David Letterman, ace pit reporter

Published On February 22, 2016 » 3204 Views» By Jeff Vrabel » Blogs, IMS, IMS History, Indy 500

We’re chronicling 100 days of Indy 500 history on #SpeedRead leading up to the historic 100th Running. With 97 days to go, we remember David Letterman’s days at IMS long before he was a “500”-winning car owner.

The Indy 500 has legions of famous fans. And we may be giant homers for saying this, but whatever, state pride is important: We at the Speedway feel comfortable giving the title of “Most Prominent Fan” to David Letterman, Indiana native, Ball State grad and guy who touted the “500” on his “Late Show” as often as he could get away with.

Loads of Letterman memories poured in throughout 2015, and all of them were pretty glorious. But naturally, our favorite was this video of an absurdly youthful Letterman in 1971 interviewing Mario Andretti, who had just crashed out of the race. (Letterman is introduced by Jim McKay as motorsports journalism hero Chris Economaki, who he is not.) A 24-year-old cub reporter who looks unusually tall for some reason, Letterman nails the first question: “Mario, what happened?” It’s short. To the point. Letterman is on his game. But his follow-up, a curious probe about the interaction between fast and slow cars, causes Andretti to make his second awkward stop of the day. “It’s one of the greatest questions of all time,” a laughing Andretti told The Indianapolis Star in 2015. “You could tell he had to ask something, but he didn’t know what that should be.”

Andretti, of course, went on to make multiple appearances on Letterman’s “Late Show,” even delivering a Top 10 list. And the interview remains famous enough that it was mentioned in Mayor Greg Ballard’s official proclamation of David Letterman Day in May of 2015.

Look, interviewing famous people is stressful, doubly so if you’re 24, triply so if you’re trying to talk to one of your heroes while earsplitting cars whiz by your microphone. But if the internet is for anything, it’s forever preserving early-career missteps by famous people, and now we have maybe the best-preserved time capsule of Letterman’s early days as a racing champion. One who, happily, got a lot better.


About The Author

Jeff Vrabel

I’m an Indiana native and former resident of Chicago and Hilton Head Island who’s written for for such outlets as GQ, Men’s Health, Success, the Washington Post and my hometown Indianapolis Monthly. I spent decades listening to the 500 on the radio and have run two Mini-Marathons around the IMS track, but only dropped a packet of energy beans on Turn 3 during one of them. And I live near Indianapolis with my family; my oldest son just stole bacon off your plate and the youngest was personally approved by Springsteen (long story). Find me at the cleverly named http://jeffvrabel.com or http://twitter.com/jeffvrabel.