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Archive for Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Dana may not have seen lights

Perhaps unaware of caution, driver kept foot on gas until a few tenths of a second before impact

March 28, 2006

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The scarred, twisted remains of Paul Dana's No. 17 Panoz race car lay under a tarp Monday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the biggest clue in a mystery that may never be solved.

Dana died Sunday after sustaining what officials described as "multiple trauma injuries" in a two-car crash during a warmup for the season-opening IRL IndyCar Series race at Homestead.

The league plans to look into the possible causes, but the only thing the computers in Dana's car - or the videotape of the crash - is likely to tell them is that the 30-year-old rookie driver, with all of three IRL races under his belt, kept his foot on the gas until a few tenths of a second before impact.

As for why, well - the only person who could likely have answered that question was Dana himself.

Ed Carpenter's spinning car, which had crashed seconds earlier and glanced off a concrete wall, had nearly come to a halt when Dana suddenly appeared, flying off turn two on the 1.5-mile oval.

It appeared Dana never slowed, bearing down like a 200-mph missile. Two hours later, Dana was pronounced dead.

The wreck left everyone wondering whether he even saw the caution lights flashing along the speedway walls, or heard the words of his spotter, who team officials say tried to warn of the danger ahead.

For years, drivers with little experience have managed to find rides at the top level of open-wheel racing by bringing family money or a sponsor to the table.

Dana wasn't rich, but he found a way to live his dream of racing cars. He worked at a variety of jobs, including mechanic, racing instructor and marketing representative to pay his way up the racing ladder. He even wrote about auto racing for several national magazines.

But Dana, a savvy and glib man who didn't get serious about racing until he was 20, had found sponsorship in Team Ethanol that he could bring to a team. That's how he got his ride with Rahal Letterman Racing, one of the top teams in the IRL.

He did have some success in the Indy Pro Series, the steppingstone series to IndyCar, winning one pole and one race and finishing second in the championship in 2004. Working with Team Ethanol, Dana got an IndyCar ride in 2005 with Hemelgarn Racing.

At the Homestead opener, he finished a career-best 10th. Dana was eight laps behind the winner. At the next race, in Phoenix, Dana was passed by the leaders about every eight laps on the one-mile oval before retiring after just 33 laps with a mechanical problem.

Dana crashed during practice for the Indianapolis 500, breaking his back and missing the rest of the season.

That was the resume he brought to the elite team.

Unlike the death of Dale Earnhardt in the 2001 Daytona 500, Dana's tragic death did not ignite national mourning or a series of safety-related changes.

Dana's death will leave only questions: Was he over his head in that race car? Why didn't he slow down?

We'll probably never know the answer to either.

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