Many retirees struggle with how best to occupy their idle years. Not David Letterman. On May 20, he stepped down from the desk of CBS’s Late Show and smack into an IndyCar season for the ages. Improbably, the single-car operation of which he is a part owner, Rahal Letterman Lanigan, is within shouting distance of its first ever series championship. The prospect of Graham Rahal, the pilot at the center of the team’s success, possibly winning it all this Sunday as the IndyCar season winds down in a double points race at Sonoma (4 p.m. Eastern on NBC Sports Network) has the 68-year-old comedy legend happy for his driver, but his excitement has been tempered by the tragic events of last Sunday when driver Justin Wilson was killed during the race at Pocono.
In conversation with SI.com, Letterman reflected on all manner of things: the wild and suddenly bittersweet IndyCar season, the future of the San Diego Chargers, and the wild fires that have been raging in the west.
“I’m out here in Montana and we’ve been looking at smoke from I guess Washington and Oregon and California,” he said by phone. “Whenever the wind comes up, depending on the direction, you’ll get a nice day. But if it’s in the other direction, it’s just a... We were a little farther north in the state in the middle of last week, and ash started settling down out of the sky. It was apocalyptic in feeling and look. But that’s the way things go.”
SI.com: You’re having a heckuva season on the track. In the last couple weeks, Graham Rahal has gone from nine points out of first place to 34. Has the swing in your emotions been just as dramatic?
David Letterman: Well, I guess I have a weak stomach. In any sporting endeavor, I would rather see things be a complete rout in my favor then going into triple overtime. Having said that, I was thinking about this when it happened and if you went back and looked at motor sports championships seasons, I would bet that it’s not that uncommon that the champion late in the season has suffered what seems to be an overwhelming setback and still prevailed. I think that’s the story we’re looking at right now.
SI.com: So you that mean it’s Juan Pablo Montoya’s season to lose?
DL: If you look at the season, it looks to me like it’s Graham's season. However that will manifest, I firmly believe that what happened in Pocono will be part of the legend and lore of his championship season. [Rahal, after a fueling issue dropped him out of the top eight, was running 16th when Tristan Vautier collided with him during a restart, ending both of their afternoons. Rahal finished 20th while Vautier, who placed 21st and was later found to be at fault, will be docked two hours of practice time for this week’s race at Sonoma.]
SI.com: I was reading your Q&A in USA Today and was stopped by the bit where you say how it took you a moment to realize that Graham’s first victory of the season, at Fontana, snapped a 125-race losing streak. If memory serves, Graham toasted that victory, the first of his IndyCar career, on your show. What do you remember about that guest appearance?
DL: (chuckles) I'll tell you exactly what I remember: It was the St. Petersburg race. We had him on, I dunno, two days later or whatever. And I don’t know how many years he had been driving IndyCars.
SI.com: I believe it was his first race, his first year and that he was in CART the year before that.
DL: Yeah! Anyway, he comes on the show, and as a little bit of a thing we had him go out and spray the audience with champagne. And the kid—who, I think, was 19 at the time—got ahold of the champagne bottle and sprayed the audience, and it looked like he had been doing it all of his life. And I thought, Holy cow! This is a guy who has ever nuance already in his blood.
SI.com: Many people have remarked this year, particularly at the beginning, that he is just a different guy on and off the track. Have you noticed? What do you make of it?
DL: Yep, I’ve seen it. I saw it at Indianapolis. And I was wondering—first of all, the guy looks different physically to me. I don’t know if his conditioning is different. And I can remember when he was a kid, and Bobby and I would talk about Graham and he would say to me, ‘I’m very lucky because he’s a tall kid, and he’s not gonna be able to be race open-cockpit cars because he’s too big.’ And I think he meant it. I think it was a relief to Bobby that his son was not going to follow in his footsteps knowing what you’ve got ahead of you. And now you look at the kid, and he’s Mr. America. I don’t know whether it’s physical conditioning, but I think people on the team will tell you that confidence is very contagious. I don’t know whether the team got the confidence from Graham, whether Graham got the confidence from the team, but there’s a difference sense about the kid. And beyond that, I couldn’t articulate it. But having known him all his life, essentially, there is a difference about him this year.
