Longshot 2004 Indy 500 Winner Buddy Rice Has Unique Place in Racing History

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Buddy Rice Enjoys Unique Place in Indy 500 HistoryRobert Laberge - Getty Images

Buddy Rice would be a perfect candidate for an American Express commercial.

“Hi, do you know me?” Rice can be imagined saying. “I’m a former race car driver. I won the 2004 Indianapolis 500 and the 2009 Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona, yet I’m not always recognized for some of the big things I did. That’s why I carry the American Express card, because when I use it, I’m recognized around the world. The American Express card, don’t get behind the wheel without it.”

Rice is one of the most underrated Indy 500 champions, but he’s okay with that. He made a mark in various racing disciplines, including 100 IndyCar starts (3 wins, 8 podiums, 5 poles). He’s also raced in NASCAR, CART, IROC, IMSA, Grand Am and other series.


Rice admittedly won the Indy 500 during the IRL/Champ Car split that weakened the Indy 500 fields from 1996 through 2007, the field in 2004 included all-time greats Tony Kanaan, Dan Wheldon, Scott Dixon, Dario Franchitti, Al Unser Jr. and Helio Castroneves.

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Buddy Rice leads the field as the 2004 Indy 500 ends under caution behind the pace car.Donald Miralle - Getty Images

But much like winners of The Masters golf tournament wear their green jacket for life, Rice proudly displays his ring for winning the Indy Racing League’s 2004 Indy 500.

Even though it’s been 19 years since he took the checkered flag, he recalls that day with great clarity. He was driving for team owners Bobby Rahal and David Letterman (who eventually expanded to become Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing).

As the race wore on, two things became front of mind: fuel mileage and the weather. As it turned out the latter took care of the former, as the race was shortened by rain, with the record books showing Rice won a 180-lap event that was originally scheduled to be its traditional 200-lap distance.

Still, Rice dominated the event, leading half (91 laps) the race, including the last nine laps as both the checkered flag and the rain came into view.

“It was my second Indy 500, so we we're excited,” Rice said. “We were out-front most of the day. The big thing was the rain. I mean, they talk about rain every single month of May.

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Team co-owner David Letterman smiles as he realizes his driver is about to win the 2004 Indy 500.Robert Laberge - Getty Images

“Because of the weather, we started late. We ran for a bit, we stopped and we ran again. When we got the green flag again, we kind of reasserted ourselves up to the front. We were kind of just really right. I don't want to say we were biding our time, we just wanted to make sure we took care of the car and were being smart.

“Our car was really rolling. When it got time to go, that we knew it was going to be probably a shortened race, we had to stand on it and get going. So we started coming back through everybody and Scott (chief strategist Scott Roembke) was watching the weather. He knew where we're at and what I was doing. All of a sudden, it turned into go time in the last little bit and we were able to get it done before the rain got there. Our stuff was mega at the end when it needed to be.”

When he crossed the finish line, it took a while before Rice realized the historic chapter he had just added to both the Indy 500 record book and his own personal record book with the biggest win of his racing career.

Because of the rain, the post-race trophy award celebration was held in the then-Formula One garage area in the IMS paddock.

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Rain forced Buddy Rice’s 2004 Indy 500 victory celebration into the garages at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.JEFF HAYNES - Getty Images

"It took a little bit to get back because it was raining, it was a downpour,” said Rice, who worried about not spinning out as he meandered his way around the drenched track to the impromptu winner’s garage. “You couldn't believe how slick it was in (Turn 1) and you're just trying to tiptoe back through the rain on the slicks.

“For me, the coolest part is that even though everybody's into the tradition and all this stuff, and I am too, but our celebration was the only one like that, to ever be held in the F1 garage. It was a completely different celebration, a completely different view, so it will always be remembered just because of the weather, the way it ended. And then they had to wait to take the traditional photos all done the next day when the weather was nice. I mean, it was all cool, but it was just different.”

While Roembke had all the confidence in the world that Rice could pull off the upset win, the driver himself had a few moments of self-doubt.

“To a certain degree, you always do,” he said. “Don't get me wrong, everybody wants to win and thinks they can do it or whatever, but you still have to close the deal and bring it home. And we had to do what we had to do. I mean, we had a little bit of adversity, we had weather on top of it, and we made it happen.”

