INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana – As he was about to be introduced at a news conference today at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, David Letterman grabbed a microphone and interrupted the moderator to introduce himself.
“George Bernard Shaw,” he shouted, evoking laughter from a group of 50 journalists.
But it quickly became evident that Letterman wasn’t there for laughs. He joined Graham Rahal and team co-owner Bobby Rahal to celebrate the renewal of a partnership with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and sponsor United Rentals with Soldier Strong, a nonprofit organization that provides advanced medical technologies for wounded veterans.
“From the beginning of mankind, we’ve had no trouble sending men and women into battle for whatever reason around the globe,” Letterman said. “Now, rather than end war, what we are doing is figuring out a way to mechanically patch up warriors. Thank God for that, but wouldn’t it be great if we could do some of the work on the other end of that equation?”
During the practice and qualifying sessions for Saturday’s INDYCAR Grand Prix on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, Graham Rahal debuted the red, white and blue SoldierStrong paint scheme on the No. 15 Honda. It features American flag replicas on the end plates of the rear wing and TurnsForTroops.com logos on each sidepod.
“Anything we can do to give back, it’s all for the better,” Graham Rahal said.
The Turns for Troops program raised more than $100,000 for Soldier Strong during last year’s debut of the partnership, with United Rentals donating $50 for each lap Rahal completed during the season. United Rentals is upping the ante this month, doubling its donation to $100 per lap completed by Rahal in both the INDYCAR Grand Prix and the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil on May 28. If Rahal completes every lap in the two races, it would earn $28,500 for the program.
The money goes toward cutting-edge robotic devices that address the physical rehab needs of wounded vets. SoldierStrong donated the technologies to Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals nationwide, a plan it will continue this year.
Among the technologies is an exoskeleton, a bionic suit that helps paralyzed veterans walk again.
Letterman, the former late-night talk show host and longtime partner with RLLR, grew up in the Broad Ripple neighborhood of Indianapolis about 10 miles from Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Early in his career as a broadcaster, he famously interviewed Mario Andretti during the Indy 500.
Asked if he makes many technical calls for his race team, Letterman deadpanned: “Any key decision is right here.”
But mostly, Letterman, a noted champion of veterans’ causes, was serious about the Soldier Strong and TurnsForTroops.com program throughout today’s news conference. At one point, he recalled how close he came to being drafted for service in Vietnam.
“I was 1-A, ready to go,” Letterman said. “I had my pre-induction physical, and (President) Richard Nixon introduced the Selective Service draft, the lottery draft. I did not go because of that. I had friends who went, and friends who didn’t come back.”
Caring for wounded veterans became a deeper issue for Letterman during a visit to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where he met veterans recovering from severe injuries, including paralysis and missing limbs.
“I know we’re still fighting; I’m not sure why we’re still fighting,” he said. “But we’re going to send paralyzed people home left and right just as sure as we’re sitting here. To see that manifestation and then to know what this can accomplish -- and for my money, 13 (exoskeleton) suits is a great start, but kind of a glacial approach to a problem that really needs quicker attention.”