View from the Topside
Paul Dana died doing what he loved

   by Rick Benjamin
March 27, 2006

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Paul Dana

This should have been a spectacular motorsports weekend. The return of open-wheel racing. The Miller Lite Dodge back in a Cup Victory Lane. A Grand Am win for one of the best, most professional team owners and managers in road racing. And the realization that we’re just two weeks away from kicking off maybe the most important Champ Car World Series season in memory.

But sadly those key stories have been rendered unimportant. Our sport has lost one of its good guys, one of its feel-good stories, in the wreck that claimed Paul Dana Sunday morning at Homestead. I wasn’t on hand, didn’t see it in person, and have only now started to assimilate the various accounts I’ve read and heard. I only know that a vibrant part of life in this sport has been ripped away.

Paul Dana wasn’t a big star, at least not yet. He’d climbed to the IRL in a fairly short time but he’d done it the right way, working his way into a seat with Ron Hemelgarn’s team last year, before parlaying his Ethanol backing into a ride with Rahal-Letterman Racing this year. He was a journalist, educated at the Medill School at Northwestern. As a fellow J-school alum I can tell you that Medill is the platinum standard of our business. It takes extraordinary intelligence and dedication just to get in, much less to graduate. And Paul used his education well. I’d enjoyed many of his pieces in years past, in both AutoWeek and Sports Illustrated.

He was following a path not often taken, trying to move from the ranks of journalist to top-rank driver. As far as I can recall only Jerry Titus and Denise McCluggage had pulled off that feat previously. Pat Bedard and Dick Berggren have tried. And then there was Paul Dana.

A few years ago, when I moved from TNN to what was then Speedvision, I was privileged to call a season of Formula Ford 2000 events for the network. Paul raced hard and well in the series in 2001, as part of Gerry Forsythe’s driver-development team. In 11 starts he bagged a couple of top-5’s and four top-10’s. FF2000 five years ago was a very tough league, featuring, among others, Tonis Kasemets, Arie Luyendyk Jr., and Kyle Krisiloff.

But even more impressive to me was how Dana began his driving career 10 seasons ago. No family funding, no blue-chip sponsorship check. No, Paul earned his first seat time by working on cars in the Bridgestone Racing School…where he also won his first races. It’s the same sort of path used by many whose talent and drive far outstrips their bank account. It’s how my friend and colleague Jon Beekhuis got his start.

Dana parlayed those laps into success in Barber Dodge….and then those memorable FF2000 battles a few years ago.

In the past couple of years Dana, who also put in time in racing’s PR ranks, advanced to the Indy Pro Series. He’d won races there and ran up front consistently. His ability to cultivate a substantial sponsorship helped him earn his shot at the IRL. A hard crash at Indy last May broke his back, ending his rookie IRL year too soon. His second season, his first with a team capable of winning races, never really got started, destroyed tragically Sunday morning at Homestead.

I hadn’t had the chance to visit with Paul in recent years, but I was pleased to see how his career had advanced, knowing the hard toil he’d put in to get the opportunity he craved. Sadly for all of us we’ll never know how his story would have ended.

Much more sadly for his wife Tonya, his family, his friends and team, Paul’s intellect, talent, and class are gone from this world far too soon. We grieve his passing.

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