By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
A grinning, gray-bearded David Letterman realized the ride of a lifetime last summer, when he completed four laps around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in an iconic open-wheel Roadster.
“Nobody in their right mind should let me do this,” Letterman tells Dan Carney in “David Letterman Is Not Slowing Down” as featured in the current issue of Maxim magazine. It’s an adventure that surely would have generated an endless stream of one-liners as an episode of Jay Leno’s Garage.
As it is, Letterman parlayed his status as co-owner of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in the Verizon IndyCar Series and his fame as recently retired host of CBS’ The Late Show into this July meeting with “Ol’ Calhoun” _ the No. 98 Offenhauser-powered Watson Roadster Parnelli Jones drove to victory in the 1963 Indianapolis 500.
Coached by team co-owner and fellow gearhead Bobby Rahal, the 1986 Indy 500 champion, Letterman slid his slim frame into a driving suit provided by Graham Rahal, Bobby’s son and fulltime driver of RLLR’s No. 15 Steak n’ Shake Honda in the IndyCar Series.
The glib Bobby Rahal struck-up a friendship with Letterman during a guest appearance on The Late Show after his Indy 500 victory. “He said I’m the only guy (guest) that ever bought him dinner _ I don’t think that’s true,” Rahal joked during an interview at IMS in May with RacinToday.com.
Rahal later offered Letterman a partnership in his Indy-car team, an association that has lasted for 20 years and includes industrial businessman Mike Lanigan. RLLR experienced its signature moment to-date when Buddy Rice won the rain-shortened Indy 500 in 2004.
Letterman concluded his 33-year run as late-night TV host on May 20, serenaded into retirement by Bob Dylan and the Foo Fighters. On cue, Letterman made his annual pilgrimage to IMS, site of the 99th running of the Indy 500 _ “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” Letterman’s fascination with the Indy 500 was a natural offshoot of his Midwestern upbringing.
“I inherited it,” Letterman, 68, tells Carney. “It was genetic. Every May, that’s what you did. It concluded the brutal central Indiana winters. The whole thing was symbolic.”
Letterman grew up in the Broad Ripple section of Indianapolis. He recalled attending Pole Day qualifications one year with an uncle and being mesmerized by the high-pitched noise created by the front-engine Roadsters as they rumbled through their traditional four-lap/10-mile paces around the 2.5-mile IMS oval.
Letterman once likened the Speedway to the Roman Coliseum. “But what I remember most was the sound of the engines echoing off the grandstands,” Letterman said in an earlier interview. “That was what got your attention.”
Letterman admittedly spent a sleepless night anticipating his drive in the No. 98, now a fixture at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame and Museum.
“Honest to God, I was scared silly,” said Letterman, acquainting himself with the Watson’s huge steering wheel and cockpit in a Gasoline Alley garage.
In its era, the 180 mph/400-horsepower, open-cockpit Watson Roadster was state-of-the-art. Jones qualified the car owned by fellow-Californian J.C. Agajanian on-pole with a track-record speed of 151.150 mph. Jones led 167 of 200 laps en route to his swig of milk in Victory Lane on May 30, 1963.
That also was the year Englishman Colin Chapman brought his rear-engine Lotus Formula One grand prix cars, powered by Ford V8s, to Indy with Scotsman Jim Clark and Californian Dan Gurney. Clark, who led 28 laps, was voted Rookie of the Year in ’63 after finishing second to Jones in the No. 92 Lotus. Two years later, after Clark’s dominating victory in the famed No. 82 Lotus powered by Ford, the Watson Roadster was rendered obsolete.
Still, Letterman termed the Watson and its 4-cylinder Offy combination “a remarkable machine. It is so beautiful.”
And now Ol’ Dave was strapped into Ol’ Calhoun as two crewmen pushed it to a rolling start, a moment marked by some rather deft footwork with the car’s balky clutch. Unfortunately, Letterman completed his run in a car that began to overheat. Respecting its priceless history, Letterman cut his final lap short.
“I see smoke coming out of the damn car, coming between (turns) three and four, and I have the presence of mind to take it out of gear, turn off the ignition switch, coast from the fourth turn right down here, and stop perfectly,” an out-of-breath Letterman tells his interviewer. “I like to think I prevented a conflagration.
“That’s right! I wish they had told me that when the thing sounds like it’s gonna choke-out, that’s when you gotta lean on it. But I was so scared. I was timid as a kitty. I was. I was timid as a kitty!”
Letterman truly hopes his son, 11-year-old Harry, evolves into a bona fide car-guy _ meaning, the kid needs to learn how to drive a manual transmission already. Harry certainly will benefit from the array of “British and Italian and American brightly painted junk” in his father’s collection. Dave’s toys range from a classic Austin-Healey Sprite to a modern Tesla.
Letterman, however, is particularly proud of his 1995 Volvo 960 station wagon, a V8-powered beast whose purchase was recommended by the late actor/racer Paul Newman. A regular Month of May visitor to Gasoline Alley as co-owner of glamorous Newman-Haas Racing, Newman was ordering one of the custom-built Swedish cars for himself and asked Letterman if he needed to scratch-that-itch.
“Sure, I’ll take one,” said Letterman, sight-unseen.
“You want a puffer on that?” Newman asked.
What’s a puffer? You’ll have to read the Maxim article.