Buddy Rice has joined Panther Racing for an assault on this year's Indianapolis 500. Rice, who won the race for Rahal Letterman Racing in 2004, will join team regular JR Hildebrand for the centennial running of the "500" and pronounced himself delighted to be back.
"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. "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've had offers in the past that didn't work out for different reasons, and 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."
Panther has never won the Indy 500, but has finished second for the last three years; with Vitor Meira in 2008 and with Dan Wheldon in '09 and '10.
“Buddy and I have talked for years about him joining the team and never had an opportunity that aligned itself, so when this came about to run a second car at the Speedway, he was high on our list and he was excited about being a part of Panther,” said Panther CEO John Barnes. “He's going to make a huge impact on JR and his development. From the time we decided Hildebrand was the future of our team we wanted to bring along a mentor and somebody that could help our entire team, and when the opportunity came along with Buddy, it was a no-brainer for us."
Barnes added that the team would like to add more races with Rice, if backing can be found.
"We hope this isn't a one-and-done thing; we want Buddy for more races this season, and we feel this opportunity is a win-win for all of us,” he said.
Hildebrand said had reached out to Rice on more than one occasion earlier in the season about helping the team in some capacity, and the 23-year-old Californian was instrumental in ensuring Rice was his teammate for his first experience in the Indianapolis 500.
“I'm super-excited to have Buddy on board,” Hildebrand said. “He's a guy that from the beginning of this year I've been pursuing to come help me and Panther. Having him as a teammate at Indy is the best-case scenario; he's a guy that for his accomplishments and his attitude I've always admired. I 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.”