- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Life's been good for Buddy Rice these last couple weeks. And it could get even better Sunday if the 28-year old Phoenix native parlays his pole position into victory in the 88th Indianapolis 500.
Rice's charmed month of May continued Thursday as he and his Rahal Letterman Racing team won Indy's annual Pit Stop Competition, beating Marlboro Team Penske and Helio Castroneves in the final. That was worth $50,000 to Rice and his crew, who could be in line for a $1.5 million payday if they emerge victorious in Sunday's race.
The racing world learned Thursday what Rice has known since the Indy Racing League raced in Japan in mid-April: that his stand-in ride with Bobby Rahal's team is safe for the rest of the season. Rice's Indy pole was his second of the season (the other came in the opener at Homestead-Miami Speedway) and if he continues to turn in similar performances, he could be setting himself up for a secure future with Rahal and the IRL IndyCar Series.
But the time in Indy's spotlight hasn't affected Rice's character or focus. Despite a hectic schedule that has him bouncing from sponsor to media appearances between now and race day, Rice remains calm amid the surrounding storm.
"There are a lot more things to do right now, but nothing else has changed," Rice said. "The focus doesn't change. You can't get caught up in the moment because if you do, you'll lose your focus and lose your edge. Our preparation has stayed the same -- we just stuck to our schedule, except for what had to be altered due to weather.
"Other than the media world tour, it's been pretty straightforward. There have been a lot of interviews and phone calls, but it's great for our sponsors Pioneer and Argent Mortgage. That's why they're here -- for us to run up front and support them."
Rice did allow himself to express some satisfaction from mastering Indy's unique qualifying format to take the pole. "It's special because it's our biggest event, our Super Bowl," he said. "It's almost like there are two races -- the one for the pole and the race itself. At Homestead, we qualified Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning we were already racing. Plus we're running four laps, averaged over 10 miles, so a lot of hard work went into it. It's a big feather to put in your cap and it's certainly the biggest pole all year."
Fate has definitely turned in favor of Rice, who entered 2004 without a ride after being dropped by Eddie Cheever midway through the 2003 season. Buddy's tenure with RLR was initially only going to last until regular driver Kenny Brack returned from injuries suffered in October 2003, but his performance at Homestead convinced Rahal to expand and add a second car for Rice to run alongside Brack when the Swede is ready to race again.
"Buddy is with us the rest of the year," Rahal confirmed. "We haven't made a formal announcement, but we told him in Japan. He earned it. He's been great. The way he works with the team and the way he races is uncomplicated, and uncomplicated drivers are a dream to work with -- especially fast uncomplicated drivers."
As a former driver, Rahal is aware that PR and media appearances are a necessary evil. Rahal has watched Rice handle the increased workload outside the car that comes with winning the Indy pole and he is impressed at not only at how his driver has handled it, but how his team has made things as easy as possible for the driver.
"There has to be a plan, and we've got good people who make sure that the driver's schedule is well-organized," Rahal said. "And it's not just the media -- it's the sponsors too. These guys would be working 24 hours a day until race day if everything went unchecked! They do eventually have to get in the car and race. It's what they came here to do."
"We understand we have an obligation to the media, and we hope that it is reciprocal in the sense that there is a time and a place for everything," he continued. "The demands of racing have changed a lot. There is a lot more information and the drivers spend a lot more time going over that information. The time compression has just gotten greater for them. So you try to create a balance somehow that satisfies all sides."
For Rice, that means race day will include three suite appearances and a Q&A session at the Rahal Letterman motorcoach, all before driver introductions. Then it's on to the most important 500 miles of his racing career to date, but Rice won't allow himself to dream of victory.
"I know it will be a life-altering experience if it happens, but I don't know how I'm going to react or how I'm going to handle it," he said. "I'll just roll with it as it comes. That worked through winning my Formula Atlantic championship through winning the pole here, and I'm not going to change my approach now."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.