Photo by Bruce Martin
Bruce Martin

It’s always ‘Back Home Again in Indiana’ to David Letterman

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INDIANAPOLIS – David Letterman packed his bags and left Indianapolis in 1975 to pursue his dream of becoming a stand-up comedian. But Indiana never left his heart, and his love affair with the Indianapolis 500 never diminished.

Indiana always feels like home – sort of.

“Every time I come here, I get lost, I don’t recognize things, I know landmarks and I can find my way to the speedway,” Letterman told NBC Sports.com Friday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “I know where Broad Ripple High School is. I know where Monument Circle is. I know where Long’s Doughnuts is off 16thStreet. I know where Shapiro’s Deli is and a few landmarks like that.

“Other than that, it could be Tucson. I don’t know.

“Burger Chef is gone, but is that really a loss? It’s more like a public service.”

Letterman’s career became part of television history. He was a regular “guest host” for Johnny Carson on NBC’s Tonight Show and in 1979 was given a morning talk show on NBC. Letterman’s show was short-lived for the time slot, but it was cutting edge and ahead of its time.

He would return to NBC in 1982 as the host of “Late Night with David Letterman” and his television career took off. He left NBC in 1993 but continued his talk show career on CBS until his retirement from television when he taped his final show on May 20, 2015.

Letterman continued his ownership stake in three-time CART champion and 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner Bobby Rahal’s team. He co-owns Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing with Rahal and south suburban Chicago industrialist Michael Lanigan.

The team won the 2004 Indianapolis 500 with Buddy Rice as the driver.

INDYCAR PhotoLetterman makes infrequent visits to NTT IndyCar Series races. He attended the April 7 Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama and saw his team’s driver, Takuma Sato, score an impressive victory after Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing swept the front row in qualifying with Sato and Graham Rahal.

That victory has boosted Letterman’s confidence heading into Saturday’s INDYCAR Grand Prix and the 103rdIndianapolis 500 on May 26.

“I’m extremely confident about the team heading into the Month of May,” Letterman said. “The starting grid in Alabama was a delight for me and the results of that race was also a delight. People who know racing have told me there are things in place now that will translate to the two races here.

“I think we are going to have a strong month.”

Retirement has allowed Letterman to take a more active role in the NTT IndyCar Series team.

“Hanging out with Bobby is always fun,” Letterman said. “I’m going to be 100, so I’ve had a lot of Bobby time, and that is good. I’ve known Graham Rahal since he was a kid and getting to know Takuma Sato has been great fun.

“Being at Barber Motorsports Park and starting 1-2, you look one way and see the rest of the grid and look the other way and see the pace car. You think, ‘This is something that doesn’t happen much.’ I loved it and it reminds you of everything that is cool about this sport.”

Letterman’s favorite memories are when Bobby Rahal drove to victory in 1986 and when Rice won the 2004 Indianapolis 500 with Letterman watching Rice win.

“It was like somebody threw a switch and up in the pit stand was Scott Roembke, and it started to rain, and they threw the yellow and red flag out and Buddy was in the lead,” Letterman recalled. “I looked at Scott Roembke like this (thumbs in the air) and he was ‘No, no, no, no. There is still one lap to go.

“That was a lesson, not only for racing but for life.

“When the checkered flag fell, it was like a switch had been thrown. I was lit up like crazy. There was a group of people around me, nearly knowing me down and asking questions. There were two thoughts that went through me.

“One was uncontrollable joy of having won the Indianapolis 500. And the other was, ‘Well, I had nothing to do with this.’ But I loved it.

“It went on, and on and on. That was the standout memory.

“After experiencing that feeling, you want to win it every year.”

Letterman’s son, Harry, is a race fan, but there is no way he wants to see his son go into racing.

As far as the drivers on his own team, he has tremendous admiration for Sato, who won the 101st Indianapolis 500 for Andretti Autosport, and Graham Rahal.

“As a driver, under any circumstance, irrespective of starting position, irrespective of positions, Graham will hunt you down and eat you alive,” Letterman said. “The guy will do it every weekend. It makes no difference if it’s an oval, a street course, midpack or front, he will hunt you down and eat you.

