Originally created 05/16/04

Surprising Rice takes Indy pole



INDIANAPOLIS -- All Buddy Rice wanted was a chance.

So far, so good.

The youngster who replaced injured Kenny Brack at Rahal Letterman Racing surprised just about everyone Saturday by winning the pole for the May 30 Indianapolis 500.

"I don't think we always show our complete hand until it's time to do it," Rice said after posting a four-lap, 10-mile average of 222.024 mph.

Despite winning his first IRL pole in the season-opener at Homestead, Rice was not even among the favorites going into the first of three rounds of time trials at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

"That's obviously what I was brought here to do when I came to sub for Kenny," said Rice, who lost his ride with Eddie Cheever's team late last season but was chosen in December to replace Brack, the recuperating former Indy 500 winner and IRL champion.

"I can still drive, obviously," the 28-year-old Rice said. "Some people didn't think I could do that.

"I think you've got to take everything as it comes, though. Every driver has a story and everybody has been on a rollercoaster. It's just part of the path you take to get here."

Even before Saturday's performance, Rice had been assured by the team co-owned by 1986 Indy winner Bobby Rahal and TV personality David Letterman that he will still have a ride when Brack returns to the cockpit later this season.

Meanwhile, Brack, who watched qualifying from the pit lane, has been acting as an adviser to Rice and teammates Roger Yasukawa and Vitor Meira, who all were among the 22 qualifiers on Saturday.

"Obviously, Kenny's not driving, but what he brings in from the technical side is tremendous," Rice said. "I'm not sure we knew we were going to run 222, but we knew we had enough to go for the pole, for sure

"People say we were under the radar all month."

Tony Kanaan, the fastest driver during the six days of practice leading to the first of three days of qualifying, said he was surprised by Rice.

"Yeah, everybody was," said Kanaan, who wound up a disappointing fifth at 221.200, trailing Andretti Green Racing teammates Dan Wheldon (221.524) and Dario Franchitti (221.471) as well as Newman/Haas Racing's Bruno Junqueira (221.379).

Helio Castroneves, last year's polesitter and a two-time Indy winner, was a disappointing eighth at 220.882. His Toyota-powered Dallara was the only car without a Honda engine to break into the top nine.

"We had a range where we were going from being brave to being stupid," Castroneves said. "Unfortunately, this place is amazing. That's why it's so difficult because it's constantly changing."

Saturday was not vintage Indy, though.

The day began without enough car-driver combinations in line to fill the traditional 33-car field.

To make matters worse, morning rain delayed the start of qualifying for more than three hours and unseasonably cold temperatures held down the crowd and made the 2 1/2 -mile asphalt oval slower and more treacherous than usual.

"The weather played into our hands a little bit," Rice said. "We didn't know it was going to be this cold but, obviously, in this weather, some of the other drivers dropped off and our car maybe picked up."

Running on cold tires and on the cold track, Bryan Herta, Felipe Giaffone and Alex Barron all crashed moments after taking the green flag for the start of a qualifying run. Herta came away from his collision with the energy-absorbing SAFER Barrier at close to 220 mph with some abrasions, Barron bruised his right knee and Giaffone was not injured.

All three are expected to try again Sunday, along with Tora Takagi and rookie Marty Roth, the only other drivers who have been on the track since practice began last Sunday.

With more practice scheduled next week, and the final day of time trials on May 23, several backup cars are still expected to be made available to other drivers looking for rides. But, with the possibility of not filling the field for the first time since 1947, some drivers took slower qualifying numbers Saturday than they might have in previous years.

The two entries of four-time Indy winner A.J. Foyt, grandson A.J. IV and son Larry, brought up the rear Saturday with speeds of 213.277 and 214.256, respectively.

"My dad's thinking was that it's plenty fast to be in the race," Larry Foyt said. "He's been here a long time and he knows the big payday comes on race day."

Brack is recovering from critical injuries sustained in a crash during last year's season-finale at Texas Motor Speedway and hopes to be racing before the end of the 2004 season.

In the wake of Brack's accident and a fatal crash by Tony Renna in testing at Indianapolis last fall, the IRL decided to slow the cars with new less powerful engines and a new aerodynamic package.

It appears the changes worked, with Rice's pole speed nearly 10 mph slower than Castroneves' 231.725 of last year.

The slowest speed in last year's 33-car field was 223.609 by Airton Dare, who is not racing here this year.

Robby Gordon qualified early Saturday then flew to Richmond, Va., to race in Saturday night's NASCAR event. Gordon, who wound up 18th, plans to drive in both the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 on the same day for the third consecutive year.

Other drivers completing qualifying runs on Saturday included Adrian Fernandez, Tomas Scheckter, two-time IRL champion Sam Hornish Jr., defending series champion Scott Dixon, two-time Indy winner Al Unser Jr., Sarah Fisher, Scott Sharp and rookies Kosuke Matsuura, Ed Carpenter, Mark Taylor and Darren Manning.