Buddy Rice and Hideki Mutoh will be back on the starting grid for IndyCar Series races this season.

The 2004 Indianapolis 500 champion Buddy Rice will be back with Panther Racing for the final two oval races of the season in October, while Hideki Mutoh will be driving the #17 AFS/Sam Schmidt Motorsports car at next weekend's outing on the Motegi road course circuit in Japan.

Rice last appeared in the series at this year's Indianapolis 500 when he ran alongside Panther's regular driver JR Hildebrand, who nearly scored a shock win before crashing out on the final corner. The race had been Rice's first IndyCar outing since his final full season in the sport in 2008 with Dreyer & Reinbold, and the series finale at Las Vegas will mark Rice's 100th series start.

"Buddy worked so well with JR in May and I'm glad they'll get the opportunity to work together again because I can't ever remember a pair of teammates working together as well as those two did at Indianapolis," said team managing partner and CEO John Barnes.

"I'm just excited to be back at Panther Racing," said Rice after the announcement. "Like I said before we ran Indianapolis, I've had a lot of chances to get back into IndyCar but at Panther we know we've got a package together that can win races."

Pointing out that the team had done well last year in Kentucky with Ed Carpenter taking pole and finishing second, Rice added: "They've got one of the best oval programs in the series, so I know JR and I can work together to get these cars towards the front."

Rice will be driving the #44 Fuzzy's Ultra Premium Vodka again. John Barnes said: "Everybody at Panther is extremely excited to have Fuzzy's Ultra Premium Vodka and a champion like Buddy Rice back with us for the last two races of the season [at Kentucky and Las Vegas.] Those guys bring so much to this team."

Over at AFS/Sam Schmidt Motorsports, Hideki Mutoh was equally happy to have landed a shot at driving the #17 car at Motegi, in a home race for the 28-year-old Tokyo-born driver who has 52 IndyCar races under his helt from 2008 to 2010 with Andretti Green Racing and latterly Newman/Haas.

Mutoh will be teaming up with Alex Tagliani, in a car that has been taken to two top-12 finished in the last two races by Britain's Martin Plowman.

"I am really looking forward to working with Sam Schmidt Motorsports at Motegi," said Mutoh. "Though this is only one race, it means a lot to me to be able to race in front of my home crowd again."

Pointing out that, "This has been a tough year for Japan and I hope we can bring some excitement to the many fans," Mutoh added: "I really cannot wait to get started."

Auto Club race date set

IndyCar has followed up July's announcement that the series would be returning to Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California in 2012 with confirmation that the date for the race will be September 15, 2012.

The 200-lap night race on the two-mile, D-shaped oval will be the series' first outing there since Dario Franchitti won the final IndyCar race there in October 2005.

The Auto Club Speedway previously hosted CART races between 1997-2002 and IRL races from 2002 until 2005. Other previous winners here include Mark Blundell, Sam Hornish Jr., Jimmy Vasser, Adrian Fernandez, Cristiano da Matta and Christian Fittipaldi, while Helio Castroneves, Scott Pruett, Gil de Ferran, Alex Tagliani and Tony Kanaan have all claimed pole position.

The September 15 date slots it into the season at the point left vacant by the exit from the calendar of Motegi, with no further races scheduled in Japan after next weekend's final visit.



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