Soggy memories of 2004 Indy 500 win flood back for Rice

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INDIANAPOLIS – Buddy Rice remembers the rain. Not the fat raindrops that fell fiercely enough to end the race 20 laps early and force the postrace celebration indoors, but the rain that repeatedly interrupted the 88th Indianapolis 500.

“It started late because of rain, then it got stopped because of rain, and then it ended early because of rain,” Rice said. “That’s the No. 1 thing I remember about it. I knew the skies were bad, but I didn’t know they were as bad as they turned out to be.”

Bobby Rahal remembers the tornado sirens. About the time the final yellow flag waved on May 30, 2004, funnel clouds were seen from the grandstands at the north and south ends of Indianapolis Motor Speedway. When crew members should’ve been celebrating wildly, they were trying to secure equipment in the pits before running for the cover of an indoor party.

“It was crazy,” Rahal said. “Everybody was jumping up and down, tornado sirens were going off, and fans were being told to get the hell out of the grandstands. The weather robbed us in terms of the celebration. Instead of being on the main platform, we were inside where nobody was except the team.”

Rahal pauses for a beat, running the replay again in his mind and smiling. “But it was great,” he said.

Above all, what remains foremost in the memories of Rice and Rahal about that day is the voice of Scott Roembke, Rahal Letterman Racing’s chief operating officer and Rice’s race strategist who died in 2012.

“Scott goes, ‘We gotta go. The rain’s coming,’” Rice said. “I remember that most of all. We changed everything up in the car, and it was flat-out all the way to the end. He made the call. We had been on cruise control, just sort of picking people off and rolling through the field without trying to tear up the equipment. When Scotty said, ‘We gotta go,’ I went. … Roembke was pretty mellow, so when he said we had to go, I knew he meant it.”

David Letterman, Buddy Rice and Bobby Rahal, 2004 Indy 500That insistence led to the pass of the race. On a restart after a rain delay, Rice bolted inside of Tony Kanaan, his No. 15 Honda kicking up dust near the inside wall on the frontstretch and causing pit-board handlers standing in the well between the track and pit lane to duck.

“We had to get rolling,” Rice said with a laugh.

Rain aside, the 2004 Indy 500 was nearly perfect from a team perspective. Rice and teammates Vitor Meira and Roger Yasukawa were competitive throughout the days of practice before the race. Rice won the pole position, while Meira started on the third row and Yasukawa on the fourth. All three finished the race among the top 10 – Meira sixth, Yasukawa 10th.

“It was been a dream month up to that point,” Rahal said. “We’d won the pole and the pit stop competition. There was great competition between Buddy and Vitor and Roger throughout the month. Talk about prepared. In practice, one guy was doing qual sims, one guy was doing race sims and one guy was doing half-tank and full-tank runs. That group worked really well together.”

Rice competed in five more Indy 500s after the 2004 victory, his last attempt coming in 2011 with Panther Racing. His resume includes extensive experience in sports cars, including a victory in the 2009 Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway. He now coaches and represents several young drivers, and he’s still a fixture at Indianapolis Motor Speedway each May as a spotter for JR Hildebrand with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing.

Every day at the track, Rice is reminded of 15 years ago. Fans ask for his autograph and relay their memories of it. Even fellow spotters congratulate him. It’s not his only accomplishment in motorsports, but it remains his most significant.

“It’s a big deal,” he said. “I don’t think it alters your life, but to win something as prestigious as Indy, you become one of only 67 or 68 guys who have done it. It’s pretty special. It’s pretty awesome.”

For his former boss, 2004 carries a more significant meaning. In 1992 and 1993, Rahal’s team helped Honda test an engine it planned to introduce to CART competition in 1994. In what he called “one of the most stupid decisions I’ve ever made,” Rahal parted with the Honda program before its debut.

In 2002, Honda officials asked him to return. Two years later, his team gave Honda its first Indy 500 victory, a feat it has repeated 11 times since that rainy day in 2004.

“I never expected that. Never,” Rahal said of being asked back into the Honda fold. “After all that drama and all of that uncertainty, we win Honda’s first Indy 500. It was poetic. It made up for those 10 years where I watched other teams succeed with the Honda engine. To win the first 500 for them was really special for me.”

The special part for Rice were the public relations perks that followed the victory. He visited the White House and met President George W. Bush. A baseball aficionado, Rice met Derek Jeter and threw out a ceremonial first pitch at Yankee Stadium. He was a guest on “The Late Show with David Letterman,” and not just because Letterman was one of his bosses.

He even got to apply the Buddy Rice flair to an Abrams tank.

“I got yelled at by the brig sergeant for doing donuts,” he said, grinning.

All of which emanated from one rainy day 15 years ago.

As they stood inside the IMS Pagoda that day, drenched but delirious, Rahal and Letterman hugged and screamed with everyone who caught up with them. Rahal remembers what was said like it happened last week.

“It was one of Letterman’s best lines ever,” Rahal said. “He said, ‘I haven’t had a drink in 25 years, but I feel like I’m drunk.’”

Buddy Rice crew at White House 2004

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