Why Buddy Rice Is On The Sidelines

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You have to go back almost seventy years to the 1941 co-winner, Floyd Davis, in order to find a more obscure and overshadowed Indianapolis 500 champion than Buddy Rice. That’s not to say that Buddy Rice’s victory in the 2004 Indianapolis 500 was a fluke; far from it. He started from the pole that year, led more laps than all other drivers combined and was clearly the class of the field. He also won two other IndyCar races that year and finished third in the 2004 IndyCar championship standings.

So why is Buddy Rice sitting at home in Phoenix, rather than being in the mix for possible rides in this year’s 500? Usually, a recent 500 champion is in great demand, but Buddy Rice has rapidly fallen into obscurity. I am not an insider who has access to any team gossip. I am a fan like everyone else. But over the years I have come to understand why some drivers have more success in their careers than others.

Buddy Rice is a great driver. He demonstrated that in 2004. Unfortunately, as has been the case for most of my lifetime…pure driving talent does not a career make. Whether a driver is with Team Penske or Team 3G, a driver must come with the complete package. Yes they must be fast, competitive and easy on equipment; but they must also be sponsor-friendly and present a desirable image. In my opinion, this is where Buddy Rice falls short.

Robin Miller had been touting Buddy Rice for years, as the example of a driver that IRL teams should hire. As extra motivation for Tomas Scheckter, Eddie Cheever took a chance and put Buddy in a third car at Michigan in 2002. The result was a close second-place finish to…Tomas Scheckter. Rice stayed in the third Red Bull car for Team Cheever the remainder of the season with decent results, posting a fourth place finish at Gateway.

The next year looked promising, but fell short of expectations. Scheckter had moved on to Ganassi and Eddie Cheever had retired as a driver, leaving Buddy as the sole driver with the team for 2003. Three ninth-place finishes were the best he could muster and Rice moved on to Rahal-Letterman in 2004.

While with Cheever, Rice always had a combination gothic/grunge look about him. That probably meshed well with the audience Red Bull was playing to, but at RLR—the sponsor was Argent Mortgage. Coincidentally — when teams showed up for the season opener at Homestead in 2004, Buddy had cleaned up his look considerably. He still seemed very uncomfortable in the role of corporate spokesman, though. He wore odd-looking flat-billed caps, assorted cult-like rings on multiple fingers and leather wristbands. He seemed more appropriate as a spokesperson for a chop shop than a mortgage company.

His demeanor didn’t do him any favors either. Rice never appeared overly happy in interviews. Even in Victory Lane at Indy, his co-owners, Bobby Rahal and David Letterman, were ecstatic, while Buddy seemed annoyed with the whole process. In the 1950’s, a surly attitude made Bill Vukovich a mysterious legend. In today’s world, it makes corporate executives nervous about their image.

The following year, Buddy Rice found himself in an odd pairing with the Argent Mortgage sponsorship when Danica Patrick came on board. Unlike Buddy, Danica was a marketer’s dream. Most Argent functions in 2005 consisted of Danica and the strange looking guy that won Indy last year

In 2007, Argent Mortgage hit hard times and pulled out of racing. Danica moved to Andretti-Green and Scott Sharp effectively replaced Rice by bringing sponsorship from Patron Tequila. Rahal told Buddy that he was free to negotiate with other teams in case no sponsorship was found. None was, and Rice wound up at Dreyer & Reinbold Racing. His two years at Dreyer & Reinbold saw Rice driving with blank sidepods in many races. At other races, the sponsor dollars were minimal. His appearance also partially returned to his earlier grunge look. Then, for whatever reason, it was made quite clear going into the 2009 season that Buddy Rice would not be part of Dreyer & Reinbold plans.

In order to be considered for any ride in the IndyCar series today, a driver must either already have sponsorship dollars in hand (Milka Duno) or have a likeable personality that can attract potential sponsors (Ryan Hunter-Reay). Buddy Rice has neither. He either lacks the ability or the desire to go out and hunt new sponsors…or both; otherwise he wouldn’t be sitting in Phoenix waiting for the phone to ring.

