Originally created 06/12/04

Fast-running Rice starting up front in Texas



FORT WORTH, Texas -- Buddy Rice got his first IndyCar Series win at the Indianapolis 500. But he's always been fast.

Rice finished second in his IRL debut two years ago. He has top-10 finishes in 12 of his 22 races, including all four this season for Rahal-Letterman Racing in the seat of injured driver Kenny Brack.

"To have an opportunity to drive for this team is really cool, to be associated with two other Indy 500 winners and past champions," Rice said. "I'm in some big company and I have a lot to live up to."

So far, he's doing his part.

Rice joined team co-owner Bobby Rahal and Brack as champions at the famed Brickyard last month. He is third in season points at 129, behind Andretti Green teammates Dan Wheldon (158) and Tony Kanaan (157).

Now in the first race since Indianapolis, Rice qualified second for his third front-row start of the season.

Dario Franchitti is on the pole for Saturday night's Bombardier 500, his first front-row start in the IRL. The top-five spots were Hondas, including his Andretti Green teammates Kanaan third and Bryan Herta fifth.

Wheldon, who like Rice has two poles this season, qualified 12th.

"I have to just try and join them up front as early in the race as I can," Wheldon said.

Texas is where Brack suffered multiple fractures last October in a terrifying accident near the end of the IndyCar Series season finale.

Brack got back in a race car for the first time last week, during a test session at Richmond and hopes to race again this season. But he's not part of this weekend's race.

"It's even tougher for Kenny to be sitting out," Rice said. "I know he wants to be here. You will see Kenny come back and he's going to win more races and do the deal. He's pretty strong, and he's going to be pretty fast."

Aerodynamic changes and smaller engines that slowed down speeds at the Brickyard are having the same effect in Texas, where the IRL races for the 14th time since 1997.

Franchitti's pole speed of 209.609 was 13 mph slower than Gil de Ferran eight months ago. The highest practice speeds were in the 210-211 range, more than 10 mph off the pace in the past.

Still, some drivers said reduced speed had an unexpected benefit at Indianapolis that they expect to continue on the 1 1/2 -mile, high-banked Texas track.

"I never thought I'd be passing on the outside of turn one at Indianapolis," Penske driver Helio Castroneves said.

"They've made the cars and series safer, and the racing seems even better than ever," Herta said. "I wasn't expecting that. I thought the racing might suffer a little bit, and that wasn't the case at all."

The 21 cars that posted qualifying speeds this week were separated by just 72-hundredths of a second, the fifth-closest field in the IRL history.

"For the race, it's going to be a big pack," said Vitor Meira, Rice's teammate. "As long as there are 15 competitive cars around you, it's going to be just as hard. It's become slower, but it's just as hard with the good guys around us."

Rice, the 2000 Toyota Atlantic champion, made his IRL debut for Eddie Cheever in 2002. He had four top 10s in his five races and then was the Red Bull team's primary driver a year ago.

Even with four more top-10 finishes last year, Rice was no higher than ninth in his 13 races. Cheever said things "never clicked" and didn't keep the driver.

But Rice was ready when Rahal called. And he hasn't changed anything.

"No matter if I have a job for one weekend or for the next year, or three years, I'm going to drive the same way," Rice said. "That's the way I am. I'm going to give it everything I have."