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?”

NHRA: Funny Car driver J.R. Todd looks to snap slump, make history at U.S. Nationals

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In addition to being the most gratifying achievement of his NHRA drag racing career, winning the 2018 NHRA Funny Car championship was also the hardest thing J.R. Todd has ever done.

That is, until he tried to defend the title in 2019 – which has now become the hardest thing Todd has done behind the wheel.

After winning a career-best six wins en route to his title last season, Todd has had a rough campaign in the first 17 races of the current season, having earned just one win (Las Vegas) and two runner-up finishes.

In addition, he’s failed to make it out of the first round six times, and was stopped in the quarter-finals eight other times.

And as he prepares for next week’s Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway in suburban Indianapolis – the biggest race of the season – the 37-year-old Todd is mired in a difficult slump. Since losing to Ron Capps in the final round at Richmond, Todd has dropped from second to eighth in the Funny Car standings, unable to get past the second round of the nine subsequent events.

That’s why Todd is hoping for a major turnaround at the U.S. Nationals, the final qualifying race for the upcoming six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs.

J.R. Todd (Photo: NHRA).

A massive 416 points (the equivalent of more than three wins points-wise) out of first place, Todd needs to start a big comeback if he hopes to do well in the playoffs, and the U.S. Nationals is the perfect place for him to do so. Todd comes into this year’s race having won the last two Funny Car crowns at Indy in 2017 and 2018.

If he can make it three in a row, Todd will make NHRA history. To date, only two drivers – Top Fuel greats “Big Daddy” Don Garlits and Tony Schumacher – have won three in a row at Indianapolis. But no Funny Car driver has ever done so, not John Force, Kenny Bernstein, Don Prudhomme or anyone else.

“That’s some pretty elite company right there with Big Daddy and Tony Schumacher,” Todd told NBC Sports. “Really you try not to think about things like that and just focus on the mission at hand – and that’s to win the race.

“When you do that, then you can enjoy all the accolades that come with it. I have the two trophies that I can look at every day – and it’s an awesome reminder of what we’ve done. It was a dream of mine as a kid to go there and race in the U.S. Nationals as a professional someday and to have won it is still kind of a surreal feeling.”

Todd, who lives in nearby Lawrenceburg, Indiana, wants to be the first Funny Car driver to pull off that achievement — and at his home track, to boot.

“It’s the biggest race of the year and the one that everyone wants to win,” Todd said. “To go back there and win there three years in a row would be pretty special.

“For me, it’s the race I grew up going to as a kid. I have a lot of family and friends that go there. I live five minutes from the track, so it means everything to me.”

In a sense, his situation this season is kind of deja vu for Todd. Last season, he won two races earlier in the season (Las Vegas and Houston), then went into a slump much like the one he’s currently in.

But starting with last September’s win at Indianapolis, Todd went on to win four of the final seven races of the season — including three in the playoffs — to motor on to the championship.

What makes Todd’s success at Indy all the more unique is that while he’s a long-time drag racer, he only switched to Funny Car prior to the 2017 season. That means in just two seasons, the former Top Fuel pilot has not only twice won the sport’s biggest race, but also the championship.

The team Todd races for, Kalitta Motorsports, has a history of starting to hit its stride just before the playoffs begin in Funny Car. From 2014 through 2018, the organization has won 13 Funny Car races beginning with the second-to-last regular season race at Brainerd, Minnesota through the six playoff races. That’s 13 of 40 races, roughly 33% of the races that NHRA has won.

In addition to Todd’s two U.S. Nationals wins, Team Kalitta also won the Funny Car event in 2014 with now-retired driver Alexis DeJoria.

I knew coming over to drive the DHL Toyota Camry that we would have some good opportunities to win races,” Todd said. “For whatever reason, it seems like we pick up a lot of momentum at that time of year. We’re hoping we can keep that trend going this year.”

In a sense, the U.S. Nationals – the 18th and final regular season race of the overall 24-race NHRA schedule – are to the NHRA what the Daytona 500 is to NASCAR or the Indianapolis 500 is to IndyCar.

“It sets the tone for the next six races,” Todd said of the playoffs. “The U.S. Nationals are a marathon. It’s the one race where everyone brings out their best stuff because it’s so important.  So much of that preparation then carries over into the Countdown.

“If you ask drivers that haven’t won Indy before, I think they’d trade pretty much any win for that one.”

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