Sadly, the days of an owner hiring a hot shoe to fill a seat are long gone. A driver has to bring something to the table other than the ability to hold their right foot down while turning left. They must be willing to play the corporate game. From an outsider’s perspective, Buddy Rice never appeared to be very willing to play the game.

George Phillips

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7 Responses to “Why Buddy Rice Is On The Sidelines”

  1. Turbine68 Says:

    George,

    I think you nailed it. In this current market there are far more drivers than sponsors, or rides. There are even better drivers out there that are sponsor friendly that have struggled to land rides. Take Justin Wilson & Hunter Reay for instance. Both of them ended up in less desirable places this year, but if they hadn’t brought the total package they too would sitting home right now. Sure, the Izod deal helped RHR, but it did not exactly fall out of the sky. He landed Izod because of the image he worked hard to build, and in the end it was what got him a ride. Wilson is lacking that kind of sponsor, but not the talent, or personality. That’s why he’s at Coyne. Eventually, he’ll find that full time sponsor as well.

    Drivers today have to consider themselves as a “brand” and market themselves accordingly. It’s a sad fact. No one want’s Buddy’s brand.

    • Yeah. I’m not anti-Buddy. I’ve not talked to him at tracks and been rebuffed or sought an autograph and been rebuffed or any o’ the things that I’ve heard and read. But in the age of NAPCAR and F1 dominance of airwaves, it’s TRUE that “Drivers today have to consider themselves as a “brand” and market themselves accordingly. It’s a sad fact. No one want’s Buddy’s brand.” When sponsorship dollars are so scarce and last year’s race winners (ahem, Justin and RH-R) had a hard time getting seats in third rate teams, you can’t retain a third-rate agent and sit on a couch, not working-out (ahem, PT).

  2. I met Buddy in 2005 at a night out in Broad Ripple, at the Vogue to be precise. It was a Saturday, I think the 2nd week of qualifying. Other than a few guys that approached him, no one knew who he was. He had just WON the Indy 500 the year before! Anyway, he was cool and talked a bit with me, I tried not to be an annoying fan and left him alone after a short chat…But the article is right; he just wants to race and not be some corporate shill that racers have become. I applaud that. NASCRAP drivers (with exception of Tony Stewart and a few others) are robots, and it’s boring. The IRL guys are fast becoming the same. I can’t stand the “ride-buying” trend that is going on. Like it or hate it, the original IRL (1996-2001) was the right idea…It let good drivers race without having to bring sponsorship $$ to the table. The top teams always win, and that sucks. I wish Buddy were here, but more power to him for not sucking the corporate teet..(he should still be at the track though, never hurts…)

  3. The era of a mans man behind the facesheild is by the wayside. Iconic, is what sponsors crave. A face to put a product to. My daughter and I have made aquatences with Buddy at Chicagoland Speedway. Each season for the IRl race we waited with anticipitation to catchup with Buddy, WHY?, becasue of his demeanor. Cool, calm, and down to earth, and very patient. something we found not so fan freindly with other dirvers in the same garages. Sponsors and Meida Want sensationalism, and thats what seperates the Iconic from the Realists. Fact is, laid back is not where its at. Out in Phoenix Buddy is Being Buddy. Out in the racing circuit there is a team owner weighing the scales……Iconic or performance…..Out there a team owner should be thinking the multi-talented.”Buddy Rice”..
    Best of everything Buddy…

  4. Sponsors need to change their whole approach. The sport needs drivers who want to race and don’t want to waste time with marketability. Danica Patrick hurt Rice’s career as certainly as if she’d run into his car blindfolded at Homestead – which is pretty much what she does from time to time anyway. Sponsors need to ignore “image” and focus on pushing effort. Buddy Rice is effort.

  5. [...] car, as Patrick’s gender plus the no-frills personality of Rice helped with marketing. 1 Patrick, however, didn’t deliver. In her first race she plowed into a wreck without cracking [...]

  6. Eric Tofte Says:

    Shit runs down hill, just like Eddie Cheaver.

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