Why Buddy Rice Is On The Sidelines
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.