No joke, Letterman's car wins Indy 500

Unknown driver Rice rolls

sure to be top 10 nominee

May 31, 2004|By Ed Hinton | Ed Hinton,ORLANDO SENTINEL

INDIANAPOLIS - David Letterman always likes to have the Indianapolis 500 winner on his television show for a few minutes of chit-chat later in the week.

But this time, the driver may occupy the entire program - except perhaps when Letterman is interviewing himself as the winning car owner.

As Letterman gnawed his knuckles in the pits yesterday, barely known Buddy Rice - who'd been out of a job until Letterman and partner Bobby Rahal hired him for this season - dominated an Indy 500 that was both delayed and interrupted by rain until he was able to cruise to victory under caution in the drizzle.

Letterman, who grew up here and started out as a local TV weatherman, may find it tough to wisecrack. He certainly did yesterday, awestruck as he was at Rice's performance.

"My God, what a job Buddy did, just coming after it and coming after it and coming after it," Letterman said in the aftermath at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Rice, 28, of Phoenix, thrust suddenly into the spotlight after winning the pole on May 16, had been cool to the point of stoic about it all, saying not even an Indy 500 win would change his laid-back life.

But suddenly yesterday he was gushing.

"This is pretty crazy," he admitted. "It's like everybody said: This is what you work for, it's the biggest race in the world, and to be able to come here and not only sit on the pole but to win it - and now I know I led the most laps [91 of the 180 completed] ...

"I don't know," Rice said, shrugging in summation, "I think it's pretty cool."

The race was shortened by 20 laps, or 50 miles, because of the weather. But nobody, especially second-place Tony Kanaan, thought the final yellow was even remotely a gift to Rice.

"This race is supposed to be won by the best car and the best driver, and I think that happened today," Kanaan said. "I'm not going to sit here and say maybe things would have been different if not for the rain.

"Buddy was that much stronger than Dan [Wheldon, Kanaan's teammate, who finished third] and I."

"[Rice was] a guy people wouldn't give a chance," said Rahal, who won here as a driver in 1986 and actually runs the team he co-owns with Letterman. "And here he is. I believe he dominated the race. He drove around everybody he needed to."

Mostly that meant Kanaan and Wheldon, two of a four-driver squadron sent after Rice by retired-driver-turned-team owner Michael Andretti. Whenever either managed to grab the lead, Rice would take it right back.

All were in Honda-powered cars, so the difference was Rice's driving and the meticulous pit work supervised by Rahal-Letterman team manager Scott Roembke.

Rice was hired during the offseason as a substitute for 1999 Indy winner Kenny Brack, who is still recuperating from multiple injuries incurred last year in a race at Texas Motor Speedway.

"It's not the best way you want to come in, filling in for somebody like that after what happened to him," Rice said. "He legitimately held a spot with a top-rated team."

Rahal and Letterman have been so impressed with Rice since the outset of the Indy Racing League season - he won the pole and led early in the season-opener at Homestead, Fla. - that they'd already made a permanent spot for him to become a teammate for Brack when the Swedish driver is able to return.

After a 1-hour, 47-minute rain interruption of the race, the only problem for Rice was when he stalled the engine coming out of the pits near the halfway point and got shuffled back to 16th in the running order.

"But there was no reason to panic," Rice said. "We were only halfway through the race. The skies were still clear [until the final front came in late]. There was nothing at that time threatening, and we knew we had at least two more stops before anything was going to remotely happen with weather ... so, I wasn't concerned."

"Was there a stronger car in the field today?" Letterman asked rhetorically. "Was there a stronger driver in the field today? Did it look like a horizon job when they dropped the green flag?"

Whatever a horizon job is, maybe Letterman will explain on his show this week. But it's got to have something to do with a runaway, domination, a cakewalk by a driver hardly known before he made a breeze of Indy.

The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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