no wreath around his neck, no one snapping iconic pictures of him swilling milk beside the 500 Festival Queen.

Instead, he was jammed like a canned sardine along with a bunch of people just trying to stay safe and dry.

This was the Phoenix native’s legacy, and to this day he loves the memory.

“I'm a little different,” Rice said. “So I think it was, for us not to have the conventional normal celebration, okay by me. There were a lot of people that normally would not have been able to be in victory lane or be a part of it. It was just very chaotic and lots of people—and it was awesome.

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Buddy Rice may have felt that he was the No. 3 Honda team that day, but he was quickest when it counted.Donald Miralle - Getty Images

“We were probably for sure the No. 3 Honda team. We were not the No. 1 Honda team. And then we were not the number one G-Force program,” he said of his chassis and engine package but noted that “together [it was] an awesome group of us. It was a stacked field. Everybody in there was over from the [CART] side, and all the big power teams were there. It was a pretty stout field, and it was all about just going fast back then.

“I was a little bothered because of the stall, but I knew that we were pretty good and we'd been working on it so hard. So we just kind of methodically did our thing and just kept our cool, just kind of slowly just worked our way back into it,” Rice said. “We weren't that short, and our stuff was rolling. We were on a comeback from a stall and we were kind of doing our thing and just really just conserving and taking care of the car.

"We knew we had at least one to two more pit stops coming, and then when the rain started to come. Scott Roembke made the call: We got to start picking the pace up, and we all knew we were going to be tight on fuel to get to that next stop. (Bruno) Junquera, for Newman Haas [Racing], tried to stretch it, and they stretched as far as they could. We had already done our pit stop, and we were out on everybody by then.”

For Rice, “trying to tiptoe” back to the pits on Goodyear slicks in a driving rain was just as treacherous as racing Scott Dixon, Dario Franchitti, and Al Unser Jr. that day. The Indianapolis 500 has been declared over before 500 miles just seven times in 107 races, and Buddy Rice has the distinction of completing the most laps/miles than any winner in rain-shortened circumstances.

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Buddy Rice shares the victory celebration with Rahal Racing team owners David Letterman, left, and Bobby Rahal.Jonathan Ferrey - Getty Images

His shining moment happened 20 years ago.

“It feels like it's been a little while, for sure, but it's exciting. It was a good time, and it is what it is,” he said. To show for it, Rice has a ’49 Mercury Eight hot rod—which wasn’t finished being restored at the time sponsor Argent promised him it would buy him any car he wanted. He said Argent was “not overly thrilled” with his choice, “but that's what I wanted, and that's me.”

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Rice’s sponsor told him that he’d by the driver any car he wanted if he won the Indy 500. Rice’s choice was a 1949 Mercury Eight hot rod.TB Communications

Pioneer contributed the interior and sound system, and with the handiwork of Chris Fesler of Fesler Built, Rice and friends finished the car. Everybody on the team, actually, had a piece of that car, too, and put their stamp on it. It’s just a cruiser right now. We're doing some upgrades right now, but it should be back rolling here soon. It went to SEMA for three years, and it was at the Fontana race at the season end before it went to SEMA for the first time on ’04 or ’05.

Rice, who grew up immersed but not racing in NHRA action at what’s now Firebird Motorsports Park, hasn’t been a staple of the IndyCar scene for the better part of these past two decades. However, he just might be a force for the future. He and business partner Brent Brush operate Megapixel Management, instructing and directing young drivers with visions of Indianapolis’ victory lane dancing in their dreams.

“I have a lot on my plate. I do a lot with junior drivers. That's my big thing,” Rice said. “We help manage and navigate the landscape. And as you know, it's very difficult. There's no set way and it's got to try to help 'em keep out of the pitfalls and not burn up all their money.”

Diversity aside, the only color that matters in racing is green.

“That’s absolutely correct, and it's just gotten worse,” Rice said. “We were being paid even to driving Junior Formulas back then. Everyone was just so [financially] healthier, flush, and everybody's trying to help everybody out. Now it's like huge money and you got to have a lot of it or you’re not going anywhere.

“That's also why I believe that we struggle a little bit now, compared to the Europeans,” he said. “It’s also a reflection of why some of the racing isn't as good. It's not always the most naturally talented and the best drivers, because a lot of those guys don't have the money. It's just the way it works out. But you got kids that are coming in, they got money, and they can get a lot of coaching, get a lot of support. And they do a good job.”

The concept of driver coaching, Rice said, “was there when I was driving, not like it is now where it's kind of like a third-party deal.” He said advanced communications and the easy availability of useful information has changed the sport. “So there's probably a lot of pieces to it,” he said.

And Rice could wind up being a key player in that domain.