Letterman says Indianapolis 500 put city in big leagues

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(This story originally appeared as exclusive content on the Verizon INDYCAR Mobile app. To download the app for use on smartphones, click here.)

INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana – When David Letterman was growing up in the Broad Ripple area of Indianapolis, like many boys in the capital city of Indiana in the 1960s, the “month of May” was a magical time.

“It was when the world would come to my backyard,” Letterman recalled. “Back then, Indianapolis didn’t have a major-league team in any sport. It was a Triple-A (baseball) city with the Indianapolis Indians the only team in town. The Indiana Pacers didn’t begin until 1967.

“But every May, the best race drivers from all over the world came to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. And it was like the world was coming to my backyard. That was our major league event.”

Today’s Verizon IndyCar Series features an international lineup of drivers making it one of the most diverse racing series in the world. One of the world’s great drivers joins this year’s field as two-time Formula One world champion Fernando Alonso of Spain competes for a spot in the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil for McLaren-Honda-Andretti.

“I remember when Jochen Rindt, Denis Hulme, Jackie Stewart, Graham Hill, Jim Clark and Jack Brabham competed in the Indianapolis 500 in the 1960s,” Letterman told the Verizon INDYCAR Mobile App. “It’s exciting that Alonso is coming this year. I think it’s a lovely idea. I remember when Nigel Mansell was here in 1993 and 1994.

“I think it’s great. Good luck to him (Alonso).”

For more than three decades until his retirement in 2015, Letterman was a late-night television star. Since the 1990s, Letterman has also been one of the team owners of an Indy car team with 1986 Indianapolis 500 winning driver Bobby Rahal. He is one of the three owners of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing that also includes Chicago industrialist Michael Lanigan.

RLL is fielding two cars in this year’s Indy 500, one for full-season driver Graham Rahal and the second for veteran Oriol Servia, who will make his 200th career start in the May 28 race.

Letterman’s “backyard” was seven miles away from Indianapolis Motor Speedway and, growing up, he absorbed everything he could about the Indianapolis 500 including scouring the sports pages of the local newspapers.

When he concluded a news conference on Friday, Letterman called out for one of the sports writers he used to read from The Indianapolis News.

“Where is Dick Mittman?” Letterman asked. “Did he go home?’”

About that time, the white-haired, retired Mittman was within earshot and replied to Letterman’s query.

“Yes,” Mittman replied. “I’m over here.”

“My God, I’ve been seeing your byline since I was a kid,” Letterman said. “Are you Dick Mittman Jr.?

“Nice to meet you. You were a fixture in our house forever. Thank you very much.”

When Mittman thanked Letterman for his years on television, he responded, “God Bless you. I don’t know what you were watching, but thank you.”

Letterman’s television career began in Indianapolis as a local weatherman. He also worked on one ABC broadcast of the Indy 500 as an infield reporter, where he awkwardly interviewed Mario Andretti after Andretti dropped out of the race nearby.

“There was a time when I went away from the sport after the 1973 race that was rain-delayed for a few days and the carnage of that race I lost my enthusiasm for the sport,” Letterman recalled, alluding to the month that saw accidents claim the lives of drivers Art Pollard and Swede Savage as well as a pit crew member struck on pit lane. “Up until that time I just took it for granted about the danger.

“When Bobby Rahal won the race in 1986, I peeked my head and realized great progress had been made in the sport. I didn’t know Bobby until he was on my show after winning in 1986.”

Letterman was an active team owner last weekend at the INDYCAR Grand Prix and watched Graham Rahal drive from 20th starting position to a sixth-place finish in a race that ran without a caution period. The pace was so great and Rahal ran with such ferocity that both of his hands were badly blistered.

“I’ve never had blisters doing anything,” Letterman said. “It’s crazy but that’s what he (Rahal) does. I’m very proud of his effort. I’m proud of the kid.”

It’s been almost two years since Letterman’s final appearance hosting “The Late Show” on CBS on May 20, 2015. Is there anything he has missed?

“I think I may have left my favorite pen back there,” Letterman said. “That’s what I’m worried about. Somebody’s got my damn pen.”

Letterman has spent much of his lifetime making people laugh. Now in retirement, what does he do with his jokes?

“I annoy my son,” Letterman said of his son, Harry. “He’s 13 and I like annoying him with jokes and pushing him around. That’s what I do. It’s a full-time job.

“My jokes aren’t that good. They are just about right for a 13-year-old.”

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