Six weeks after the grandest victory of his career, Buddy Rice is waiting in the White House Rose Garden on a humid July afternoon to receive a congratulatory handshake from the President of the United States.
The moment – as did the impromptu celebration in a Pagoda garage with the Rahal Letterman Racing team on a stormy Sunday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway – passes quickly. The memories, however, are forever.
“It went by fast. I didn’t think about it really until a while ago,” Rice says at the Speedway during an impromptu reunion of team personnel from the 2004 Indianapolis 500 Mile Race victory at the Rahal Letterman (and now) Lanigan Racing hospitality unit.
Rice, driving the No. 15 Argent Mortgage-sponsored car, won the pole position and the crew won the Pit Stop Competition heading into Race Day.
After a morning rain delay, the race began two hours behind schedule. After 27 laps, rain began to fall again and threatened to wash out the rest of the day. But after a delay of almost two hours, the race resumed. Following a round of pit stops on Laps 170-171, with Rice leading Tony Kanaan and Dan Wheldon, rain started falling on Lap 174. A severe thunderstorm was approaching Central Indiana and the race was halted after the completion of Lap 180 (20 short of the duration).
Rice, of Phoenix, became the first American winner since Eddie Cheever Jr. in 1998 in the first rain-shortened 500 since 1976.
“It was a great day for everybody involved. It was unique in that we had the tornadoes, it started late, it was delayed, it was shortened, the first year with (David) Letterman having his name on the team. It was cool,” said Rice, who is a spotter for Indy 500 rookie James Davison.
Rice last competed at the Speedway in 2011, qualifying seventh in a Panther Racing car, and had irons in the fire to run in 2013 and this May. Sponsorship deadlines passed, and Rice didn’t want to enter the “500” without preparation he wanted.
“If I would do it, I would want to run the whole week and be prepared, do it correctly and have a shot,” he said. “I just don’t want to show up a day or two and go for it. I finished off here in 2011 with Panther. I qualified seventh and had a shot at winning. I showed up after two years and ran strong.
“I left here on a good note and if I come back I’m going to come to give myself a shot. It demands respect to do it the right way.”