Indy 500 notebook: Team pays tribute to owner Letterman

Associated Press

Indianapolis — David Letterman has a new No. 1 on his personal Top Ten list of reasons he loves the Indianapolis 500.

The freshly retired Letterman was all grins early Sunday as his IndyCar team paid tribute to the former “Late Show” host by putting a gap-toothed, smiling caricature of his face and #thanksdave on driver Oriol Servia’s yellow car for the big race.

“With everything that’s happened, it’s the highlight of my career,” Letterman said. “It’s crazy it’s the Indianapolis 500. Regrettable my face, but also my name on that car. It’s just delightful.”

Letterman was dressed in a red shirt with a race sponsor “Steak ‘n Shake” logo. He promised Servia he would buy the burgers with an Indy win, but he can save his cash for retirement: Servia was knocked out of the running with an accident just past the halfway point of the race.

But the race wasn’t a total bust for the team, with Graham Rahal finishing fifth in the Indy 500.

“He assured me he would be around the track a lot more,” Rahal said of his usually absent owner. “At this stage in his life, he can enjoy himself a little bit and hopefully that means enjoying IndyCar racing.”

Letterman was born and raised in Indianapolis, spending his younger years in the Broad Ripple section of town. He went to Ball State in Muncie, Indiana, and early in his career served as a pit reporter for ABC.

Letterman got into team ownership in the 1990s with former Indy 500 champion Bobby Rahal, and businessman Mike Lanigan came aboard to form what is now Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. Letterman struck a friendship with Rahal after the retired driver appeared on his show after winning the 1986 Indy 500.

Letterman ended his 33-year career as a late-night television host Wednesday. He presided over 6,028 broadcasts on CBS and NBC.

Worthy replacements

The 10-man a cappella group Straight No Chaser won over Indianapolis 500 fans with a harmonized version of “Back Home Again in Indiana” a year after “Gomer Pyle” star Jim Nabors crooned his final version of the ode to Indiana.

Fans applauded generously after the group finished their rendition of the song, which came just before Mari Hulman George urged the 33 drivers to “start your engines.”

Straight No Chaser member Seggie Isho said the group didn’t speak to Nabors to get any tips for performing the song, which he delivered with his distinctive baritone 35 times since 1972.

But Isho said he imagines Nabors, 84, who bowed out last year due to health reasons, would have told them to “do Indiana proud.”

Straight No Chaser has strong Indiana ties; the group was found in 1996 at Indiana University and all 10 members are IU alums.

Fading at the finish

Scott Dixon had his second Indianapolis 500 victory in sight.

Starting from the pole, Dixon led a race-high 84 laps, and still had the lead with 13 laps left. But he eventually finished fourth.

“We didn’t have enough speed. We kind of went back and forth on ignition settings,” Dixon said. “The car was overheating a bit and just too much understeer is what it came down to.”

Out early

Conor Daly and Sage Karam saw their days end early.

Daly pulled off the track before the race even started after an overheated exhaust system caused a fire in his car. Karam hit the first turn wall when Takuma Sato tried to make it three-wide on the opening lap, knocking the two twenty-somethings out of contention before either could complete a lap.

“It’s very disappointing,” Karam said. “We had a car that could win.”

No Indys for Gordon

The closest Jeff Gordon will ever come to leading the Indy 500 will be in the pace car.

Despite retiring from NASCAR at the end of this season, the four-time Sprint Cup champion said “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” will remain for him a dream, one he fulfilled in part by winning the Brickyard 400 and now by driving the pace car on Sunday.

“Would I have liked to at least run one Indianapolis 500, knowing what it’s like? Sure,” he said. “It won’t be happening, but I’d have liked to know what it’s like.”

Safety wins out

Derrick Walker looked and sounded relieved after Sunday’s Indianapolis 500.

Five crashes, no serious injuries and no cars in the air — a good day for IndyCar’s biggest race and a welcome one for Walker, who heads competition for the series.

“It showed the decision we made in qualifying made a big difference,” Walker told The Associated Press in Gasoline Alley. “We had a great race, that’s the takeaway from today.”

The debate over how fast qualifying speeds came to a frightening end when three drivers — Helio Castroneves, Ed Carpenter and Josef Newgarden — got their cars turned backward and flung upside-down during a five-day span of practice. None of them was seriously injured.

Walker responded to the flurry of crashes by requiring all cars to qualify in the slower race-day trim. The change worked.

“We proved that we don’t flip every time we crash,” 2013 Indy winner Tony Kanaan said.