By Andrew Charman

Rain delays and red flags added to the usual sprinkling of big crashes to ensure the 2004 Indianapolis 500 had its fair share of drama, but through it all came pole-sitter Buddy Rice, finishing first under caution as rain fell again 25 laps shy of the race distance. Rice, who got his drive this year with Rahal-Letterman Racing as a sub for the injured Kenny Brack, defeated the might of Andretti-Green Racing, Tony Kanaan, Dan Wheldon and Bryan Herta taking second, third and fourth places.

Indy Racing's blue riband event also heralded the start of new IRL rules, designed to make the racing safer following major accidents, including a fatal one to Tony Renna, late last year. Every car lined up with brand new 3-litre engines, instead of the previous 3.5-litre versions, cutting 10mph off the top speeds - now they were down to 220mph... There were new aerodynamics too, to the approval of the drivers who reported that their cars felt more stable around the fearsome speedway, and smaller fuel tanks requiring more pit stops.

Rain delayed the start of the 500 by more than two hours, to the concern of Robby Gordon who had a helicopter on standby to take him to Charlotte for NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600 as soon as his IRL duties were concluded. But shortly after 1pm the 400,000 crowd got what they wanted as Hollywood actor Morgan Freeman in the pace car led pole-sitter Buddy Rice and all 33 starters onto the warm-up laps.

At the green Rice's #15 Rahal-Letterman G-Force took the lead, with the Andretti-Green team leading the chase, Dario Franchitti's #27 Dallara Honda chased by Tony Kanaan's #11 car and Dan Wheldon's #27 version with a lot of dicing down the pack as the field sorted itself out.

Up at the front matters remained fairly static as drivers dialled themselves in, with Helio Castroneves in the #3 Dallara Toyota of Team Penske and Bruno Junqueira's Haas Racing #36 G-Force Honda leading the pursuit of the top four, and Honda-engined cars filling nine of the top 10 places. But with 10 laps down the first yellow flew as A J Foyt IV's Dallara Toyota found the wall. Everyone headed pitwards except Alex Barron, who assumed the lead in his Cheever Racing #51 Dallara Chevrolet from Wheldon, his crew quickest in pitlane.

On the restart Wheldon quickly went past Barron, who slipped down the order, Castroneves and Kanaan leading the chase of the Brit. Next up were Rice, Brian Herta's #7 Andretti-Green Dallara Honda and Franchitti, but it was the Marlboro Penske that gained the attention as Castroneves closed on the leader, only for the red flags to fly as on lap 22 rain began falling again.

After an hour and a half's inaction and just as everyone thought the race would be postponed until Monday it got underway again, with Jacques Lazier slotting into the departed Gordon's car. In a frantic opening lap Rice took the lead from Wheldon, with Sam Hornish Jnr in the #6 Penske Dallara-Toyota going past Castroneves for fourth ahead of Herta and Kanaan.

The lead quartet quickly built a gap to the field, and with 46 laps down Hornish moved past Wheldon into second as the leaders started lapping tail-enders. Hornish made the most of this, using a slower car to snatch the lead from Rice on lap 50. Once ahead the Penske ran away, while behind Castroneves dropped a couple of places behind Wheldon and Herta. Helio was clearly in trouble, dropping down the field and praying for a caution. It came on lap 56, as Larry Foyt completed grandpa AJ's miserable day by wiping off his car's right side on the wall.

The entire field headed pitwards, and first out was Rice, beating Hornish, Wheldon and the pack. The green flew on lap 63 and Wheldon nipped past Hornish to snatch second. But further back rookies Mark Taylor and Ed Carpenter collided, both spinning hard into the wall and out of the race.

The restart was frantic, Rice holding back before taking the green resulting in four and even five-abreast dicing down the pack. As it all sorted out Wheldon sat in second ahead of Hornish and Kanaan, followed by Herta, the rapidly progressing #10 Ganassi G-Force Toyota of Darren Manning and Franchitti. For a few laps Hornish and Wheldon provided the entertainment before the Penske car took the Andretti-Green machine.

With half-distance looming the first green flag stops of the day began with team-mates Wheldon and Kanaan heading pitwards, just in time to see PJ Jones hit the wall, bringing out a yellow. Naturally the rest of the field pitted under caution, seemingly disastrously for Rice and Manning who both stalled in the pits.

Wheldon led away again as the race passed halfway, heading Kanaan, Castroneves and Herta, Rice down in eighth while Hornish's luck turned sour, he forced to pit again just before the green to remove a piece of fuel hose from his car, rejoining at the back of the line. But at turn one Kanaan jinked inside to take the lead as Herta briefly got ahead of Castroneves for an Andretti-Green one-two-three. But almost immediately came a major accident, Hornish, Manning and Greg Ray coming together and slamming into the end of the pit wall. All escaped, though some pit crew members needed treatment after being hit by flying debris in what was a scary crash.

It took several laps to clean up the mess by which time several teams were anxiously scanning radars which showed more approaching rain. Of the leading contenders only 10th-placed Franchitti and the even further back Bruno Junqueira pitted, hoping the rain would hold off long enough for them to benefit. The green flew on lap 117 and Wheldon immediately snatched the lead back from Kanaan, Castroneves and Herta next up. But the young Brit couldn't hold on, his more-experienced team-mate retaking first just two laps later.

As the lead three pulled away, Herta and Adrian Fernandez in his own #5 G Force Honda were battling hard for fourth ahead of Scott Dixon's #1 Ganassi G-Force Toyota and Rice, while Franchitti sat waiting back in 15th praying for the rain to hold off just a few more laps. His answer came in the form of a yellow on lap 132, Marty Roth smacking the wall after running out of road at turn four. Almost everyone pitted, including Franchitti, while Castroneves missed his pit box, losing 15 places in the process. The one who stayed out was Junqueira, and he led the restart ahead of Wheldon until he was passed by Kanaan. Knowing rain could be imminent everyone down the field went for places, with three-wide action even in the corners and Tomas Sheckter passing seven cars at once to slot into 10th.

As Kanaan tried to close down Junqueira, Wheldon took the chance to make a move on his team-mate, only to be forced out of the throttle and passed by Rice for third, which became second as Junqueira's gamble failed and he headed pitwards for fuel. Rice immediately found a way past Kanaan for the lead, Wheldon and Herta not far behind.

On lap 163, just as pit stops for the leaders seemed imminent, the rain loomed in the distance. Kanaan was the first one forced into the pits, Wheldon following next lap and Rice a lap later. Still the rain held off as more cars came in, and Rice regained the lead ahead of Kanaan and Wheldon.

The yellows finally flew with 25 laps left to run, as marshals reported rain on the track, and soon it turned to a heavy downpour and Rice cruised past the chequered flag flew 20 laps shy of the 200.

"We knew we had it all month," grinned a delighted Rice as he supped his traditional victory lane milk, adding; "These guys were great." Kenny Brack will return to claim his car again soon - but it will be no surprise to hear that Buddy Rice will complete the season in a second Rahal-Letterman car. Yet while Andretti-Green Racing may rue missing out on the big win, they still enjoy a stranglehold at the top of the IRL standings - next stop Texas, in a fortnight's time...