On the grid with David

David Letterman has joined those of us who have left decades of the tyranny of a clock-regulated life and have started living by our own clock. He might have disappeared from my TV set but I know where he’ll be on Sunday. I’ll be there, too.

We share a great affection for the Indianapolis 500. Both of us were at the great Speedway for the first time when the fastest lap was about 140 miles an hour. Now the cars and drivers are aiming at 240. We’ve heard the great engines, from the Offy to the Novi to the Cosworth, the Fords and Buicks and the Chevvys. And the Hondas and Toyotas—even a Porsche once, an Alfa-Romeo and a Mercedes that was known as “the beast” by those who created it. We’re like tens of thousands of others who are drawn to a specific place and a specific event because it’s part of us.

We’ll be among the people in the crowd on the starting grid of the nation’s most iconic sporting event, the Indianapolis 500. I’ll be there as a reporter. He will be there as one of the owners of the Rahal-Letterman-Lanigan Racing. He’s not just a celebrity who has put some of his spare cash into a hobby. He’s serious about racing, as viewers should know from watching how much he enjoyed interviewing racing drivers on his television show.

We both were part of the crowd on the grid just before the start of the race last year.


No, I didn’t interject myself into his personal space to say hello. But if I had, I would have told him that something he said more than a decade ago has stuck with me because I had never heard anyone who is so much a part of the sport say it—not in all the years I’ve followed and attended this great event.

The year he said it was 2004 and Buddy Rice was writing a Cinderella story for the then-Rahal-Letterman team as the race started to wind down with rain moving in.   Rice was in the car because the winner of the 1999 Indianapolis 500, Kenny Brack, had been injured in the last race of the 2003 season and wasn’t cleared to race. He had started from the pole, the first starting position, and was leading at the three-quarters mark.   A pit reporter for ABC television interviewed Letterman, who was obviously feeling the moment—the excitement, the tension, the anticipation.   Letterman told him, “It’s an unbelievable job Buddy has done all day. It’s a heroic effort.”

Later, when rain, thunder, and lightning stopped the race and forced the Speedway to move victory lane indoors so Rice could get the victory wreath, the traditional bottle of milk, and the celebration of his victory, Letterman described Rice and the rest of the team as “smart, brave, tough guys.”

In all the years of listening to or watching the race broadcasts or hearing people on the public address system during the race, I don’t think I ever heard anybody use the word “heroic” to describe the drivers’ efforts. But that’s an appropriate way to describe what these drivers are all about.

For them, dressing in their fire-resistant suit and climbing into a race car probably seems as ordinary as people like me putting on a coat and tie and going to the office.   It’s what they do. But what they do during their day in their office is so far removed from what we do or are capable of doing that is unfathomable to most of us.

It’s not the danger although danger is always present that makes them heroes. It’s the skills they demonstrate lap after lap, hour after hour, that puts them on a level far above most of us. There’s no break between rounds, quarters, or innings. There’s no halftime. For about three hours, the Buddy Rices who will climb into the cars on the grid at Indianapolis Sunday will have no breaks from the necessity of putting their tires exactly—exactly—where they have to be to go through a corner at more than triple our interstate speed limit or to pass a competitor who also wants that space. They have to do it while competing with 32 other Buddy Rices who want the same thing they want and they’re willing to live on a fine edge to get it.

To watch these drivers flash past at speeds television cannot properly convey, lap after lap, is something unique.   It is heroic.

Saying that is not a matter of hero-worship. Calling their efforts heroic accurately describes what they do. We accept mortals doing things that most of us consider super-human without thinking what an extraordinary thing they are doing.   That’s why his passionate description of what he saw unfolding in front of him is so memorable—because he captured the nature of those efforts with just the right, memorable, word eleven years ago.

We’ll both be at the first place to call itself a “speedway” watching men and women do something heroic on Sunday. We might see each other. I will know who he is. He won’t know who I am. And that’s okay because both of us know why we are there.