Nearly unrecognizable Letterman talks retirement at IndyCar finale

David Letterman stands by at the Go Pro Grand Prix of Sonoma.

Bruce Martin

When former television icon David Letterman walked onto the starting grid at Sonoma Raceway for Sunday’s Go Pro Grand Prix of Sonoma, he was nearly unrecognizable from the man millions watched on television every night for 33 years before he retired this past May.

Letterman looked like Santa Claus with a long, white beard.

As he stood next to Graham Rahal’s Honda IndyCar on the starting grid, the co-owner of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing was asked how he liked retirement.

"I hate it," Letterman said. "I truly hate it. I really don’t know what to do with myself."

With Graham Rahal having a shot at the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series championship entering Sunday’s season finale, Letterman made a rare public appearance at Sonoma Raceway hoping to celebrate a championship with his team. But it was Scott Dixon’s Target/Chip Ganassi Racing team that celebrated the championship as Rahal finished 18th and dropped from second to fourth in the final standings.

Letterman was at the Nob Hill Masonic Center in San Francisco on Monday night as Dixon was honored for his fourth IndyCar championship at the INDYCAR Championship Celebration. Now that Letterman is retired from television, he has the time to attend IndyCar events and his passion for this form of racing.

"I said there was no possible way we could lose because if we win the race and win the championship or lose the race and lose the championship nothing will extinguish the momentum from this year," Letterman said. "Like I said to Graham earlier, next year we are starting from scratch. We are starting from a very, very high position of accomplishment from the previous year.

"I brought the big suitcase hoping to take home a big trophy but I think next year we’re going to be just fine."

Once again, the championship in IndyCar came down to Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing.

David Letterman attended the INDYCAR Championship Celebration at Nob Hill Masonic Center in San Francisco.

"Yes, and I’m sick of it," Letterman said. "It used to be those three guys and now Graham is right there. He is one of those guys. He brings that to the team. It would be great to say it was the team for him, but I think it all comes from him in terms of leadership and the ability to demonstrate what he did. Maybe there is some maturity there.

"I’m 68 and I still haven’t matured. It ought to be those guys and us. We ought to be one of those guys and I think this year we certainly were."

Letterman likes to take friends who have never been to a race and take them on the starting grid when they start their engines and the ground starts to shake.

"If the hair on the back of your hands doesn’t stand up, you aren’t hooked up right," Letterman said. "Look at what these men and women are getting into and how fast they are going to go and the precision they have to control them — it’s not like a Drivers Education test — it’s razor sharp. The factors and variables are the same as when I was a kid."

Letterman attended this year’s season-opening race at St. Petersburg in March and the 99th Indianapolis 500 on May 24 prior to his trip to the San Francisco Bay Area this past weekend. He watched the rest of Rahal’s breakthrough season on television including his two victories at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California on June 27 and the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio on Aug. 2.

David Letterman talks with IndyCar driver Juan Pablo Montoya.

"I watched the Fontana race on television and I didn’t know what to make of it because there were people saying ‘Oh, my God, that thing is too dangerous’ to people saying ‘That’s the most fun we’ve had all season,’ " Letterman said. "To see those guys cornering four-wide was unbelievable and then to see Graham keep working his way into that position to win. That was fun and scary.

"The home race in Ohio was a storybook finish. So there you go — two wins and a shot at the championship. What are you going to do?"

Letterman formed a friendship with Rahal’s father, Bobby Rahal, when he won the 1986 Indianapolis 500.

"I’m proud to be associated with these people because I’ve known Bobby since he won the 500," Letterman said. "Through Bobby I’ve known his kids, and to still be a part of this group, there is nobody I know that I would rather be a part of than Bobby Rahal. That’s the guy you want to be."

Be sure to catch Bruce Martin’s Honda IndyCar Report on RACEDAY on FOX Sports Radio every Sunday from 6-8 a.m. Eastern Time.