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David Letterman out of late night but still involved in Indianapolis 500

Graham Rahal driver of the #15 Rahal Letterman

Graham Rahal driver of the #15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda Dallara leads a pack of cars during final practice on Carb Day for the the 99th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 22, 2015 in Indianapolis. Credit: Getty Images / Chris Graythen

INDIANAPOLIS - Yes, David Letterman is gone from late night, but don't be surprised if you catch a glimpse or 10 of him Sunday during the 99th running of the Indianapolis 500.

Letterman's is the name in the middle of the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team that won the Indy 500 in 2004 with driver Buddy Rice.

Graham Rahal, the 26-year-old son of co-owner Bobby Rahal, will be behind the wheel for the team in Sunday's race.

On Wednesday, Letterman marked the end of his 33-year run as late night TV host with funny farewells from U.S. presidents past and present, a 10-person "A-list" of celebrities and kids saying the darnedest things.

Back in Indiana, members of the native son's racing team playfully wondered why Letterman had former Colts quarterback Peyton Manning on stage for the final airing but not someone from his own racing team.

"No drivers. I saw that," Graham Rahal said. "They did show Paul Newman several times [in driving clips], which was cool. I liked that.

"I was surprised they didn't show any clips of Dave and the Indy 500. They did show 'Intern Todd' when he came out to the Speedway last year . . . but no drivers.''

Letterman may have snubbed his team on the finale, but its members remain close to his heart.

"One constant for me in however many racing seasons we've had together is the people," said Letterman, 68, whose roots are in Indy's Broad Ripple neighborhood. "That really is the glue. The racing is exciting but you're not going to win every race. You start them all but it doesn't mean you will win them all or finish them all. The one consistent thing about this for me is the friendship of Bobby with his staff and group. It's been tremendous."

While a generation has lost its nightly turn-out-the-lights partner, there's no question that motor sports in general, and open-wheel racing in particular, will be missing access to some friendly late-night exposure.

"Dave's done more for racing than anybody," said Bobby Rahal, 62, who launched his team in 1992 while still an active Championship Auto Racing Teams driver and went on to win his third series title. "Everybody talks about Jay Leno being a 'car guy.' I don't know if Jay ever had anybody from racing on 'The Tonight Show.' Whereas Dave -- I don't care if you're in Formula One, NASCAR or IndyCar -- you're on the show. Let alone the fact that he talks the sport up. I think racing's going to miss him."

In contrast, Rahal anticipates a greater Dave presence at all things involving RLLR, based in nearby Brownsburg, Indiana. Rahal appeared as a guest on Letterman's NBC show after winning the 1986 Indy 500 and the pair struck up a friendship. Ten years later, Rahal offered Letterman an ownership opportunity and Team Rahal was formed. The name was changed to Rahal Letterman Racing in 2004 to reflect Dave's involvement.

"This is our 20th year together as partners," said Rahal, a native of Medina, Ohio. "The thing about Dave is he's very knowledgeable about the sport, an avid student of the sport and maybe particularly Indy-car racing because he grew up here and this race has a huge kind of pull on him."

Mike Lanigan, co-owner of the Mi-Jack mobile gantry crane manufacturing company, joined the team in 2010.

Rice's victory in the rain-shortened 2004 race was the crown jewel of the team's 20 victories. And the team famously launched "Danicamania" the following May when rookie Danica Patrick qualified and finished fourth in the Indy 500.

Bobby Rahal said Letterman always has been involved in the team's "big-picture stuff," more so than day-to-day decisions. "He's always agreed with the direction we've taken and he's been very productive for us," Rahal said. "I mean, this whole Steak 'n Shake thing [sponsorship on Graham's No. 15 Honda], Dave was a big part of that deal coming together. I'm actually kind of excited about the possibility now that he's 'jobless,' maybe we can put him to work a little more often on our behalf. It's been a great relationship, for sure."

Veteran driver Oriol Servia, Graham's teammate at the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway, said Letterman loves to interact with the team.

"And he's as funny as you see on TV," said Servia, a 40-year-old native of Spain. "I'm just really at him because he decided to finish this week. Couldn't wait one more week? Because usually the winner goes on his show and I'm hoping I'm going to win . . . and just my luck."

Informed of Servia's lament, Bobby Rahal smiled and offered as an option the man who will take over the CBS Late Show in September: "Stephen Colbert, I guess."

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