2004 Indy 500
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Stronger Driver? Stronger Car? I Don’t Think So!
by Esteban Morales
Indy 500

Green Flag Start

photo: Scott Haber

     After a tumultuous start to his racing career in the Indy Racing League, few would have expected to see Buddy Rice’s likeness engraved next to the likes of Bill Vukovich, Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt, and the Unsers on the Borg-Warner Trophy. With only one podium finish to his credit followed by erratic results, the substitute driver for the injured Kenny Brack stunned the racing world by beating out Tony Kanaan, Helio Castroneves, Sam Hornish Jr. and other favorites to the brickyard’s pole position for the 88th running of the Indianapolis 500.

     When the month of May finally culminated on race day following a two-hour rain delay, the Rahal Letterman Racing driver led a strung out field into the first turn at Indy and soon began to pull a considerable lead over the competition. Meanwhile, Honda began to showcase its dominance; by the 10th lap 9 of the top 10 runners were powered by the Japanese manufacturer. One lap later the yellow flag flew as A.J. Foyt IV made contact through turns one and two prompting the first pit stops of the day. Alex Barron and Bryan Herta who were running well back in the field elected to gamble on fuel strategy and kept their cars on the track. The Foyt camp’s troubles continued when Larry Foyt experienced woes during his pit stop while Greg Ray’s race was brought to a temporary halt due to electrical gremlins.

     Herta made quick work of Barron as the field went green on lap 17, on the same lap however, he too lost the lead to teammate Dan Wheldon. The field hardly had a chance to go racing before another caution flag flew on lap 22 for moisture on the track; the red flag was eventually waved a few laps later announcing the start of what turned into another two-hour rain delay. A great deal of action took place during the break starting with Robby Gordon deciding to fly to the Coca-Cola 600 and have Jaques Lazier take over the No. 70 Meijer Coca-Cola/Dallara/Chevrolet/Firestone. Since crews were allowed to work on cars, the red flag worked right into Herta and Barron’s advantage, they were both able to top off on fuel and rejoin the field’s pit sequence. Also, A.J. Foyt’s crew was able to repair the mangled No.14 entry much to the crowd’s delight.

Dan Wheldon

Wheldon Pit Stop

photo: Haber

     The sky eventually began to give way allowing for the track to dry and racing to resume on the 30th lap. Dan Wheldon led the field followed by Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan, Buddy Rice and Sam Hornish Jr. Once the track went green there was no stopping Buddy Rice as he shot past Castroneves and Kanaan into 2nd place. Two laps later Rice began stalking Wheldon and soon found himself leading and briskly pulling away. A quarter of the way through the race Rice led over Hornish, Wheldon, Castroneves and Herta until lap 51 when he lost the lead to Hornish due to lapped traffic.

     On lap 55 rookie Larry Foyt made contact on his way out of turn two bringing out another yellow. Hornish led Rice, Wheldon, Herta and Vitor Meira into the pits while Rice led them out and took back the lead of the race. After running strongly, Meira was penalized for running over an air hose and dropped to 23rd. The track went green on lap 62 but immediately went back to yellow one lap later when rookies Ed Carpenter and Mark Taylor tangled in the third turn of the speedway. Once the debris was swept off the track the green flag was unfurled on lap 71. A few laps later Jaques Lazier pulled into the pits with electrical problems and later permanently called it quits due to a broken halfshaft. Although Rice still led, Andretti Green Racing was putting up a valiant effort with all four of its entries running in the top ten by lap 85. A few laps later Adrian Fernandez who had been quick all month long began to make some notable progress as he moved from 11th to 8th within the span of one lap.

Sam Hornish Jr.

Indy Disappointment

photo: Haber

     Soon after, Wheldon and Kanaan were the first to make green flag pit stops. Simultaneously however, the track went yellow after rookie P.J. Jones made contact with the SAFER Barrier while exiting turn two. Most of the field pitted and the top five were especially shuffled as Rice dropped to seventh and Wheldon took over the lead of the race. Hornish unfortunately was brought back into the pits after pieces of his fuel hose broke off and were lodged in the refueling system, he proceeded to lose more positions by stalling twice on pit lane. Wheldon led Kanaan, Castroneves, Herta and Fernandez back to the green flag on lap 104. One lap later the yellow flag emerged again as Sam Hornish Jr.’s string of bad luck continued at the brickyard when Darren Manning and Greg Ray made contact and collected him in the process sliding into an attenuator along pit entrance; all three drivers were visibly disgusted with the melee.

     During the caution period worries concerning weather began to arise once more as teams scrambled to decide which course of action to take. When the track went green on lap 117 Wheldon immediately took the lead from teammate Kanaan as they entered turn one, a few laps later Kanaan snatched the lead right back. Rice meanwhile began to battle his way back through the field until another caution was brought out, this time following rookie Marty Roth making contact exiting turn four. While the cars pitted under yellow the battle between Kanaan and Wheldon ensued as Wheldon beat his teammate out of the pits. With the possibility of rain, former pole-sitter Bruno Junqueira decided not to pit and led the cars to the green flag on lap 138. Junqueira held on to the lead while Rice continued to furiously work back up through the field, he soon moved around Herta and Wheldon for 3rd and quickly closed on Kanaan. Junqueira gave up the lead of the race on lap 152 when he finally pitted just as Rice took the lead from Kanaan on the front stretch. All top running teams now began worrying about the timing of their last pit stops and of course the imminent showers. Rice’s team owner, Bobby Rahal, was visibly shaken as he frantically paced up and down his pit worrying about both showers and lapped traffic all well knowing that Andretti Green Racing was ready to pounce on any weakness this late in the race.

Buddy Rice

Buddy Rice Victorious

photo: Haber

     Kanaan was the first to pit on lap 165 followed by Wheldon on the next lap just as sprinkles were reportedly falling. Rice stretched his fuel up until lap 168 when he finally pitted handing the lead to Bryan Herta who past it along to Fernandez until he gave up the lead on lap 172 with his final pit stop. With the final pit sequence over, Buddy Rice was now in command of the race. Two laps later the yellow flag waved one last time due to rain and was soon followed by checkered flags on lap 180, 50 miles shy of the scheduled distance. When asked about the rain shortened event, delighted team owner David Letterman did not seem to have any qualms about it as he confidently answered, “Was there a stronger driver in this field today? Was there a stronger car in this field today? Didn’t look that way to me!”

Results:

1. Buddy Rice
2. Tony Kanaan
3. Dan Wheldon
4. Bryan Herta
5. Bruno Junqueira
6. Vitor Meira
7. Adrian Fernandez
8. Scott Dixon
9. Helio Castroneves
10. Roger Yasukawa
11. Kosuke Matsuura
12. Alex Barron
13. Scott Sharp
14. Dario Franchitti
15. Felipe Giaffone
16. Jeff Simmons
17. Al Unser Jr.
18. Tomas Scheckter
19. Tora Takagi
20. Richie Hearn
21. Sarah Fisher
22. Robby McGehee
23. Buddy Lazier
24. Marty Roth
25. Darren Manning
26. Sam Hornish Jr.
27. Greg Ray
28. P.J. Jones
29. Robby Gordon
30. Mark Taylor
31. Ed Carpenter
32. Larry Foyt
33. A. J. Foyt IV