INDIANAPOLIS — It was a tough call for any 16-year-old high school sophomore to make, but Buddy Rice had painted himself into a corner. He was in love with baseball, and with racing, and he obviously couldn't be married to both of them.
“My dad told me that you can't do both — to be the best you have to put all of your energy into one thing,” Rice said. “So I had to decide at that point which one I wanted to concentrate on. I chose racing — but it wasn't an easy thing to do.”
Rice, who won the pole position for this year's Indianapolis 500 on Saturday, was a highly skilled prospect as a shortstop and second baseman in the baseball hotbed of Phoenix, where he grew up. He could run, field the positions, and hit from both sides of the plate.
Rice attracted plenty of attention in baseball circles in the Southwest, and impressed the coaches at the Arizona State University baseball camp.
“They told me I could have had a college deal, for sure,” Rice said. “I don't know about playing in the pros, but it was certainly a possibility if I had continued on that course. It was nice to have two things I was pretty good at, but hard to choose one and more or less back way off the other one. If I wasn't racing, I definitely would have given everything I had towards making it in pro baseball.”
Rice, who was winning Go-Kart races in Arizona and surrounding states when he backed off his involvement in baseball, progressed through the racing ranks and broke into the IndyCar Series in 2002, running the season's final five races for Red Bull Cheever Racing.
He went full-time with that team in 2003, and drove the top-placing Chevy-powered car in his Indy 500 debut last year when he finished in 11th place. Rice put together four top-10 finishes in 13 races, but philosophical differences mounted and the relationship was mutually severed before the end of the year, leaving Rice without a ride.
“It's funny, because last year I started out with a three-year deal with the Cheever team, and then didn't make it through the first season,” Rice said. “I was in a position where if something didn't happen soon, I didn't know what I was going to do.”
The diminutive Rice (5-8, 150 pounds), who calls Hall-of-Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith his baseball hero, ended up catching on for the start of this season, essentially as a pinch hitter.
Rahal/Letterman Racing, the Ohio-based IRL team owned by former Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal and TV talk-show host David Letterman, needed a driver to temporarily fill in for Kenny Brack, who was injured in a crash in October in a race in Texas and had not recovered enough to drive for the first part of the 2004 season.
“It wasn't the best of situations — coming in here because Kenny Brack was hurt — but on the other hand it was an opportunity to work with a great racing team,” Rice said. “You have to take your hits as they come, so I jumped at the chance to drive for Rahal/Letterman Racing. I needed a job.”
Rice started off with a bang, winning the pole for the first race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He finished seventh there, was ninth at Phoenix, and sixth at the most recent race in Japan.
His 222.024 miles per hour average for his four qualifying laps at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Saturday gives Rice two poles in the first four races of the season. Rahal has since made Rice a full-time member of the team, regardless of when Brack returns.
“I've felt I had something to prove,” said Rice, who keeps his baseball glove on the racing team's truck and frequently plays catch with crew members during down time. “That has been driving me more than anything else has. And now, however Rahal works it all out — that's their deal. All I know is that with where I've come from, from last year's program to this year's program — it's a major step forward for me.”
Rice, who made his first start in the IRL series in July of 2002 at Michigan International Speedway and finished second, said he looks forward to what a full season of racing with a championship-caliber team might bring.
Rice will be the king of the racing world for the next two weeks, as the buildup for the May 30 Indy 500 continues, and he said he will continue to use his affection for baseball as a means of escaping the spotlight and the pressure for a moment here and there.
“I still go to the batting cage, and I can still switch-hit,” Rice said. “It's fun, and I find it relaxing. Getting away from racing for a little bit here and there is good for you.”
But when asked to speculate on what it might take for him to maintain his position out front and then go on to win the Indy 500, Rice can't resist mixing his two loves once again.
“Whoever has the least amount of errors, that's who will win this thing,” Rice said. “I'd like that to be me.”
Contact Matt Markey at: email@example.com or 419-724-6510.