SI.com: Speaking of tall drivers, I don’t think I really, really appreciated Justin Wilson’s height until his tragic, unfortunate passing earlier this week. How much of the accident did you see and how are you feeling during what was to be a celebratory week for IndyCar?
DL: Well, whenever this happens ... first of all, I feel horrible for his family and for his kids. It’s something very sickening. We’re talking about the NFL—what if this had happened to Philip Rivers? What would’ve happened if this were a member of the Chargers? It’s a game. Now they say motorsports is a sport and it’s not a game. But it makes you sick to your stomach. And then you think about this thing was so random. How do you protect [against] this exactly?
I think that smart men and women have addressed the question of safety in motorsports. And I think the single biggest advances, beyond the fiberglass monocoque and such, are the SAFER barriers. But this thing, I mean, this is somebody walking down Fifth Avenue and an air conditioner drops out of an apartment building. I dunno. It’s impossible to reconcile. It seems like enough time goes by between tragedies that they almost are out of your mind. You forget. And then suddenly you get this horrible thing, and I’m just so sorry for his wife and his kids. It certainly won’t diminish Graham's achievement, but it’s gonna be a very sad feeling in Sonoma I’m certain.
SI.com: What do you make of the top layer to this tragedy—the mass curiosity that is driven less by an appreciation and respect for the sport than an appetite for morbid news? It’s as if racing only matters when something terrible happens.
DL: I resent that. I think people should mind their own business and be more respectful. You either love the sport or you don’t. It’s not a sideshow. We’re not pandering to base instincts here. If that in fact is the case, it’s regrettable and it’s not very flattering for the human race. But I take your word that it does exist.
I just remember when Aryton Senna died. You didn’t kind of get the sense of that, so much. That seemed to be genuine, worldwide grieving. And I had kinda hoped that what you are describing now is on the wane, that it doesn’t exist as much as it did. When Dale Earnhardt died, it was the same kind of thing. It was coast-to-coast. I sorta thought that we had grown out of that. I can remember when I was kid in Indianapolis, they used to tell me that if there had been a horrific accident in one part of that track, those were the tickets that sold out first for the following year. Now, I don’t know if that's true or not. But I think that sums up what you’re describing here. And even as a kid, I’ll tell ya the first time I saw a racecar upside down—you don’t want to see that. That’s the last thing you want to see. So hopefully this curiosity of people is going away. I keep thinking that we as a society we’re improving generation to generation to generation. I’m beginning to wonder where the paperwork is on that.
SI.com: If we can turn the page back to the points race now, how intense an experience has it been for your son, Harry, given the stake—the emotional one in particular—that your family has in Graham’s success?
DL: We all knew Graham before he started driving for the team. My son is at an age now where he and his buddies know what’s up and are pulling for Graham. I don’t know beyond them just wanting their pal to win the championship if there’s a fire [inside]. It’s too soon to tell. The kid loves cars and he loves airplanes. But beyond that, all he wants is, ‘We know Graham. There’s Graham. Graham’s in first, Graham’s in third, Graham’s on the podium.’ So it’s all about Graham. And for me if it doesn’t go any farther than rooting for who he considers to be a pal, it’s plenty. I’ll take that. It’s fun.
This has been—you know, we won the Indy 500 in 2004. But this has been, I would say, top-to-bottom the best season for our team as long as I’ve been a part of it. It used to be Penske and Ganassi and Andretti. Those three teams dominated and, occasionally, you’d have one-off here or there. But you knew it was a one-off. That’s not the case now. Graham is now the fourth guy that you’ve gotta worry about when they drop the green flag. And it gives you a whole different perspective on owning the team. You just think, Oh my god! We’ve got something! I mean, what was the number—you said it was 120?
SI.com: It was 125 races between victories for him, yeah.
DL: And how many drivers? I couldn’t even begin to tell you! Sometimes I’ll run into guys at the track, and they’ll say, ‘Oh, I used to drive for you.’ And I say, ‘Oooh, that’s right!’ I mean, it’s been a revolving cockpit, to coin a phrase. So this is really ... everything has congealed: the interest, the success, how my family reacts, how I react, how the team reacts. What I don’t care for is this double points thing. I don’t get it. I don’t understand why Sonoma’s gotta be double points. Here’s what I would like to happen: I would like Graham to win the race and win the championship, and then Juan Pablo Montoya gets an MVP trophy or something. Or most improved. (laughs)
SI.com: I‘ve heard you liken the double points deal to a Double Jeopardy answer.
