David Letterman on the Indy 500: 'I love it being part of my heritage as a Hoosier'

INDIANAPOLIS – Spend 30 minutes chatting with him -- or heck, even just three -- and you'll recognize why David Letterman was one of the mainstays of American late-night talk show television for well over three decades, and why the 77-year-old is still making great content in the streaming age.

He's a storyteller at heart, and a wisecracking jokester at that. It's been nearly nine years since Letterman aired his final episode of his eponymous 'Late Show', and still, Letterman continues putting his interviewing skills to the test via his Netflix talk show, 'My Next Guest Needs No Introduction.'

But there's a love that grew far earlier in life for Letterman, one that defines him, how he sees the world and what he strives for: the Month of May in Indianapolis. The two-time Indianapolis 500 winning team co-owner (2004 with Buddy Rice and 2020 with Takuma Sato) who grew up in Broad Ripple still remembers the first driver he ever saw behind the wheel, and for the Hoosier born in 1947, it wasn't a front-runner like Mario Andretti or A.J. Foyt who hooked him on American open-wheel racing.

Bud Tingelstad, who scored a single win, started the 500 10 times, who finished better than 13th in the championship just three times and whose last start came in 1971. How many lifelong race fans can say Tingelstad, of all the stalwarts of the sport in the '50s and '60s, got them hooked? Perhaps just Letterman, which would be fitting.

After all, he's a 'one of one.'

Earlier this May, IndyStar got a chance to catch up with one of the most recognizable -- and far and away the most bearded -- IndyCar team owner on the 20th anniversary of his first 500 win with Rice to discuss everything from how he fell in love with IndyCar, what he remembers from those two special Sundays in May and why he's taken such a liking to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racind driver Christian Lundgaard.

Below is that interview, which has been edited and condensed for clarity.

David Letterman of Rahal Letterman Racing watches the action on Sunday, May 28, 2023, at the 107th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
David Letterman of Rahal Letterman Racing watches the action on Sunday, May 28, 2023, at the 107th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

IndyStar: How did you and Bobby Rahal get close and why you wanted to join his race team?

David Letterman: Being born and raised in Indianapolis, the Month of May, a fixture of my life and the life of all our friends, families, neighborhood, it was the thing and stayed with me. I’d follow the race and every activity during the month. And then as I grew older and moved away, the race went through a period where it was not so much as fun as it could be. It was highly tragic in some years, and my interest in it sort of began to wane a bit. And then I returned to it when I saw every weekend this kid named Bobby Rahal running up front.

I started following him and was attracted to ‘the guy,’ not so typical of the drivers I was familiar with as a younger person. When he won in ’86, he came on (Late Night with David Letterman), and that was the beginning of our acquaintance, and it developed into a friendship, and I would attend races around the country when I had time off. From that, he was nice enough to let me come in and be a bit of a partnership on the team.

Star: When you had been part of Bobby’s team that had been in CART and not raced in the Indy 500, as a native Hoosier, what was that like being part of it as a team owner for the first time back in 2002?

DL: It was weird, cause all a sudden the thing I looked forward to every May and the thing that we loved every May was a bit tainted, because it felt like – and believe me, I don’t understand the politics or the economics of it, specifically -- but my impression had been that it was kinda taken away from us. Historically whether that’s defensible or not, I don’t know. I remember going to Michigan when we had the U.S. 500, and those were unusual times. I guess, ‘Good for open wheel racing? Not certain.’ But it was the beginning of a solution, I think. But whatever Bobby wanted to do was fine with me. And then I think we laid out, I can’t remember how long, but we then got back to it. That was peculiar.

Star: What was and is being involved in the 500 like as a team owner, and how has your relationship with the race evolved since being solely a fan of the sport?

DL: They are different. I think there’s a pretty good overlap, but they are different. For one thing, being connected with Bobby and the team, it’s your family and you want your family to do well. I remember when I was a kid, you’d pick out a driver that you liked and hoped that that person would do well, and now the same is true, except it’s always a family member that I want to do well. But it’s changed. I would say there’s greater emotion to my celebration of that event every year. Greater emotion than there had been in the past. In the past, it meant something different, and now the difference is that there’s more of your guts in it now.

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Star: Can you paint the picture of what it was like for you on that day in 2004 when Buddy Rice wins that 500?

