Rice's rise takes IRL by storm
Bobby Rahal and David Letterman needed a driver. Buddy Rice needed a ride.
Together, they need a bigger trophy shelf.
Rice, the fill-in for the injured Kenny Brack, is blossoming into a bona fide star on the track, where he is in contention for an Indy Racing League title.
Rice, who won at Kansas last weekend and at Indy in May, said he's not working any harder for Rahal Letterman Racing this year than he did in 2003, when Red Bull Cheever Racing owner Eddie Cheever cut him loose with three races to go in the IRL season.
"I'm not doing anything different than I did last year in my approach, in the way I've handled things,'' he said Wednesday in a telephone interview from his home in Phoenix. "It's different this year because people can see how hard I work -- I don't mean the media or the fans, but the people I work around every day.''
Meanwhile, the Rahal Letterman team, which last year divided its efforts between the IRL and CART, is reaping the benefits of realigning, focusing on one circuit and taking chances -- first on Rice, then on Vitor Meira.
"Right now, we look pretty smart, I guess,'' Rahal said last weekend at Kansas Speedway, after Rice edged Meira by .0051 seconds to win the Argent Mortgage Indy 300 in the second-closest finish in IRL history.
"It's obviously great to win races. I mean, that's easy to say,'' said Rahal, who renamed the former Team Rahal early this season to reflect Letterman's contributions. "Who doesn't enjoy that? But for me personally, it's how the team has, in this restructuring, how it's come together and has the kind of success it's having.''
Rice, who won the developmental Toyota Atlantic circuit championship in 2000, finished 16th in the IRL standings last year. This year, he has failed to finish only once in seven starts -- and still placed 15th when he crashed at Texas.
"He's on fire,'' said leader Tony Kanaan, who is 28 points ahead of Dan Wheldon and 50 ahead of Rice. "He has the team. He has the car. They are a very good organization, and they know how to win.''
When Cheever dropped him last year, though, Rice thought about leaving the IRL entirely.
"I was going to go drive some other series as a full-time deal if I needed to,'' he said. "But when I got called with the offer from Rahal, I couldn't turn them down. There were still some things I wanted to accomplish in open-wheel racing, and they were things I couldn't do if I wasn't full time.''
The job with Team Rahal opened when Brack crashed in the 188th lap of the Texas 500, the last race of the 2003 season.
Brack, who won the IRL title in 1999 and had five top-five finishes last season, broke his back, his breastbone, his right leg and both ankles in the accident.
Although Brack expects to race again, it was a grim finish to a disappointing season for Rahal.
"I think what makes this year so satisfying is the kind of year we had last year,'' Rahal said. "I don't mean just what happened at the end of the year with Kenny. ... By the end of the year, there was a lot of soul searching.''
The decision to focus on the IRL and bring in Rice led to a pole in the season opener at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Rice finished seventh there, ninth at Phoenix and sixth at Team Ring Motegi in Japan.
Then came Indy. Rice won the pole, then took the race lead just ahead of the rain that shortened the race by 50 miles. It was his first career victory -- and the first Indianapolis 500 win by an American-born driver since Cheever in 1998.
"Obviously, the demands on my time are up because of the win at the speedway,'' Rice said. "Part of it is being an American driver -- I'm sure that boosts it.''
Rahal joked that his new star has jumped to a higher tax bracket and "become a Republican'' since his win at Indianapolis.
Rice, however, insists he hasn't changed on the inside.
"Yeah, it is different,'' he said. "I guess when I said that it's not going to change my life, I meant personally. I'm not going to change my approach, how I go about things or the way I dress or what I do.''
Adding Meira, who joined after two races and drove his way into a full-season commitment, was an important boost for Rahal Letterman and for Rice. Now, the team has two sets of data to work with -- and two drivers watching out for each other on the track.
Meira, who has second-place finishes in his last two races, wasn't conceding anything to Rice in the late laps at Kansas. But the two of them, driving almost in tandem, also weren't going to give Kanaan an opening to squeeze through.
"This series is too difficult, it's too close, and you have to have two guys like Buddy and Vitor working very, very hard in order to maximize the potentials out there,'' Rahal said.
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press
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