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Letterman cameo highlights RLL, SoldierStrong partnership extension

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INDIANAPOLIS – It’s not often anymore David Letterman makes public appearances on a dais, where he’s cracking jokes alongside key partners and team members.

But the partnership between Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and SoldierStrong, with the Turns for Troops program that supports the nonprofit organization that’s dedicated to providing advanced medical technologies (namely but not exclusively exoskeletons) is no ordinary cause.

Put the two together and it added a degree of humor to an otherwise challenging subject, but it’s a cause Letterman and RLL Racing care deeply about.

Last year, at Detroit, the partnership between RLL and SoldierStrong started. For every lap Graham Rahal completed in his No. 15 Honda, United Rentals would donate $50 to SoldierStrong. In its first year, they raised more than $100,000 for SoldierStrong, which went toward the purchase of cutting-edge robotic medical devices that address a variety of physical rehabilitation needs. SoldierStrong donated these technologies to Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals nationwide, and plans to do the same with this year’s proceeds.

That anniversary is coming up on a one-year mark and it allowed the key stakeholders – Letterman, Graham and Bobby Rahal, United Rentals’ Chris Hummel and SoldierStrong’s Chris Meek – to reflect on what’s been accomplished and what is yet to come for the program, which occurred before qualifying for Saturday’s INDYCAR Grand Prix. This month, that $50 per lap amount will double to $100 per lap.

So far there have been 13 exoskeleton devices funded by SoldierStrong, each one at a cost of nearly $200,000.

Letterman, who introduced himself as “George Bernard Shaw” in his first comments today, reflected on what that all means.

“This topic raises so many questions for me even just sitting here, mentioned that they have 13 of these suits, and I’ve seen them work. I’ve seen them take a human who can’t get out of a chair and walk,” he said. “We have 13 of these now in use. One wonders what the number is of quadriplegic and paraplegic men and women who come back from military service in the defense of the United States.

“I think this is a fantastic thing, if only to create the awareness. Five years ago, I didn’t realize veterans had problems returning. It’s not like World War II. Many times they return to nothing and then sign up again and then go back to a tour of duty. So this problem deserves every amount of attention and spotlight it can garner, and one wonders why isn’t there a box on our tax return where if you want to donate a dollar to build one of these suits for a quadriplegic or a paraplegic, check it here and we’ll take care of that.”

Letterman and Sgt. Dan Rose at St. Petersburg. Photo: IndyCar

The team has a relationship with Sgt. Dan Rose, paralyzed in Afghanistan from an IED, who attended the season finale in Sonoma last year in one of the more inspirational moments of the 2016 season.

“As Dad said, I think Sergeant Dan Rose is a perfect example for us,” Graham Rahal said. “He was first introduced to us at Sonoma last year, and he’s gone from never, I think, being at an IndyCar car experiencing a race like that, standing with us for the National Anthem at Sonoma, at the time, of course, in San Francisco, that was a pretty controversial thing, and to getting a two-seater ride with Mario Andretti in Phoenix.

“And I think Dan has defied the laws of physics and things because of the suit, and in his way of life, and it’s a great joy for us to have him around. It certainly brightens our day because no matter how — even Phoenix we get collected in that first lap accident and I got to watch the rest of the race sitting with Dan. It brightens our day even amongst the worst of times.”

The younger Rahal, who debuted the United Rentals livery last year and who is driving a special edition livery this weekend, explained his own devotion to patriotism and what the partnership has meant.

Photo: IndyCar

“I’ve got to say, when this initiative came upon us, obviously thanks to United Rentals and Chris, they deserve a lot of credit for putting this program together and everything that they did for us last year, and really even when we announced it, it was, what, Detroit, I think, so they even backdated their donation to the start of the year and donated through the entire thing, and we were very proud to raise over $100,000 last year,” he said.

“But I think their commitment to the program for Turns For Troops and SoldierStrong is shown this weekend and through the 500 where they’ve doubled the donation that they are going to make to Turns For Troops, let alone passing up on the opportunity to have — well, the brand is still on the car but not in a big way and really showcase what we’re trying to do here.”

His team co-owner, who’s never been afraid to voice opinions – it was his day job for 30-plus years after his debut really came as a pit reporter in the 1971 Indianapolis 500 telecast – was naturally candid about war but remains dedicated to this partnership.

