Dana's business sense, drive put him in IndyCar seat

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Paul Dana was intelligent enough to earn a journalism degree from Northwestern University, but that didn't prevent him from being bitten by the racing bug.

That bug came with a fatal bite Sunday. Dana, a 30-year-old IndyCar Series rookie, died while practicing for the IRL opener at Homestead-Miami Speedway, making for an extremely somber start to the 2006 open-wheel season. It was a tragic end for a bright and articulate young man who found that writing about car racing just didn't put him quite close enough to the action.

I got to know Dana in the late '90s, when Dana landed a gig at AutoWeek magazine covering CART and the IRL. Few of us were aware of his racing aspirations.

As a journalist, Dana was tough competition, and did a solid job for AutoWeek. He was still writing in 1999, but by then he also started racing in the Skip Barber Formula Dodge series while working as a mechanic at Barber's driving school. He moved onto Formula Ford before graduating to the IRL's Pro Series development series formula in 2003.

At Milwaukee in 2004 against a slim field, Dana scored an Indy Pro Series race win and went on to finish second in the IPS season standings. His business acumen also helped lay the groundwork for a lucrative sponsorship from a conglomerate of Ethanol producers to move up to the IndyCar Series in 2005.

Dana made an inauspicious three-race IndyCar debut to start the 2005 season. At Phoenix, he crashed in practice and was three seconds a lap off the leader's pace in the race, getting lapped every eight laps before he was black-flagged into the pits. At Indianapolis, he suffered a season-ending accident in practice that left him with a broken back.

Based on his 2005 performances, I was stunned when Rahal Letterman Racing announced that Dana would replace the experienced Vitor Meira in the team's third IndyCar entry for 2006.

After Sunday's crash, which killed Dana and injured Ed Carpenter, I tried to analyze my feelings. Was my belief that Dana might not be experienced and skilled enough to compete in the IndyCar Series a result of some kind of bizarre suppressed jealousy because this former journalist had reached the top level of the sport as a driver? Or was my judgment based on 30 years of closely following Indy-style racing, including 15 years reporting about it professionally?

After talking and listening to others, I realized it was probably the latter. Ultimately, in my view, Paul Dana's inexperience and unbridled enthusiasm might have cost him his life.

"I really don't know at this point what happened or who was at fault," Tony George, who founded the IRL in 1995, told The Associated Press. "It's just a real shame. I don't know that it was inexperience. I don't want to say anything about that."

The bare facts are that two laps into the final warmup practice before the Toyota Indy 300, Carpenter had a fairly minor accident, backing lightly into the SAFER Barrier in Turn 2. At the Start-Finish Line, the yellow flag was shown, and yellow lights around the 1.5-mile oval and on the dash display of every car immediately illuminated.

Several drivers between Dana and Carpenter's stricken car slowed down. Dana did not. Nearly eight seconds after the caution was issued, he slammed into Carpenter's stationary machine at an estimated 175 mph.

"It looked like he never lifted [off the gas] at the scene," said Buddy Lazier, whom Dana passed at speed seconds before his fatal impact. "He carried way too much speed in and wasn't aware of what was going on around him."

According to IRL and Rahal Letterman Racing officials, Dana's spotter advised him of Carpenter's accident by radio.

"The spotter made clear the incident," team owner Bobby Rahal said. "From what I could see, there was a car on the outside Paul was just passing or had just passed, but I think it would be conjecture and probably very irresponsible for me to try to dissect as to why what happened, happened. But there was no problem with communication."

Every form of racing has examples of figures who were superb sponsorship salesmen but not world-class racing drivers. In Indy-style racing, remember novice Dennis Vitolo being slow to react to a yellow flag during the 1994 Indianapolis 500 and launching his car onto the back of Formula 1 and CART champion Nigel Mansell?

And in that regard, Paul Dana's death at Homestead ultimately might be seen as an indictment of motor racing as a business, rather than a sport. Dana was in that Rahal Letterman seat because he put together a commercial package at a time when open-wheel sponsorships are incredibly hard to come by -- not just because of his driving skills.

And sport or business, motor racing sometimes can be incredibly cruel, an attribute clearly on display Sunday in South Florida.

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.