Once again, the dark side of racing rears its ugly head, taking Indy Racing League driver Paul Dana from us too early.
Dana, 30, had just begun his first full season as a driver in the IRL when his life was snuffed out last Sunday morning in a practice accident. His death was a tragic reminder that racing, while immeasurably safer than it was 20, 30, 40 or more years ago, can still be deadly. When I first got into the sport almost four decades ago driver fatalities were not all that uncommon. But the rarity of such an event these days makes it even more shocking.
Did the race need to go on after the morning's tragedy? As winner Dan Wheldon put it in a subdued victory interview, "We're racers. First we race, then we mourn."
That said, I applaud Team Rahal for withdrawing the cars of Buddy Rice and Danica Patrick, Dana's teammates, out of respect for their fallen comrade. It's going to put Rice and Patrick behind the eight-ball as far as season points are concerned, but it was the right thing to do.
I often agree with SPEEDTV and Indianapolis Star racing pundit Robin Miller, and almost as often disagree. But Miller is absolutely correct this time, in my opinion, about the root cause of Dana's fatal accident.
In commentary on Dave Despain's Wind Tunnel on SPEEDTV last Sunday, Miller opined that Dana was over his head in an Indy car, and had the ride mainly because he brought sponsorship money to the team. Sadly, this situation has prevailed in open-wheel racing for three decades if not longer, preceding the IRL/CART split, and is endemic to Formula 1 as well as our home-grown series.
Certainly drivers have to have talent as exhibited by success in lower-lever series (Dana was a race winner in the Indycar Pro Series feeder formula), but long-term experience may be lacking. When Ed Carpenter hit the wall in the early minutes of Sunday morning's practice at Miami-Homestead Raceway, the yellow light immediately went on (around the track and in drivers' cockpits), and spotters alerted drivers via radio about the accident.
Although more seasoned drivers immediately slowed, Dana continued unchecked, impacting Carpenter's car at 176 mph. A "rookie mistake?" Almost certainly, but at the top levels of racing "rookies" need to be more experienced than Dana apparently was.
That being said, my condolences go out to the Dana family. If you wish to honor Paul Dana's memory, send contributions to: The Paul Dana Fund for Renewable Energy C/o National Bank of Indianapolis;107 N. Pennsylvania St., Suite 100; Indianapolis 46204
NASCAR, being the 600 pound gorilla in U.S. racing these days, doesn't have quite the desperate situation that requires teams to recruit drivers with big sponsor packages and little experience, at least not yet. But we are seeing younger and younger drivers coming into stock car racing at the top levels. Is this a bad thing?
Not if the driver has experience, and most top level drivers these days start when their age is still in single digits. It's not unusual for a 20 year old racer to have 15 years of experience under his belt in karts, Legends cars, midgets, sprint cars, and regional stock car series.
But although NASCAR is at the top of the heap financially, some of the series' teams are starting to feel the pinch. No longer can many sponsors afford to be primary backer for the entire season, and many teams must change paint jobs almost weekly to feature the sponsor du jour on the car.
How long will it be before sponsor dollars supersede talent and/or experience when recruiting Nextel Cup pilots? Hopefully by that time the "Car of Tomorrow" will be in place, virtually ensuring driver survival in the most horrendous of impacts.
Now that the NFL has outlawed end zone celebrations, can NASCAR be far behind? No more donuts or burnouts, no more Tony Stewart fence-climbing, no more Carl Edwards back flips, no more Kurt Busch snow angels? I hope the NASCAR officials are a little less uptight than their football counterparts. After all, celebration after winning is half the fun!