DL: I remember Honda was dominant that year, and Buddy, his Honda was dominant of the Hondas, so I knew for a fact he was going to win it. Now the roll of the dice was the silly weather. At some point during a rain delay, they get out the jet powered track drying devices, and I remember thinking, ‘In terms of preserving energy, are these the best things you can get? What about a squeegee? Can you squeegee the gosh dang track?’

But anyways, they get about 80 of these things blowing around the track, deafening everyone, and for some reason, me and (late team executive) Scott Roembke are sitting up on the timing box, and (Rahal Letterman Racing driver) Buddy Rice is also up on the timing box, and we’re watching it dry and trying to test each other’s hearing. Now they make the announcement that there’s a possibility of a rain delay, and we may have to run it again tomorrow. And I tap Buddy on the shoulder, who I had only known a couple months. ‘Buddy, if they restart this thing tomorrow, will you be available?’ I thought that was hilarious! And Buddy and Scott looked at me, ‘Can’t you just go get a snow cone? You don’t need to be here.’

Then it came, I’ve never experienced anything like this in my life. There’s one lap to go. They’re going to stop the race on whatever lap they’re going to stop it on, and as they go by for one final lap on-track under yellow, Buddy has the lead of the race, I looked at Scott Roembke and I did this (fist pump) and he’s like, ‘No, no, no, no, it’s not done yet!’ I thought, ‘Oh, I will go get a snow cone.’

And then the world opened up, and suddenly people who had been avoiding me, which I’m certainly accustomed to, suddenly descend upon me. I’m suddenly in the middle of this scrum of cameras and people with recorders and notepads, and they’re hammering me with questions, and it was delightful, because once again in my life, I was able to take credit for something which I had nothing to do with. And it went on from that, and I was carried away on a cloud for the next year as having my name at arms’ length associated with winning the Indianapolis 500. Then the skies opened up, and there were tornados and lighting strikes and things taking off and exploding, and it was a crazy, crazy moment. I’m living proof that winning this race, even though I was out looking for snacks, does change your life.

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Star: You’ve been part of Bobby’s team, now with Mike Lanigan, for nearly 30 years. How has your role on the team changed? Was there a period where you were more or less involved than you are now?

DL: I was attracted to this sport and this team like you are with most, because of the people. You’re fascinated by the cars and the technology and the ability and the strategy, but mostly I was attracted by Bobby himself, who is, to this day, just a solid guy, nice guy, smart guy, successful at everything he does. Very smart driver, took care of the car, winning guy, won close to 30 races, three championships, won at Daytona, won in IMSA, won everywhere he drove.

To me, he was a different sort than what I grew up with. The A.J. Foyt model, ‘If I don’t qualify my racecar, let me see if I can qualify the rental that I have from the airport.’ I remember reading a biography of A.J. Foyt and how he used to race the family car around the outside of the house and try and improve his lap times lapping around the house, and once or twice he clipped the corner of the house and knocked the house off its foundation. Bobby didn’t seem to be that kind of guy. He went to Denison (University). Kind of a scholarly, road course kind of guy and had his time in F1. I found him personally very appealing.

I was so worried about doing something that would cause the race to go haywire, that I would stand around not near anything, cause I just got tired of people telling me, ‘Oh, you can’t stand there.’ And then when Mike Lanigan came in, everything changed. It took the organization to a different level. He’d been in racing for a long time before he came to Bobby, and at that point, I realized I didn’t have much to worry about here because Mike and Bobby are doing the heavy lifting and I can stand around and ask dumb questions, and that’s pretty much been my role ever since.

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver Takuma Sato (30) celebrates with team co-owners Mike Lanigan, David Letterman and Bobby Rahal after winning the 104th Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday, Aug. 23, 2020.
Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver Takuma Sato (30) celebrates with team co-owners Mike Lanigan, David Letterman and Bobby Rahal after winning the 104th Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday, Aug. 23, 2020.

Star: What was winning in 2020 with Takuma Sato with no fans in the stands, as someone who had grown up seeing that place packed each year, like?

DL: Well the circumstances were not good, there’s no question about that. On the other hand, the event itself, I think because we did win and the total attendance that day was 12, it was bewildering, but it was also great fun. It was just you and the people you came to the track with. ‘Guess what, we won! You want to go have dinner?’ There was none of the tumult, but the thrill of it was still there. Obviously, when you have 300,000 people in attendance, the energy is beyond palpable. There was not much energy via the crowd, but in its own way, there was something unusually special about this one.

