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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.”

Eli Tomac wins Budds Creek, clinches 2019 championship

Vanessa O'Brien (KawasakiUSA)
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Last week Eli Tomac suffered through his worst race of the season and gave Ken Roczen and Marvin Musquin a glimmer of hope were the championship was concerned.

On Lap 1 of Moto 1, Tomac did his best to dash that hope. Justin Bogle grabbed the hole shot, but Tomac swept past him immediately and surged to victory.

Moto 2 was much the same. Tomac grabbed the early lead and set his sights on earning maximum points for the weekend. By the end of Moto 2, Tomac had a 15 second lead over Jason Anderson to score his third perfect victory of the season. Tomac also scored a 1-1 at Pala and Washougal.

That was not Tomac’s only victory, however.

With two minutes remaining in Moto 2, Anderson and Marvin Musquin passed Ken Roczen.  That dropped Roczen to 54 points behind Tomac at the time and only elevated Musquin to a 50-point differential. Musquin needed one more position to be able to deny Tomac the championship for one more week, but he was 10 second behind Anderson and unable to make up the gap by the end.

“I didn’t know (I had won the championship) until the last lap,” Tomac said after the race. “I thought I needed one more spot on everyone. I’m just in complete shock right now. All we did today was put our head forward (and) put last week in the past. … Gosh what a way to finish it off. 1-1; it was so cool.”

Tomac is the first rider to win three consecutive championships since Ricky Carmichael won six in a row from 2000-2006.

In Moto 1, Tomac narrowly edged his two points’ rivals. Roczen finished second in that race with Musquin in third.

“It was so special,” Tomac said after he was handed the No. 1 plate that he will affix to his Kawasaki throughout next season. “So many things had to go our way this weekend with having a 1-1 and beating the two guys behind us in second and third (in Moto 1).

Anderson’s pass on Roczen late in Moto 2 was significant for another reason. With a 4-2, he scored a second overall to stand on the podium for the fourth time this season. In doing so, he matched his best finish from RedBud.

“For me, I’m just trying to build my base going into the next Supercross season,” Anderson said afterward. “I feel like I’m getting better.”

Finishing third in both motos was bittersweet equaled a third overall for Musquin. He climbed to second in the points with that finish and if he is able to stay there following next week’s Ironman, it will be the third straight year that he has finished behind Tomac.

Roczen faded to seventh in Moto 2 and with his 2-7 he finished fourth overall. It was a fitting end to his championship hopes because Roczen has faded at the ends of events all season long.

Zach Osborne (5-4) rounded out the top five.

450 Moto 1 Results
450 Moto 2 Results
450 Overall Results
Points Standings

It’s fair to call Shane McElrath’s 1-1 victory a surprise. Perhaps one can even go so far as to call it a shocker. Entering Budds Creek, McElrath had not stood on the podium yet this year. In fact, he has only one top-five finish that came at Spring Creek two weeks ago.

McElrath got off to an early lead in Moto 1, passing then-leader Ty Masterpool on Lap 3 and refusing to look over his shoulder. It was his first moto victory since Washougal last year and there was speculation about whether he could match that performance. If anything, McElrath looked even better in Moto 2 and he cruised to a 7.7 second lead at the checkers.

McElrath may have been the only rider who was not surprised by the performance and he summed up the drastic uptick in his post-race interview.

“One word: just perseverance,” McElrath said. “It’s been a real test of our faith this year. A real test of our strength. It’s been humbling for sure. … My results this year haven’t been what we wanted, but we just kept at it.”

With a 2-5, Adam Cianciarulo finished second overall despite a disappointing second moto.

He was much better in Moto 1, but even that race had drama. Four minutes into Moto 1, Cianciarulo rode off course and high sided on a berm. He dropped from second to fifth. He climbed into third by Lap 6, but it took the entire race before he would reclaim second.

At the end of Moto 1, Cianciarulo was optimistic about his weekend.

“I’m just doing the best I can,” Cianciarulo said on NBC Sports Gold. “I just want a good result on the day and that’s how I’m looking at it, taking it moto by moto. I’m just disappointed in how I rode there at the beginning.

“Masterpool was riding really good and I just got out of my rhythm. The track’s really slick so you can’t override it – and I really was – I just wasn’t riding good. But I’m glad I was able to calm down and take a breath, make some passes back – get to where I needed to be.

“Championship aside, I really want to do the best I can every moto. … If I leave it all out there, whether I win or lose, I can go to bed at night and sleep just fine.”

Justin Cooper ended the day with a 6-2, which was good enough for third overall. It was not good enough to keep his title hopes alive, however. Ending the day 60 points behind Cianciarulo, he has been mathematically eliminated from contention.

Dylan Ferrandis is now the only rider who can challenge Cianciarulo, but he needs to make up six points in Moto 1 at Ironman Raceway next week to keep the pressure on. Like Cianciarulo, Ferrandis’ day was not without incident. In Moto 2, Mitchell Falk got turned around early in the race and knocked Ferrandis down while he was running 11th at the time – one position behind Cianciarulo.

The two points leaders were able to slice through traffic and Ferrandis eventually prevailed over his rival, but he could manage only a fourth-place finish at the checkers. With a 4-4, he finished fourth overall.

RJ Hampshire (3-8) rounded out the top five.

In Moto 1, Masterpool led his first professional laps. He paced the field five times before McElrath overtook him. Masterpool maintained a top-three spot for the next three laps. He finished seventh in that race and 11th in Moto 2 for an eighth overall.

250 Moto 1 Results
250 Moto 2 Results
250 Overall Results
Points Standings

Moto Wins

450MX
[10] Eli Tomac (Hangtown II, Pala I & Pala II, Thunder Valley II, WW Ranch II, RedBud I, Washougal I & II, Budds Creek I & II)
[5] Ken Roczen (Hangtown I, Thunder Valley I, High Point II, Unadilla I & II)
[3] Marvin Musquin (WW Ranch I, The Wick I, RedBud II)
[2] Cooper Webb (Spring Creek I & II)
[1] Blake Baggett (High Point I)
[1] Zach Osborne (The Wick II)

250MX
[7] Adam Cianciarulo (Hangtown II, Pala II, Thunder Valley I, High Point II, The Wick I, Spring Creek II, Unadilla I)
[7] Dylan Ferrandis (WW Ranch II, The Wick II, RedBud I & II, Washougal I & II, Unadilla II)
[3] Justin Cooper (Hangtown I, Pala I, Thunder Valley I)
[2] Hunter Lawrence (High Point I, Spring Creek I)
[2] Shane McElrath (Budds Creek I & II)
[1] Chase Sexton (WW Ranch I)

Next race: Ironman Raceway, Crawfordsville, IN, August 24

Season passes can be purchased at NBC Sports Gold.

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