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Rice wins rain-shortened Indy 500

6/1/2004

INDIANAPOLIS -- Buddy Rice watched the darkening horizon and
kept his foot on the pedal.

He had to beat 32 other drivers and the rain to win the
Indianapolis 500 on Sunday.

With menacing clouds closing fast, the 28-year-old Rice grabbed
the lead for good in a final flurry of pit stops and took his first
career victory under a yellow caution flag as the rain that first
delayed the race and then interrupted it for almost two hours
finally ended it 50 miles short of the scheduled finish.

"This is unbelievable,'' said Rice, who drives for the team
co-owned by TV talk-show host David Letterman and Bobby Rahal. He
got his ride only because 1999 Indy winner Kenny Brack was out with
injuries.

"This is everything you work for,'' Rice said. "It's the
biggest race in the world.''

Michael Andretti, scion of Indy's most famous hard-luck family,
suffered the same also-ran fate in his second year as a team owner
as he had in 14 years behind the wheel: ever so close, but not
first. Three of his drivers -- Tony Kanaan, Dan Wheldon and Bryan
Herta -- finished second, third and fourth.

Rice was the surprise pole winner earlier this month and started
Sunday's race like a rocket, driving off to a lead of more than
three seconds -- nearly a straightaway on the 2½-mile oval -- before
the first caution flag came out on lap 11 when A.J. Foyt IV hit the
wall.

It wasn't going to be that easy, though.

As fast as Rice's Honda-powered G Force was, he had to overcome
a stall in the pits, win a gamble on fuel and then hold off the
Andretti trio.

"It's indescribable,'' Letterman said. "I don't think the rain
made any difference. We could have gone the full 200 laps. My God!
What a job Buddy did. It's a thrill to be a part of this.''

The drama was enhanced by the weather.

The race started two hours and nine minutes late because of rain
and was halted again for an hour and 47 minutes after the 27th lap.

The last 40 laps were a race to beat the rain, with six lead
changes.

First, Bruno Junqueira gambled and lost that the rain would hit
before he had to pit for fuel. Kanaan took over for a lap before
Rice passed him, and Rice kept it until he had to pit 15 laps
later. Then it was Herta and Adrian Fernandez until, with the storm
clouds no more than 5 miles away, they gave way to Rice one last
time.

Rice is the first American to take the checkered flag at Indy
since Eddie Cheever in 1998. He finished 11th as a rookie last year
while driving for Cheever, who fired him with three races remaining
in the season.

"There is no question about it, it was a dream month,'' said
Rahal, who committed last month to keeping Rice on for the rest of
the season, no matter when the recuperating Brack returns.

Asked what he saw in Rice, Rahal grinned at his driver and
replied: "I saw a lot of things. This is what happens when you
wear your hat the right way, Buddy.''

Rahal was referring to last season, when the now clean-shaven
Rice drew criticism for wearing spikey hair, a soul patch and his
hat on backward.

"It's not an issue,'' Rice said, shrugging. "Nothing changed.
I mean, it doesn't change my attitude. It doesn't change my
approach or my lifestyle. It's just a little bit of a cosmetic
change.''

It certainly hasn't changed his hard-charging driving style.
Rice, the first driver to win from the pole since Arie Luyendyk in
1997, led a race-high 91 laps Sunday and made only one mistake.

He was leading on lap 95 when rookie PJ Jones hit the wall,
bringing out one of the eight cautions in the race. During the
ensuing pit stops, Rice stalled his engine and came back onto the
track eighth.

"We knew traffic was going to be a problem, but there was no
reason to panic,'' Rice said. "Maybe if there were 20 laps to go
we would have gotten nervous. But, hey, these guys have been
fighting all year. We had a couple of these deals won, but we had
little mishaps that weren't our fault, so this is great.''

Junqueira, the only driver from the rival Champ Car series, was
never in contention until later in the race. His Newman/Haas Racing
team made an early fuel stop that put him out front when the
leaders pitted on lap 135.

"We tried to outsmart them on the fuel and we came close,''
said Junqueira's team manager, Jim McGee. "But we still outsmarted
a lot of them to finish fifth.''

Racing with a light fuel load, and hoping for rain to give him a
victory, Junqueira built a huge lead before finally having to pit
on lap 151. That gave the lead to Kanaan, but Rice charged past him
on the next lap to grab the top spot.

The rain held off and Rice came in for fuel on lap 166. Herta
and Fernandez then took turns in the lead before they too had to
pit, finally giving the top spot back to Rice, who took control
until the rain began for the final time on lap 174.

Six laps later, it was over.

Vitor Meira, one of Rice's teammates, finished sixth, followed
by Fernandez, reigning Indy Racing League champion Scott Dixon and
two-time Indy winner Helio Castroneves.

Castroneves and new teammate Sam Hornish Jr. came up well short
of giving car owner Roger Penske an unprecedented fourth straight
Indy victory -- and 14th win at the Brickyard -- in part due to
mistakes in the pits.

Castroneves stopped short of his pit stall and had to be pushed
by his crew. A piece of fuel hose broke off in Hornish's car during
one of his stops and the two-time IRL champion had to come back in
several times for repairs.

Hornish then got caught up in a frightening crash involving Greg
Ray and rookie Darren Manning in turn four that sent all three
sliding onto pit road.

Kosuke Matsuura, one of the fastest drivers in practice,
finished 11th, the best of eight rookies in the 33-car field. Six
of the first-year drivers were involved in crashes, including Larry
Foyt, Ed Carpenter, Mark Taylor, Marty Roth, Jones and Manning.

The only injuries were to Taylor, who limped away from his crash
and was taken to a hospital for further examination, and a safety
worker whose foot was injured when he was hit by flying debris on
pit lane.

The last Indy 500 shortened by rain was in 1976, when Johnny
Rutherford took a 102-lap victory.