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.