That will never be repeated. It was also like, ‘Should we cancel?’ ‘No, we’ve got 12 people here.’ ‘Okay, let’s run it.’ Didn’t take it away. We still won it, by god. Takuma’s on the Borg-Warner twice. Looking back, other than the circumstances of it, the uniqueness makes it memorable and just peculiar. You go from the world’s largest single-day sporting event to, ‘Excuse me, come here. You know anything about putting air in a race tire? Come on over here.’ It was like that. I don’t want to go through it again, but to have that as one of the wins is without question memorable.

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Star: Last May was a tough couple weeks for RLL. How did you personally experience that, and how have to tried in your own special way to help the team bounce back in the 12 months since?

DL: I can remember when the Penske cars didn’t qualify. I can remember the year Bobby was making his own cars, and he didn’t qualify. The unusual doesn’t dominate, but it’s never unexpected. It was too bad it befell Graham and our team, but to me it was just, ‘Oh, we’ve seen this before. It’s part of the fabric they refer to as the great drama of that place.’ While it was too bad it happened to us, it wasn’t, overall, a surprise.

And going forward, you put together a program after that race to understand what it was that did happen. I’m told, we’re focusing on five or six things that need to have our attention, and so far, we’re satisfied with the results and the improvement. We’ll see. When everything goes right, it just looks so easy to turn a lap hitting speeds of 240 mph, but as you and I and anybody with any brains understands, ‘Ahh, it might not be that easy.’

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Star: I know you’ve been increasingly used in promoting the Indy 500 and have been in both seasons of ‘100 Days to Indy.’ What do you enjoy about being an important thread to central Indiana and the 500 as a Hoosier and notable team owner?

DL: It’s great for me. I’m flattered by this connection. I love it being part of my heritage as a Hoosier, and I’m flattered when I see people at the race who still mention this or that still connects me to Indiana. That’s just great. And also, it’s a pretty narrow corridor of things I can do for this team, so to be able to do something that might, in fact, reflect positively on them, I feel like, ‘Okay, this makes me feel like I’m part of the team in actuality.’ The more of that I can do, the happier it makes me. I’ll always just be an asterisk here, in terms of actual accomplishments in this racing organization, but to be associated with it, it’s always nothing but flattering for me. I want to help here, and in any small way, if it makes a difference, then that’s great, and it’s something I’m very proud of.

Star: Since you finished your time on ‘The Late Show’, you’ve had your show on Netflix for four seasons, the last of which came out in 2022. What are you up to now in day-to-day life outside the race track?

DL: Working for Netflix has been great. It took me a while to get over not having a daily show, and Netflix is just about right. The first of the new one with a very funny man, John Mulaney, that is on the platform now. And I did a thing in New York City last week with Alex Honnold, the fella that free-soloed El Capitan, and I enjoyed that a great deal. Next week, I’m going to California to do some more things for Netflix. It’s enough of the right kind of stuff where I don’t get fatigued and collapse.

Star: And sprinkle in some visits to the racetrack when you get a chance.

DL: I’m really looking forward to going back to Iowa. I had such a good time there last summer. I’m waiting for the hottest day ever recorded, and that’s the next one I’ll attend, and it could be Iowa. But I like the HyVee people, and I got to monkey around in their store. I’m trying to get a free Corvette from them, so anything you can do to help, I appreciate that, Nathan.

Star: And you get to be there on weekends where Christian Lundgaard is kind of the face of everything.

DL: He’s a very nice kid. I’ve gotten to know him, and I like listening to him on the radio. ‘Christian, we’re going to pit here. Anything you need?’ ‘Well, the right rear, ehh it might be loose. You might want to take a look at it.’ ‘What?!’ ‘I don’t know, I’m getting some kind of wonky vibe. Just have a look at it.’ Just like he’s sitting in a library looking at his stamp collection. He’s a sweet kid, and I met his family, and we always end up talking about Denmark. I think he’s from Denmark? It would be really funny if he wasn’t, and all we do is talk about Denmark. Oh, I love that idea. ‘You know I’m not from Denmark.’ ‘Really?! No.’ And Graham (Rahal), he’s my all-time favorite. I feel like I’m the uncle who’s got a drinking problem with Graham. I just want him to have a great day any day. What a kid.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: David Letterman on winning the Indy 500, getting snow cones & Denmark