- The Washington Times - Monday, May 31, 2004

INDIANAPOLIS — Buddy Rice kept one eye on the fuel gauge, one on the darkening sky and his foot on the pedal and won a rain-soaked Indianapolis 500 yesterday.

With storm clouds closing fast, the 28-year-old Rice grabbed the lead for good in a final flurry of pit stops and took his first career victory under a yellow caution flag as the rain that first delayed the race and then interrupted it for almost two hours finally ended it 50 miles short of the scheduled finish.

“This is unbelievable,” said Rice, who got his ride with Rahal Letterman Racing this season only because 1999 Indy winner Kenny Brack was out with injuries. “We knew we had it all month. It’s racing, and anything can happen, but this is great.”

Michael Andretti, scion of Indy’s most famous hard-luck family, suffered the same also-ran fate in his second year as a team owner as he had in 14 years behind the wheel: ever so close but not first. Three of his drivers — Tony Kanaan, Dan Wheldon and Bryan Herta — finished second, third and fourth.

Rice was the surprise pole winner earlier this month and started yesterday’s race like a rocket, driving off to a lead ofmore than three seconds — nearly a straightaway on the 2-mile oval — before the first caution flag came out on lap 11 when A.J. Foyt IV hit the wall.

It wasn’t going to be that easy, though.

As fast as Rice’s Honda-powered G Force was, he had to overcome a stall in the pits, win a gamble on fuel and then hold off the Andretti trio.

“It’s indescribable,” said TV talk-show host David Letterman, who co-owns the team with 1986 Indy winner Bobby Rahal. “I don’t think the rain made any difference. We could have gone the full 200 laps. My God! What a job Buddy did. It’s a thrill to be a part of this.”

The drama was enhanced by the weather.

The race started 69 minutes late because of rain and was halted again for 1:47 after the 27th lap.

The last 40 laps were a race to beat the rain with six lead changes.

First, Bruno Junqueira gambled and lost that the rain would hit before he had to pit for fuel. Kanaan took over for a lap before Rice passed him, and Rice kept it until he had to pit 15 laps later. Then it was Herta and Adrian Fernandez until, with the menacing clouds no more than five miles away, they gave way to Rice one last time.

Rice is the first American to take the checkered flag at Indy since Eddie Cheever in 1998. He finished 11th as a rookie last year while driving for Cheever, who fired him with three races remaining in the season.

Yesterday, he led a race-high 91 laps and made only one mistake.

Rice was leading on lap 95 when rookie PJ Jones hit the wall, bringing out one of the eight cautions in the race. During the ensuing pit stops, Rice stalled his engine and came back onto the track eighth.

“We knew traffic was going to be a problem, but there was no reason to panic,” Rice said. “Maybe if there were 20 laps to go we would have gotten nervous. But, hey, these guys have been fighting all year. We had a couple of these deals won, but we had little mishaps that weren’t our fault, so this is great.”

Junqueira, the only driver from the rival Champ Car series, was never in contention until later in the race. His Newman/Haas Racing team made an early fuel stop that put him out front when the leaders pitted on lap 135.

“We tried to outsmart them on the fuel, and we came close,” said Junqueira’s team manager, Jim McGee. “But we still outsmarted a lot of them to finish fifth.”

Racing with a light fuel load and hoping for rain to give him a victory, Junqueira built a huge lead before finally having to pit on lap 151. That gave the lead to Kanaan, but Rice charged past him on the next lap to grab the top spot.

The rain held off, and Rice came in for fuel on lap 166. Herta and Fernandez then took turns in the lead before they too had to pit, finally giving the top spot back to Rice, who took control until the rain began for the final time on lap 174.

Six laps later, it was over.

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