April 7, 2006

Reactions to IRL Death All Wrong

Print More

Just two Sundays ago, as the sports world was immersed in March Madness, the Indy Racing League was about to dust off the checkered flag for its season-opening race in Homestead, Fla., the Toyota Indy 300.

On this day, rookie driver Paul Dana was to make his debut in the No. 17 car for the Rahal Letterman Racing team. It was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream for the 30-year-old. Before racing Dana put his journalism degree from Northwestern to use, as he wrote about racing for AutoWeek magazine and even Sports Illustrated. But it was on the track where Dana always wanted to be. After competing in three Indy races a season ago, Dana finally got his chance to be a full-time driver after signing with Rahal Letterman before this season.

Though a newcomer to the scene, Dana wasted no time putting his stamp on Indy racing, as he was very instrumental in bringing ethanol, a cleaner-burning fuel than what is currently used, into the sport. His persistence worked out in more ways than one, as he was able to secure a sponsorship from Ethanol Hemelgarn Racing, while his lobbying also led to the entire Indy circuit exclusively using the energy source in its races beginning in 2007.

Yet, despite being a fresh face on the scene and an interesting story, Dana was, for the most part, brushed aside – mostly because his teammates were Danica Patrick and last year’s Indy 500 winner Buddy Rice. But he didn’t care. Dana was reportedly extremely jovial in the days leading up to the race, shaking hands and signing autographs for the few people who actually knew who he was.

Then, during a pre-race practice, Dana’s name became known for all the wrong reasons. It was at that time that his No.17 Honda-powered Panoz barreled into Ed Carpenter’s car going an estimated 175 miles per hour, catapulting the chassis into the air in a scene reminiscent of an Evil Knievel stunt gone bad. It was one of the most horrific accidents in racing history.

Two hours after the accident, Dana was pronounced dead at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. His wife, Tonya, was notified of the crash while she was attending church services back in Indianapolis, where the couple calls home. Dana did not leave any children.

Of course the story made headlines – even David Letterman, co-owner of Dana’s racing team paid respects to his driver on the Late Show – but the crash could hardly be considered front-page news.

And to be honest, it didn’t even seem to be that big of a deal to the IRL, as the race went on as previously scheduled – save the absence of Patrick and Rice, who decided to sit the race out – just hours after Dana’s passing.

In fact, some people even blamed Dana for the accident, saying that he had made a crucial rookie mistake by not noticing the yellow caution lights that had gone on to signal that Carpenter’s car had spun into a barrier on turn two.

Sure, the accident could have been an error on the inexperienced Dana’s part, but why is that even an issue? A man died – and that should be the only issue discussed.

I do realize that dealing with death in the media is a tricky situation. There is a responsibility to report the whole story of what happened no matter who the athlete, but come on, does it really matter now that he made a mistake? Carpenter managed to survive the incident relatively unscathed. So why couldn’t we focus on the life of Dana, rather than the mistake which cost him his life?

Also, I understand Dana wasn’t exactly a household name. Kirby Puckett’s recent death received more publicity than Dana’s because he was a Hall of Fame player – Dana was just a rookie. But then why didn’t the media say that Puckett’s obesity played a role in his stroke, as they said Dana’s inexperience did in his crash? Not only that, I had to listen to all the stories of how Puckett was a hero to the people of Minnesota, but I heard a lot less about the fact that he allegedly sexual assaulted a woman. Dana was a married man who was best known for trying to introduce clean fuel to racing. It just doesn’t add up.

Yet it wasn’t just the media jumping on Dana’s error – even his colleagues threw him under a bus. Buddy Lazier told the Associated Press, “It looked like he never even lifted [off the gas] at the scene. He carried way too much speed in and wasn’t aware of what was going on around him.”

No mention of what kind of person Dana was, Buddy?

I realize that some people are making such a big deal out of the apparent error so that Indy will be more careful in allowing novices to race. But come on, Buddy, how about showing some loyalty for a person who had the same hopes and dreams that you did?

And how about the audacity of IRL to go ahead with the race? This pathetic organization should be ashamed of itself. Having this race was purely a monetary decision, as the fans would have to reimbursed for their tickets and because the race was supposed to be televised by ABC.

But I’m glad that I did more research about what Paul Dana was like as a man, because every person on this planet makes mistakes. The difference is that most don’t end with the person dying.

Chris Mascaro is a Sun Senior Writer. He May Be Tall will appear every other Friday this semester.

Archived article by Chris Mascaro