• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Sunday, May 10, 2015

THE TIME I GOT LETTERMAN AN INDY 500 PIT PASS (and BRUTON SMITH TOPS THIS WEEK's 'MOST INFLUENTIAL' LIST)

David Letterman is retiring from his CBS' late-night show May 20. Regardless of where one was on the Letterman vs. Leno debate, or what you think of his politics, there's no question Letterman has been a huge influence in bringing on guests from the motorsports world. The loss of that opportunity is a Big Blow to the Business of Racing.

I had the chance to work with David and his staff in bringing Mario (twice) and Michael Andretti, Nigel Mansell (twice), Jimmy Vasser and Alex Zanardi to the show, including when Letterman's late-late program aired on NBC. I've told the story a couple of times about being in a dressing room with Nigel when the door flew open and Chris Economaki came in, firing questions machine-gun style. When Chris left, I told Nigel: "Relax, the hard part's over."

But here's another story, one I haven't told.

In May 1993, when "Mansell Mania" was in full bloom at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and I was Newman/Haas Racing's PR director, I got a call on my cell phone from Laurie Diamond, Letterman's long-time assistant. You might recall that David got his start as a local TV weatherman in Indy. You might find what I'm about to say hard to believe, but remember, this was a time when the IMS' arrogance and "We're Indy, you need us, we don't need you" attitude was at or near it's maximum height.

Laurie told me the Speedway would not issue David one of the precious number "1" or "99" race day credentials that allowed pit-lane access during the race. In those days, a "1" or "99" was more than a symbol of prestige, it was like gold. And IMS wouldn't give one to its hometown son-turned-national celebrity. Yes, I know that sounds unbelievable, but it's absolutely true.

Could I help, asked Laurie? This wasn't the first time I had received such a request from someone you'd think wouldn't have needed it. Race week 1990 Ken Squier asked me if I could get two good tickets (those were the days when the I500 was sold-out months in advance) and a parking pass for the son of a CBS network executive. I did.

I told Laurie that, while I didn't have one in-hand, I'd get one. And I did, trading favors with a non-IMS someone with whom I had a long-established professional relationship. I called Laurie back a few days before the race and told her I had the pass. Saturday evening, when David arrived in Indy, he called me. He had arranged to get a ride with a policeman into the Speedway Sunday, so we agreed to meet at the Newman/Haas motorcoach race morning.

I was in the garage area when I got a radio message that Letterman had arrived. I hurried over and found David and Paul Newman talking. I gave David the credential and he said to wish Mario and Nigel good luck. I asked if he'd like to deliver that message in person. He was sincerely worried about bothering the drivers but both were glad for the visit. When I took David into the NHR coach -- and DL later told this story during his show -- Mario hadn't suited-up yet and was in his shorts, eating his cornflakes.  Then I took David to the Texaco coach where Nigel was quietly talking with a few friends.

I'm proud to have David's thank you letter, dated June 7, 1993 on his NBC Entertainment letterhead, displayed in my office.

Thanks, David. Good luck, good health, and cheers.

POWER PLAYERS for the week of May 10: This week's 10 most influential people in the Business and Politics of Motorsports, as selected by long-time journalist/publicist and industry insider Michael Knight. 

  1. Bruton Smith -- The focus of NASCAR Nation shifts to its hub and Charlotte Motor Speedway. What the Speedway Motorsports Inc's. Grand Poobah has to say to the media -- whether seriously or in an attempt to sell tickets -- will make many headlines and fill lots of airtime. And, maybe, give NASCAR some heartburn. Regardless, it will be entertaining.

  2. Mark Miles and Doug Boles -- Will Miles' leadership of Hulman & Co. and the Verizon IndyCar Series, and Boles' of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, be generally viewed as resulting in an UP or DOWN arrow by month's end? Will a better fan experience at a being-remodeled IMS offset complaints from its suite and grandstand and infield customers about higher prices?

  4. Roger Penske -- His drivers and cars will, collectively, draw the most attention and have the potential to most impact the competition and results at Indy and Charlotte. 

  5Jenna Fryer -- May is America's Race Month and what the Associated Press' motorsports writer has to say about it all -- good or bad -- will be read by all the Power Brokers and millions of fans around the world.  

  6Jim Utter -- It's Show Time for the Charlotte Observer's man on the motorsports beat. Who and what he writes about matters to many.

  7. Curt Cavin and Robin Miller -- The viewpoint they convey in the Indianapolis Star and on Racer.com about what's happening, or not happening, at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway shapes public opinion and debate.

  9. Donny Schatz -- Sweeps the World of Outlaws' doubleheader at Eldora, a weekend that also included USAC's sprints. Schatz is THE Outlaws' ticket-seller right now.

10. Ed Carpenter -- Owner-driver and Tony George's stepson tries for historic three consecutive Indy 500 poles. 

more next week . . . ]