DL: Right. I don’t like it when they say, ‘OK, if the race were to end now, the points would be [x, y and z]. Cut that out. Just win the race, win the championship, let’s all go home.
SI.com: Right. We'll sort out the paperwork after.
DL: (laughs) That’s right! Contact me. Or my accountant. Sonoma, I think, is a great venue for—well, the last race for the championship is always great. But to have it be Sonoma, I think, is a tremendous facility for this.
SI.com: If this team ends up winning the whole shebang, is it gonna be weird not to have the giant platform of a late-night network television show to gloat about it nonstop?
DL: Yes. But, I gotta tell ya, every day of my life has been weird. (chuckles) It would’ve been perfect if I still had the show. This would’ve taken care of us for a month or two.
SI.com: This is almost like Jon Stewart leaving The Daily Show before the 2016 election cycle. This was right there for you ...
DL: Yeah. If I had known this was in the cards, I would’ve done a different calculation. But I’ll find ... I’m enough of a weasel. I’ll find a way to celebrate somehow. I’m not gonna go down easily! (chuckles)
SI.com: A little over a year ago, you interviewed Jerry Seinfeld at the Paley Center for Media. Throughout, you could not hide your envy for his hit web series, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. Have you given much thought to doing something similar, but with more of a racing bent? I mean, you’ve got all this extra time on your hands now ...
DL: Yeah. I mean, I am incredibly envious. He’s had one great show. He should just go sit in the truck. Then he comes up with this thing, and it’s so pure and true to what he is and what he loves. Let me just say that Jerry, I don’t wish him any ill, but let’s just say he got really tired and had to take a couple of years off. I would be more than happy to fill in for that show until Jerry felt like he was back on his feet and could host the show again. I would love to be doing that show.
SI.com: When Johnny Carson left the stage, he unplugged from the grid. But for his memorably muted appearance on your show, we never really saw him again. Like Johnny, you’re a pretty introverted guy off-stage. Is racing the thing that saves you from being a total recluse?
DL: I’ll tell ya: Win or lose this championship, my affiliation with this team from I think 1985 and my friendship with Bobby Rahal and now my relationship with Graham has never been anything but flattering for me. If we win this championship, it will be such a boost in my life and to my post-talk show days that I wouldn’t be surprised if this doesn't generate some momentum. I mean, it’s only gonna be great for me. And I’ve done nothing! What have I done! I’ve done absolutely nothing!
SI.com: You’ve done things! Come on!
DL: Yeah, here and there I’ve done things, yeah ... (chuckles) No, but it will be delightful. I think where Johnny didn’t have something like this, or chose not to have something like this, it’s been part of my life now in one way or another since I was a kid. So I can’t imagine this not continuing.
Let me ask you a question. Are the Chargers in fact gonna move or they’re not moving? They can’t possibly move, can they?
SI.com: The writing seems to be on the wall. A few weeks back, the city pitched the team a new stadium with a billion dollar-plus price tag—a third of which they were up for financing. And the team pretty much rejected it without much consideration. It seems they and the Raiders are bound for Los Angeles, and the NFL is intent on putting them there. I think one of the ways the league will make it work is by realigning the conferences, perhaps by moving the Chargers to the NFC.
DL: Will San Diego get a new team?
SI.com: I don't think so. I think the best they can hope for is another HOV lane on I-5.
DL: Oh my god. This can't be well received.
SI.com: Well, there's kind of a split in the community. On the one hand, you've got folks who don't want to lose a major piece of their civic identity. On the other hand, there's still the beach—and you can still enjoy that without the threat of having to eat a major tax hike in the future.
DL: I don't know. I think that’s ... the Raiders I can understand because they've done it once before. But it seemed that the Chargers are pretty well embedded in the culture of San Diego. And that will happen in 2016?
SI.com: Yeah, that's what they're shooting for.
DL: Well there you go!