Rice Joins Panther Racing for Indy 500
April 29, 2011 | 1:09 P.M. EST
Buddy Rice (Photo: Getty Images)
Panther Racing rookie JR Hildebrand will have an Indianapolis 500 champion as a teammate for the 100th anniversary race on May 29.
The team announced that 2004 Indy 500 winner Buddy Rice will drive the No. 44 entry. A Panther Racing driver has finished runner-up in three consecutive Indy 500s (2008 with Vitor Meira and in 2009, 2010 with Dan Wheldon).
"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," said Rice, who last competed in the '500' in 2008 with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing. "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."
Rice has made IZOD IndyCar Series starts, with three victories and five pole positions. He finished a career-high third in the championship in 2004.
"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," CEO John Barnes said. "He's going to make a huge impact on JR and his development, and 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.
"When the opportunity came along with Buddy, it was a no-brainer for us. 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."
Hildebrand had reached out to Rice on more than one occasion earlier in the season about helping the team in some capacity.
"I'm super excited to have Buddy on board," said Hildebrand. "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."
Hildebrand is the current leader in the IZOD IndyCar Series Rookie of the Year standings and will become the first rookie to start in the Indy 500 for Panther since Tomas Enge in 2005.
"I own my own go-kart team and I like helping out young drivers and seeing them develop," Rice said. "For me to deal with JR, we have some mutual friends and my reputation as a teammate has been good, so I'm excited about it and I like the challenge. I've been in JR's shoes before and I feel like I have a lot to offer especially because he's a kid who wants to learn and I feel like I have some insight and it will be great to help him out and be a part of Panther."
Sponsorship details for Rice's No. 44 car will be announced at a later date.