Letterman made his network TV debut as an Indy 500 pit reporter
INDIANAPOLIS — Long before David Letterman was the famous television talk show host of "The Late Show with David Letterman," he was a recent Ball State University graduate who had been hired as the weekend weatherman and local television host on WLWI-TV — at that time the ABC affiliate in Indianapolis.
Letterman hosted such local late-night shows as "Freeze-Dried Theater" and "Clover Power" in Indianapolis.
That was back in 1971, and the Indianapolis native was at the station one day when some representatives of ABC Sports stopped by. That year, ABC was going to show prime-time, same-day coverage of the Indianapolis 500 for the first time. From 1965 to 1970, the Indy 500 was part of ABC’s "Wide World of Sports" and a taped package of highlights would be aired several weeks after the Memorial Day event.
To put the Indianapolis 500 in prime time meant a more comprehensive approach to the race. The network would need more reporters and commentators for the pit area and other parts of the massive Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
And that created Letterman’s first national, network-television exposure.
"Prior to that there was no same-day coverage of the Indianapolis 500 on television," said Letterman, whose final show airs Wednesday. "ABC got the contract but it was delayed coverage. I was working at the ABC affiliate in Indianapolis and Chuck Howard and the crew came in with the ‘Wide World of Sports’ team with Jim McKay and Jackie Stewart. I’m just 22 or 23. They hired me and I got the fourth turn. The day of the race I had to walk all the way down the backstretch and short chute. I had a little microphone and headset and couldn’t hear anything so I just stood there and stood there.
"All of sudden, I see Mario Andretti walking toward the pits and I knew there was a yellow. You couldn’t see anything from there. So I called Mario over and he comes by only because there is the ABC thing on the microphone. I said, ‘I’ve got Mario Andretti here.’ I said it three or four times. Mario had just gotten out of a smoldering, hulk of a race car. He is nice enough to stand there. People are screaming at him and throwing beer on him. They (producers) said, ‘Go ahead.’
"I asked, ‘Mario, what was it like out there?’ And he gave a very polite, gracious answer. Then I remember in a production meeting, will the condition of the track be a problem early on? So I asked him that and he said whatever he said. I said, ‘Thanks Mario, better luck next time.’
"So I just stood there late in the race and never heard anything from anybody.
"That was also the year they parked a bunch of cars in the infield and Mike Moseley slaps the outside wall and is standing up trying to get out of the car and the car careens back over and takes out two or three cars parked on the grass apron. It was horrible. The race is over. I don’t know what to do. There is the equipment. I took off the headset and microphone, got to my car in the parking lot and drove back home."
Letterman didn’t realize the impact of his appearance until he returned to the WLWI-TV studio and saw the ABC Network feed.
"Later that night we’re watching the feed on the network and holy cow, there I am," Letterman recalled. "Jim McKay says, ‘We’re going to go down to Chris Economaki down in Turn 4’ and I do my report and then McKay says, ‘I’m sorry, that’s not Chris Economaki; that’s Dave Letterman.’
"I was on top of the world."
In 1975, Letterman would leave WLWI-TV to head to Los Angeles to begin his career as a comedian.
On Wednesday, Letterman’s network record of 33 years at a late-night talk show host comes to an end, but his first network-television appearance will always be in the 1971 Indianapolis 500 on ABC.
Be sure to catch Bruce Martin’s Honda IndyCar Report on RACEDAY on FOX Sports Radio every Sunday from 6-8 a.m. ET.