Truth be told, Paul Dana was not a household name in motorsports; at least, not yet. Putting aside his former career as a journalist to pursue his dream, the 30-year-old was preparing for just his first full season on the IRL circuit, quietly landing a deal with one of the best teams in Rahal Letterman Motorsports. He’d be teammates with budding superstar Danica Patrick and Indy 500 winner Buddy Rice, even with a resume of just three previous IRL starts.
In just a few short seconds Sunday, that dream became a nightmare. Suddenly, everybody knew who Paul Dana was… for all the wrong reasons.
Dana’s tragic death at the Homestead-Miami Speedway Sunday quickly touched all people in all levels of motorsports; it always does. Throughout the sport’s history, whether it’s NASCAR, sprint cars, or open wheel, the list of drivers who accomplished great things has always been accompanied by the list of drivers who would have, could have, should have… except that fate dealt them a cruel final hand at the racetrack. There are two things people remember when it comes to motorsports: the drivers that won the race, and the ones who died trying.
Whether Dana’s death was caused by inexperience is meaningless to the sadness and loss caused by a life ended far too soon. Neil Bonnett. Adam Petty. Dale Earnhardt. Stars who produced cheers giving way to tragedies of tears. They’re names that resurface during moments like these, when the mention of death, driver, and racetrack in the same sentence brings the moments you can’t ever forget back to the forefront one more time.
With this in mind, I found myself wondering yesterday afternoon what one of NASCAR’s own, Rusty Wallace, must have been thinking in that booth on Sunday. Now an analyst for the IRL, in just his first season there he was faced with the prospect of reporting on a tragedy of epic proportions, just five months removed from the dangers of being in that cockpit himself. Not only that, but the horrific events of the morning had to have brought back memories of a Daytona 500 not all that long ago, when his longtime friend driving a black No. 3 Chevrolet took a sharp right turn in turn 4 on the last lap, and the world of NASCAR changed forever. Five years and counting… but bad memories don’t know the concept of space and time. I’d think that nightmare had to have slipped its way back into his mind; I know it quickly slipped into mine. I hadn’t gone five minutes after hearing the news before I thought about it.
Don’t think the rest of the NASCAR family was oblivious to what happened, either, especially the drivers we know and love. Fast and furious, word spread of Dana’s death. Fox had it as their lead story during their pre-race show, even though the IRL and NASCAR have as much to do with each other as racing series as oil and water. But Nextel Cup drivers were not only humbled but aware; just go no further than the post-race interview session, where Kurt Busch brought the situation up himself after basking in the glory of Bristol’s victory lane.
“That was on my mind,” said Busch of the Sunday accident. “Anytime a racecar driver jumps in a car, it’s a dangerous situation, but you hope everything ends up being safe; I know they (the IRL) raced with heavy hearts today.”
Matt Kenseth echoed those sentiments. “That’s always tough (when a driver dies), even if you don’t know him or you don’t know anything about that kind of racing or watch that kind of racing. It’s still hard; you always know the dangers there, and things can go wrong.”
Clearly, it’s a worst-case scenario drivers never want to be reminded of. It’s not the type of thing anyone wants to be reminded of, or to have to report on, or to have to experience. But this sport, inherently dangerous, provides no choice in the matter. Tragedy takes the form of a rogue terrorist. Lurking in the shadows, you never know where and when it’ll strike, and how many lives will be affected.
And make no mistake; NASCAR will one day have a new nightmare. For sure, the success of NASCAR’s safety innovations the past five years since Earnhardt’s death has been unparalleled. No one in NASCAR’s top-three series has passed away since that horrible day back in February of 2001, the longest span of time between deaths in the recent history of the series. But all the safety innovations can only do so much. Speed carries risk, parts can break, freak things can and will happen. History has shown us as much.
Such a freak thing happened Sunday, and now a driver’s family is left to fill a void they never expected. As time passes, the healing process will begin; but the ticking time bomb of fate will simply be reset, all for the next cruel hand to be dealt to an unsuspecting driver, on an unsuspecting racetrack, at the worst possible time.
What can you do? Not much. The NASCAR family can only take a deep breath and pray that it doesn’t happen to them.