News

May 23, 2017

David Letterman loved the Indy 500 but freaked out after '73

David Letterman is probably the Indianapolis 500's highest profile superfan.

He never misses the race and rarely skips qualifications. He co-owns a race team. In the moments before the start of the race, he is said to be so overcome with emotion that he cries.

Letterman's memory of the Memorial Day classic dates back to 1955 when he was 8 years old. He was in his backyard on Indianapolis' north side, listening to the race on the radio with his family, like thousands of children across the city. He sat in an apple tree.

About a quarter of the way into the race, on lap 57, two-time defending champion Bill Vukovich crashed horribly, his car flipping end over end and exploding into a fireball.

Vukovich had a wife and an 11-year-old son. He was dead at the scene.

But that sort of thing happened at the Speedway — a lot. By the time Letterman was 12, four more drivers would be killed there, either during the race or practice. By the time he graduated from high school, three more drivers would die.

None of that dampened Letterman's enthusiasm for the race. "I took (the danger) for granted," he said recently during an interview at the Speedway. "You just thought, 'that's racing.' "

Letterman continued following events at the Speedway and going to the track with his friends to watch the cars and drink beer, like thousands of teenagers across the city. He can still reel off the names of drivers from that era: "Jimmy Clark, Jackie Stewart, Lloyd Ruby," he said the other day. He could have kept going.

In 1971, at age 24, Letterman worked the race as a roving reporter for the ABC broadcast. He interviewed Mario Andretti. But soon Letterman would sour on the Indy 500.

The 1973 race started with a fiery crash on the first lap that left driver Salt Walther badly burned Swede Savage was burned during a crash later in the race; he died of his injures a month later. A pit crew member was killed after being hit by a rescue truck. All this came just days after driver Art Pollard was killed during practice.

"The carnage," Letterman said. "When you were young, you figured that's just the way it was. But when you got old enough, it was really pretty hard to take.

"After 1973, I went away and stayed away."

For 13 years Letterman stayed away.

Then, in 1986, he had reigning Indy 500 champ Bobby Rahal on "Late Night with David Letterman." The two hit it off.

Letterman clearly still had feelings for the race, and Rahal was able to allay some of his trepidation. The race driver told the talk show host of the many safety advances in auto racing since 1973. Driver deaths at the Speedway today are rare — four since 1973, and none since 2003.

Rahal and Letterman stayed in touch, and in 1995, when Rahal retired from driving, the two became partners in a race team. That partnership continues. Rahal's son, Graham Rahal, drives the car, and Letterman's son, Harry, 13, accompanies his father to the 500.

Next Prev
  Follow

@GrahamRahal

  Like Me

Facebook