No Joke Buddy Rice predicted he'd win Indy, and wound up having the last laugh

June 06, 2004

Last Friday morning Buddy Rice strolled into the models' dressing
room at the Westin Hotel in Indianapolis, his girlfriend,
Michelle, on his arm and a canary-eating grin on his face. As
Rice, the pole sitter for the Indy 500, signed autographs for
the young women waiting to hit the catwalk for a fashion show, he
was asked how he thought he would fare in the 88th running of the
race two days later. Suddenly Rice turned serious. "I'm going to
win," he said matter-of-factly. "I'm pretty sure of it."

A few models giggled, thinking Rice was joking. On Sunday,
however, the 28-year-old Phoenix native backed up his prediction
and became the first U.S.-born driver since Eddie Cheever Jr. in
1998 to win the 500. Competing against the deepest field of
drivers at Indy since '95, Rice was in front when rain began to
fall with 26 laps remaining. Out came the caution flag and, seven
laps later, the race was called.

Waiting for Rice in the pits was his car's co-owner David
Letterman. "I haven't had anything to drink for 30 years," said
Letterman, who shares ownership with 1986 Indy 500 champion Bobby
Rahal, "but I feel like I'm drunk right now."

Marlboro Team Penske had won the previous three titles at Indy.
This year, however, Helio Castroneves, the 2001 and '02 champ,
and Sam Hornish Jr., who took the seat of '03 winner Gil de
Ferran after the Brazilian retired last October, were no match
for the superior power of Honda, which boasted the top seven
finishers on Sunday. "We're down on horsepower," said four-time
Indy winner Rick Mears, the drivers' coach for Team Penske, which
switched from GM to Toyota engines last year. "The fastest car
doesn't always win, but it sure helps."

Winless in 21 IRL races entering the Indy 500, Rice was
considered a long shot to win the race despite taking the pole.
After failing to finish higher than 10th in 13 starts in 2003, he
was fired from Red Bull Cheever Racing in September. A month
later Rice watched from the infield as Kenny Brack crashed at
Texas Motor Speedway and suffered two fractured ankles and a
fractured sternum. A few weeks later Rahal phoned Rice and asked
if he would fill in for Brack. "The circumstances were
unfortunate, but it was an opportunity I couldn't pass up," says

On the Friday morning before the 500, Rice and Brack hammed it up
after they signed autographs at the fashion show. "Kenny, I think
you'd look really, really cute in one of these outfits," Rice

"Hey," Brack shot back, "you get out there. You're the one who
needs to get used to everyone looking at you."

As the rain pounded the Brickyard on Sunday evening, all eyes,
for the first time in Rice's career, were finally on him.

COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT LABERGE/GETTY IMAGES Owner Letterman was the star of the show, but Rice (inset) was in the driver's seat. COLOR PHOTO: MICHAEL HICKEY/WIREIMAGE.COM [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: ROBIN JERSTAD/REUTERS

Double Trouble

For the last three years Robby Gordon has attempted motor sports'
Iron Man feat: racing in the Indy 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 in
Charlotte on the same day. Once an entertaining sideshow, it has
become a tired act as Gordon's efforts to pull off the Double
have gotten progressively worse. This year rain forced him to
abandon the Indy race early (his replacement driver, Jaques
Lazier, would drop out because of mechanical failure) to get to
Charlotte, where Jimmie Johnson led every lap. Here are Gordon's
finishes on Memorial Day weekend since 2002.

Year Indy Charlotte

2002 8th 16th
2003 22nd 17th
2004 29th* 20th

* Jaques Lazier finished race