(A version of this story originally appeared as exclusive content on the INDYCAR Mobile app powered by NTT DATA).
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – When David Letterman saw his two drivers sweep the front row in Saturday’s qualifying for the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by AmFirst, there was no way the NTT IndyCar Series team co-owner was going to miss Sunday’s race.
Letterman spontaneously decided to travel to Barber Motorsports Park, and it was worth the trip. His last-minute adventure ended in victory lane when Takuma Sato drove the No. 30 Mi-Jack/Panasonic Honda to the fourth victory of his career and second with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.
Letterman watched the victory unfold along with team partner Bobby Rahal from an observation deck atop the VIP Tower at Barber.
“Oh my gosh, what a delightful day!” Letterman said afterward. “Takuma Sato, (what) a fantastic afternoon. … And it’s almost my birthday, so that counts.
Letterman, who turns 72 on Friday, said age doesn’t seem to be slowing the 42-year-old Sato.
“In fact, Takuma is actually about my age,” Letterman joked. “Experience is important. I don’t know how many starts he’s had total, but it’s a big, big effort on the part of the team. It’s not just the drivers.
“I think something is taking place here (on the team) that is going to be great.”
Sato and teammate Graham Rahal qualified 1-2 on Saturday, but Rahal suffered a throttle issue early in the race and eventually dropped out in 23rd place. Sato’s only moment of concern came four laps from the finish, when he slid off track momentarily before regaining control and holding off Scott Dixon for the win.
“I have a great deal of faith in him,” Letterman said of Sato, “and I didn’t think anything was going to go haywire. Of course, I didn’t think anything would go haywire with Graham, but that’s racing. My confidence was never shaken, honestly.”
Sato drove for RLL in 2012 and rejoined the team last year, winning at Portland International Raceway in September. Bobby Rahal said the successful weekend is proof that the team is heading in the right direction.
“When you qualify 1-2 with (Sato and) Graham Rahal, you can’t overlook that,” Bobby Rahal said. “Takuma has been a great addition to this team. It’s experience and he’s a very skilled guy. He has a good touch.
“He’s a craftsman.”
Sato was honored to have Letterman witness his victory in person.
“I really appreciated that,” Sato said. “He told me he couldn’t miss it. Initially, he wasn’t going to come to this race, but after we had a great performance in qualifying on Saturday, he decided to fly in this morning. I think it’s fantastic to see David come to Barber. I think he really enjoyed it.
“I’m very, very proud of the entire Rahal Letterman Lanigan team. They did a fantastic team and Graham Rahal and I worked together. That is why we won today.”
Or, as Letterman summed up, “We won the dang race so good for us.”
The NTT IndyCar Series returns to action this week at the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, a race Sato won in 2013. Practice begins on Friday – Letterman’s 72nd birthday. The race airs live at 4 p.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.