“I’m not sure why we’re still fighting, but we’re going to send paralyzed people home left and right just as sure as we’re sitting here,” he said.

“So to see that manifestation and then to know what this can accomplish, and for my money, 13 suits is a great start, but kind of a glacial approach to a problem that really needs quicker attention.

“This idea came from United Rentals and team Rahal Letterman Lanigan. I’m at the tail end of this, and I’m just happy to be included, because I think if you’ve had any experience in life in the last century in this country, the immediacy and the need for this is easily recognizable. If there’s anything I can do to push it along a nickel more, great, but make no mistake about it, I’m at the tail end of this, and I’m greatly flattered by the effort.”

Rahal determined to regain winning touch in 2019 IndyCar season

Photo by Shawn Gritzmacher, INDYCAR
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AUSTIN, Texas – Graham Rahal entered the room with a smile on his face and a chip on his shoulder.

It was IndyCar “Media Day” and Rahal wasn’t happy with the way last season went at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. He was less happy with the fact some aren’t considering him a serious threat in 2019. He playfully chided with one media outlet for failing to mention his team as one to watch in 2019.

“We use that as motivation to show everybody how we are viewed,” Rahal said. “We are here to win.”

Rahal just turned 30 in January but is entering his 13thseason in big-time Indy car racing. He entered the 2007 Champ Car Series season when he was just 17. He missed his high school prom because he was racing at Houston.

“That was the luckiest day of my life,” Rahal said. “I didn’t have to go to the prom. It doesn’t get any better than that.

“Plus, I got my second career podium that weekend.”

Rahal drove to victory in his very first race in the combined IndyCar Series in the 2008 Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. He was hailed as the “Poster Boy of Unification” and a future star. What followed was a seven-year drought before he captured his second-career win in a thrilling race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.

He won two races in 2015, one in 2016 and two in 2017. He was expected to contend for victories and possibly the championship last year but struggled through a disappointing season and finished eighth in the standings.

“I’m looking forward for chance this year,” Rahal said. “Last year was a tough one for me and for the team. I’m looking forward to what my new engineer, Allen McDonald, has done so far. He is an accomplished engineer and brings a different mindset to our program this year from what we had last year. He and (fellow engineer) Eddie Jones are very close friends and that will help us from the standpoint they are on the same page.

“We needed a bit of life brought back to the team.”

Rahal believes his challenges are to get everything in order before the season starts. The team has defined the areas where it was lacking in 2019. The team needed to improve in research and development after starting behind last season.

“I’m excited for what I see, and I know in the end it will all pay off,” Rahal said. “It’s just a matter of when.

“There is a lot to be excited about for us. We are in a great position as a team. We have great sponsorship and that will allow us to push forward and do the things we need to do.”

Rahal believes at 30, he has a long time ahead of him to win races and championships and maybe even the Indianapolis 500. In order to reach those goals, however, Rahal’s team needs to regain the competitive level he displayed prior to last year.

“We’ve been fortunate to win six times,” Rahal said. “A lot of people come into this sport and never win. I fully recognize there is no reason we can’t win a lot. I don’t care what anybody writes, what anybody thinks – I really feel that when it comes to race day, we perform better than 99 percent of the other people out there.

“As a team and for myself, we have to qualify better. If we can qualify better, we’ll be a thorn in everybody’s side. We know the rear of our cars just aren’t good enough. When we need to find that extra tenth or two, it’s just not there but absolutely, we want to win.

“I don’t come here year after year to just drive around. Our sponsors don’t invest in us year after year to not see us win. We feel that. But our cars aren’t good enough and we know that.”

Rahal believes the team has identified the problems with the setup of its car. It has a deep engineering staff but hasn’t had a chance to develop the damper program and other important areas that provide a competition setup.

Takuma Sato, the winner of the 101stIndianapolis 500 when he was with Andretti Autosport, scored the team’s only victory in 2018 with a win in the Portland Grand Prix. The two are back this year and have built a respect for each other.

“He’s a good guy,” Rahal said of Sato. “Other than Helio Castroneves, Takuma is probably the happiest man on the planet. He’s a great guy and fits in well with our organization. We pride ourselves on being a family and he fits in extremely well to that.

“We need to do a better job for him as a team. He won a race last year, but we can both do better to win with both cars.

“The Andretti cars are the best right now and the Penske cars will be good. We have a lot of space to close up on those two teams but hopefully, we can do it.”