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IRL's decision to run race was the wrong one

When they completed the race on Sunday in Homestead, Fla., the drivers were perfectly somber. The race's winner, Dan Wheldon, acted every bit the part of a man who understood that this was no normal afternoon at the oval.

And he was right; it wasn't normal. It was a race conducted in the immediate wake of eye-witnessed tragedy. It was Wheldon winning on a black day for the sport, and it was Wheldon understanding that it was no afternoon for wild celebration or the usual post-victory nuttiness.

Wheldon's subsequent respectfulness was perfectly appropriate and highly professional, and it need not be mentioned further. Instead, let's back up the conversation one step.

Why'd they run at all?

I ask the question not from the inside, but from the outside. On the inside, the gearheads know why they ran a race a scant couple of hours after Paul Dana slammed into another car in the horrific wreck that took Dana's life.

They ran because that's what they do. They race.

Races inherently involve danger. Tragedy is no stranger to the track, the course or the oval. Drivers and owners learn from an early age in the sport that there's almost no stopping an event once the start time draws nigh.

It makes a certain sense. Even in the macro sports/entertainment ethos, it is a more or less accepted truism that the show must go on.

And I would argue that there surely is an exception that proves such a rule.

And I would suggest that Sunday, in Homestead, was almost the textbook sort of exception.

Oh, there are business pressures, God knows. The people are already in the stands. The whole racing show has moved into the greater Miami area for the week. The network (in this case, ABC, which like ESPN is owned by the Walt Disney Company) is readying its programming. You don't just wave a hand and say, "Hey, we're shutting it down for a while. Come back when you can."

Or do you? Consider this: Paul Dana essentially died on that track. He died in front of the same crowd that was in the stands hours later when Wheldon crossed a nose ahead of Helio Castroneves after a tense, tire-bumping, two-driver jostle to the finish line.

Is there really no place in the sports world for the argument that sometimes an event just isn't worth it? That there might be something more important, on a given day, than the inconvenience and on-site unhappiness that would result from a postponement or cancellation?

Again, having someone die after a sickening crash -- at the same track -- seems like the right place to make exactly that argument. And even if it doesn't carry the day, it's a conversation worth having.

Dana's Rahal-Letterman teammates, Danica Patrick and Buddy Rice, did not participate in the Toyota Indy 300 following Dana's wreck. It was the right move for the racing team, of course. Why wasn't it the right move in total?

And, listen, I understand where I'm coming from. I'm the outsider looking in, the casual fan who takes in an IRL event on television. I'm not part of the core, much less the hard core. I wouldn't feel nearly as let down by a postponement as would a true gearhead. I get that.

But the whole concept of sports in America is that they're tied into something that goes beyond mere competition. We read character into the victors' smiles and infer from the losers' scowls some incredible emotional "challenges" that must be surmounted in order for them to continue. In short, we don't watch sports just for sports.

We watch and follow for emotion, for story line. It's compelling and it is theater, yes, but it's certainly also something beyond that. Otherwise, everything would be pro wrestling.

I have no problem with sports imparting lessons, however sporadic and however fragile those might be. For the people who wanted Mark McGwire or Barry Bonds to be their kids' very own Paul Bunyan, well, it's tough times all around right now. But sports can stand for values all the same, and they often have so stood over the years.

Sometimes, those values need to go all the way to the top. And, really, there's no book to tell anyone how to handle a situation like this. It's all by feel, all the time.

Just a coincidence, but this week marks 25 years since then-President Ronald Reagan was shot by John David Hinckley on March 30, 1981. The Academy Awards show, scheduled for that evening, was postponed for 24 hours. The NCAA Final Four, after much discussion, went on as planned.

The JFK assassination, Reagan, wartime, 9/11 … sports have been forced to deal with any number of real-world situations. The loss of a single life, in the midst of a sports competition, isn't meant to be compared directly with any of those.

But Paul Dana was real, and he really was killed on the oval at Homestead, Fla., on Sunday. Speaking strictly as an outsider, I'd have a whole lot more interest in becoming an insider if an entire sport's worth of characters had stood up to join Patrick and Rice, honored the memory of Dana, and said, "We'll do this another day."

Reach Mark Kreidler of the Sacramento Bee at mkreidler@sacbee.com.