Panther Racing have announced that their #44 secondary car in this year's 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 will be driven by 2004 Indy 500 champion Buddy Rice.
"I'm pumped to be at Panther, and the intention is that we'll be able to run more than Indy, but this is the first step, and I'm here to help JR and help the team,” Rice said at the announcement.
It will be Rice's first return to IndyCar in two years, and Rice admitted that: “The whole key for me coming back is that I wanted to be in competitive equipment and have a chance to win. I didn't want to come back to Indy just to pound out laps, and given how competitive the series has become that's how it has to be ... I wasn't coming back and driving unless I had the chance to run up front – that's always been my goal. Panther is a team that can win the race so when I had the opportunity, I couldn't say no."
Rice will be running alongside the team's regular driver JR Hildebrand, and it seems that the 23-year-old Californian was instrumental in bringing Rice on board. "He's a guy that from the beginning of this year I've been pursuing to come help myself and Panther", he said. "Having him as a teammate at Indy is the best case scenario; he's a guy that for his accomplishments and his attitude is a guy I've always admired and thought that he took things very seriously and has been known to be a good teammate. All those things for me personally make it even more exciting to have him on board with Panther.
"It will really hit when we actually show up to Indianapolis. I definitely never would have thought when I was young that I'd have an opportunity to race in the Indianapolis 500. To be in a position with a team that's capable of winning at Indy and with a teammate that's done it before, it's just a crazy circumstance when you really think about it and I'm really looking forward to the month of May."
Rice and Sam Hornish Jr., now driving in NASCAR, are the only two Americans to win the Indy 500 since 2000. Along with Buddy Lazier, who won the event in 1996 and came second in 1998 and 2000 with Hemelgarn, all three will now have driven at Indianapolis for Panther during their IndyCar careers.
Although Panther itself has never won the race, the team still has a strong performance track record at the Indy 500 and has come second in the last three years with Vitor Meira in 2008 and Dan Wheldon in 2009 and 2010. Meira, who worked with Rice at Rahal-Letterman, often referred to Rice as one of the best teammates he ever had.
With the Indy month of May fast approaching, the final open slots in the Indy 500 entry list are now close to being locked up. The #8 car of the reformed Dragon Racing - which is vacant as regular driver Paul Tracy had already signed a deal with Dreyer & Reinbold for Indy - looks set to be taken by 29-year-old Chinese driver Ho-Pin Tung who has previously raced in A1 GP and GP2 events. If confirmed, he would be the first Chinese driver (albeit Dutch-born) to enter the Indy 500.
There are also rumours that a late deal may put French sportscar driver Simon Pagenaud into the Indy 500 qualifying sessions with his American Le Mans Series team Highcroft Racing inching closer to a full-blown IZOD IndyCar Series campaign next year. The team are said to be looking at dipping their toes into the water with a one-off taster at next month's Indy 500, possibly in association with Jay Penske's Dragon Racing. Pagenaud recently sat-in for the injured Ana Beatriz at the season's second race at Barber Motorsports Park at Alabama after she broke her wrist in the previous race at St Petersburg.
And Britain's Alex Lloyd may yet get a late call-up from Dale Coyne Racing to partner compatriot James Jakes in the currently vacant #19 entry. Jakes' usual team mate, former ChampCar champion Sebastien Bourdais, is only signed to compete on road and street courses for the team in 2011 and will not be running on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval. Lloyd finished in fourth place for the team in last year's Indy 500.
If all three are confirmed, that would leave only one unconfirmed driver seat available for the Indy 500 - the #57 attributed to Sarah Fisher Racing. However the team is thought to be focussed on its primary car driven by Ed Carpenter and would only consider adding a second car if they looked to have sufficient speed to make another entry worthwhile and safe.