“If you don’t think that is going to happen, you are making a huge mistake. Plus, the guy is pretty good on the equipment.

“But what else impresses me is the kid is so mature. He is so thoughtful, well-spoken and articulate. He has a big heart and is a gentleman. He is as good out of the car as he is in the car.”

INDYCAR PhotoLetterman is excited about the future of the NTT IndyCar Series, including its new television contract with NBC.

“I think now we are in the start of something that is going to be great,” Letterman said. “At the start of this season and the end of last season, you had young guys you may not have known of coming from places you may not have heard of, and if this series was drying up, you wouldn’t have new blood desperate to get on the starting grid. You have younger guys pushing the older guys.

“The other thing is the media attention this year with the entire schedule on one network is incalculable. Now, we know where the races are and that is just great.”

In Letterman’s mind, it’s always a good day to be at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Sort of.

“Unless it’s 48 degrees, but I would agree with that in theory,” Letterman said. “How often would you like to see me? And where do you live?

“We’ll be here, and we’ll be here for the 500 so that is two more weeks at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, so what more can you want?”

Attention NASCAR teams: IMSA drivers available for Daytona!

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NASCAR will be making its debut on the Daytona International Speedway road course next month, and there’s a big fan who’d like to join the historic weekend.

This fan actually has impressive credentials, too — a few thousand laps around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile layout that annually plays host to the Rolex 24 at Daytona in January.

In 2014, the winning GTLM team in the sports car endurance classic included IMSA Porsche driver Nick Tandy, who rabidly has followed NASCAR for more than 30 years since growing up in England.

So why not try racing NASCAR? Especially because Tandy has the weekend of Aug. 14-16 free.

He’s not picky, either — offering up his services on Twitter (as well as those of Porsche teammate Earl Bamber) for an ARCA, Xfinity, trucks or Cup ride.

Tandy’s affinity for American stock-car racing runs deep.

His first trip to the World Center of Racing was as a fan attending the 50th running of the Daytona 500 on Feb. 17, 2008. During Rolex testing in January, Tandy, 35, said he hadn’t missed a Cup race on TV in 15 years.

Among his favorite NASCAR drivers: the Earnhardts, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch. When IMSA ran the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course in 2014, Tandy stayed a few extra days at the Brickyard and bought Kyle Busch gear for himself and his children.

He briefly took the stage during a NASCAR weekend last October. After IMSA’s season finale at Road Atlanta, Tandy made a few demonstration laps and a burnout in his No. 911 Porsche before the Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway.

He also has some experience in stock cars, having raced Modified-type grass-roots series on England’s quarter-mile short tracks.

Couple that with a Daytona road course record that includes two consecutive podium class finishes (including last Saturday) and a sports car resume with 13 IMSA victories and an overall win in the 2015 24 Hours of Le Mans … and maybe a NASCAR team should take a look.

And Tandy isn’t the only IMSA driver who likely would be available.

Corvette driver Jordan Taylor, who won the 2017 Rolex 24 overall title with Jeff Gordon as a teammate (and the inspiration for his Rodney Sandstrom persona), also tweeted his availability for the weekend on the high banks.

Sports car veteran Andy Lally, a GTD driver with multiple class wins in the Rolex 24 as well as 38 Cup starts (he was the 2011 rookie of the season in NASCAR’s premier series), also hung out his shingle.

There also is AIM Vasser Sullivan’s Jack Hawksworth (who just won at Daytona last Saturday), the Englishman who teamed with Kyle Busch at the Rolex 24 in January and made an Xfinity start at Mid-Ohio last year with Joe Gibbs Racing.

Many sports car drivers (such as Taylor) already live in Florida, and many are hunkering down in the Sunshine State with IMSA returning to action at Daytona last week and Sebring International Raceway next week. Because of COVID-19-related travel concerns and restrictions, several IMSA stars who live outside the country are riding out the pandemic within a few hours of Daytona with nothing to do.

Why not a weekend at the World Center of Racing?

Over the years, scads of “road-course ringers” (including some Formula One veterans) have tried their hands in stock cars at Sonoma Raceway and Watkins Glen International.

How about considering the many sports car drivers who already have reached victory lane at Daytona by making a few right-hand turns, too?