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In addition to the Indianapolis 500, Rice also won at Kansas and Michigan (above) in 2004 on his way to finishing third in the season championship for team owners Bobby Rahal and David Letterman.Darrell Ingham - Getty Images

How It All Started

Rice caught the racing bug from his father, a noted drag racer. But instead of going in straight lines, Rice preferred ovals and road/street course racing.

While he bounced around several series, it was his second full season in the Indy Racing League – the predecessor to today’s IndyCar Series – that was pure magic for Rice.

Not only did he win the 2004 Indy 500, he earned the other two IRL wins of his career the same season, and finished a career-best third in the final standings behind series winner Tony Kanaan (who makes his final Indy 500 run this Sunday) and the late Dan Wheldon.

“We were just firing on all cylinders, everything was just rolling,” Rice said. “We did a great job, the team did a great job getting everything there and Honda had awesome power and fuel mileage.”

Rice's Plate Today

Rice used to return to Indianapolis for the 500 almost every year, including several years as a spotter for Dreyer Reinbold Racing, as well as serving as strategist in last year’s race for 10th-place finisher Santino Ferrucci (now with A.J. Foyt Racing and will start fourth in Sunday’s 500).

Due to prior commitments, Rice will miss Sunday’s race in-person. But you better believe he’ll be in front of his TV to watch all the action from green to checkered flags.

These days, the 47-year-old Phoenix resident is as busy as he’s ever been. He runs a management company that counsels up-and-coming drivers in various racing disciplines. He’s also helping Forty7 Motorsports build its IMSA program, running Lamborghinis and LMP3s. He’s also an in-demand consultant to race teams of all disciplines, is involved in a Rallycross team and more.

“There’s a lot of stuff happening,” Rice said. “I don’t sit around, that’s for sure.”

Even though he may not be as recognized as, say, Helio Castroneves, A.J. Foyt and other IndyCar greats, there is still a core group of fans who readily recognize and remember Rice and his racing exploits.

“There's definitely people that recognize you and show up and bring stuff,” Rice said of fans who may bring things for him to autograph.

Rice has few regrets about his racing career.

“I don't really look back,” Rice said. “I don't care what it is, whether it's racing, life or business, you look back and nothing's perfect, right? There's changes you could have made or things you could have done better. I don't do that.

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Buddy Rice will forever be known as an Indy 500 winner.JEFF HAYNES - Getty Images

“Would winning the championship have been great? Yeah, for sure. I mean that's the goal. Indy 500, obviously, is the primo thing. We wanted to win a championship and it would have been nice to do. We didn't, we were close, but do I look back and say, ‘Oh man, I wish I would have done that’ or it bothers me? No. I accomplished so much everywhere I drove and I was successful everywhere I drove.”

But Rice also is an old-school fan of other IndyCar greats, and that helped inspire his own racing career.

“I'm definitely not saying I'm on that level but I'm more of a throwback guy,” Rice said. “The stuff that inspired me back then were all those guys who could drive in different disciplines back in the day in the 60s, 70s and 80s. You know, the personalities, Mario Andretti drove everything. There was also (A.J.) Foyt, he drove anything. That's what I really liked.”

While his sixth and last Indy 500 was in 2011, Rice has not totally retired from racing. Just six years ago, in six IMSA events, he didn’t win a race but did earn five podium finishes (and finished fourth in the other race).

He keeps his helmet, driver’s suit, shoes and gloves at the ready. He came close to a sports car deal recently, but it never materialized. He’s also looking at racing in some senior-level races once he hits 50 in 2 ½ years.

“I’ll do it if it's the right deal in the right situation,” Rice said of racing again.

While the ship has sailed on him returning to Indianapolis for another 500, he’s in a good place in life right now.

“I really like helping the young kids,” Rice said. “I also like being a part of building teams. If I were to go back to driving, it takes a lot of time and effort that could take away from other things. But if I was to return to racing, it's going to open up more doors and opportunity.

“You just have to be patient and wait. I have so much other stuff going, but we'll see what happens.”

Follow Autoweek contributor Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski