A Jay Leno story, before he was famous

In honor of Jay Leno ending his 22-year run as host of the “Tonight Show” I thought I would share my one and only Jay Leno story.

In 1985, I was traveling from Phoenix to Farmington, N.M., where I was working at the time, following the IndyCar race at Phoenix. I had missed the direct flight from Phoenix because there were too many caution flags or whatnot, so I had to return through Albuquerque.

When I arrived in Albuquerque, Jay Leno was waiting to catch a flight to Farmington, too. Because this was 1985, before he was famous.

I knew who he was because he had been on Letterman a few times, and I remembered this one episode of “Alice” where he played a short-order cook at Mel’s Diner.

Jay Leno, circa 1985, wore a denim shirt with jeans and a jeans jacket and black motorcycle-type boots. This pretty much still is the way he dresses today.

Farmington is the hub of the Four Corners, but it’s still a pretty small town. Maybe 40,000 or so. Jay’s booking agent must have known this, because when they announced a flight to Farmington was boarding, he got up to get on the plane. But he was told this was the Aspen Airways flight to Farmington. Not his plane.

A few minutes later, they announced another flight to Farmington. Jay got up again. He was told this was the Pioneer Airlines flight to Farmington, or the Sunwest Airlines flight, or the American West Express flight. Not his flight, either.

Farmington had fertile oil and natural gas deposits, so a lot of guys who wore big hats had to fly there on business. So there were a lot of little airlines to choose from.

“C’mon, how big is this place?” Jay good-naturedly asked the girl at the counter with the little wings on her lapel.

Finally, they announced the Mesa Airlines flight to Farmington. That was the one Jay and I were on.

I wanted to sit next to him, to ask him about Letterman and “Alice,” and maybe I’d bring up Al Unser winning the race in Phoenix because I had heard he was a car guy. But this was a connecting flight from Gallup or Midland, Texas, and there were only two seats on either side of the aisle, and Jay took a seat next to a guy wearing a big hat.

So we didn’t get to chat about Linda Lavin or Al Unser. The next night, he did stand-up comedy at the Best Western in Farmington. I didn’t go.

That was the only time my path ever crossed with Jay Leno’s, unless you count the 1999 Indy 500, where he drove the pace car and I sat in the stands in the Southwest Vista drinking beer.