NDIANAPOLIS - 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."
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.
"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."