Paul Dana's Risky Business
By Bil Moore
Today, March 26, 2006, Indy Racing League rookie Paul Dana died from injuries sustained during a 200 mph crash at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida. I wrote the article below back in 2003 after meeting Paul in Kansas City during one of his races. He'd invited me and three guests to attend. It was the first and last time I got to meet him in person.
Paul Dana wants to drive Indy cars and he's getting closer, though events the last couple of races illustrate the road can be a bumpy one.
EV World interviewed Dana late last year about his quest to not only become an Indy car driver, but also eventually encourage the Indy Racing League (IRL) to switch fuels from methanol, which is usually made from non-renewable fossil fuels (though it can also be derived from wood wastes) to biomass-based ethanol, which is renewable and non-toxic. He is using his Infinity Q45-powered Dallara to help promote the idea. The 450-hp open wheel racer, which is about three-quarters the size of a regular Indy car and almost as fast (190mph), is emblazoned with the word "Ethanol." However, for the time being at least, it is still fueled by gasoline, per league rules.
Over the July 4th weekend, Team ISI -- Dana's major sponsor -- competed in the Aventis Racing for Kids 100, a warm-up race for the Kansas 300 featuring the big names... and cars... of the Indy Racing League. Since Kansas City is only about 200 miles south of EV World's home in Omaha, Nebraska, I arranged to meet Paul and see him race. He graciously made available enough passes to take my daughter and two friends, both from Bosnia, into the infield where we could watch the race from the top of Team ISI's new transporter.
Sunday, July 6th dawned with the kind of majestic blue sky you can only find on the Great Plains. It would be warm by race time, but not unbearable. We dropped off our wives to window shop in Kansas City's Country Club Plaza, an upscale retail shopping district several miles south of the old business district. The Plaza is famous for its Spanish architecture and glorious light displays at Christmas. After morning capuchinos and raisin scones, we drove out Interstate 70 to the new Kansas Speedway.
The two-year old track is a 1.5 mile tri-Oval. Imagine of a highly-rounded triangle with the apex pointed at the grandstands where there is enough seating for 80,000 spectators, and plans to eventually expand this 150,000.
We picked up our guest passes, a two-step process, and parked the car on the hill that serves as the back stretch embankment. Donning our broad-brimmed hats and clutching our water bottles, we walked down to the underpass that leads into the infield. Here security was extraordinarily tight, including inspecting under every vehicle with mirrors and requesting photo ideas as well as our passes.
I glanced at my watch. It was 10:30; plenty of time to watch the race which was slated to start at 11:15. I knew we'd probably have to wait until after the race before we could meet up with Paul. I could hear cars screaming around the backside of the track and figured they were just warming up for the race.
Turns out I was wrong. The Kansasspeedway.com web site apparently listed the start time in Eastern time or maybe Central Standard Time. Since we are on daylight savings time, the race actually started an hour earlier. The cars I heard going by over my head as we drove through the tunnel on a Club Car shuttle bus, weren't warming up, they were racing. In fact, the race was just ending. By the time we found the 24 car and ISI's trailer, the race was over.
Paul spotted me immediately. He was still in his racing coveralls, the top portion puilled down around his waist. He extended his hand and told me he was glad I could make it, but he had hoped we'd arrive sooner. I explained my confusion and he shrugged -- with an obvious sense of disappointment -- that we really hadn't missed anything.
He gestured to another Infinity Pro car parked nearby and said that on the fifth lap, that particular car had clipped him and broken off his right front wing. This prevented him from getting the car up to speed. He did complete the 100 mile race, coming in last, though he added with a hint of satisfaction that he was never lapped by the rest of the 13-car field until the final three laps of the race. It takes considerable driving skill to get one of these cars up to speed and keep it on the track with a broken wing since the car instantly becomes aerodynamically unbalanced. With half the wing gone, the remaining down-force is asymetrically applied to the front of the car, making handling difficult at high speeds.
He later told me, "The front tires were sliding the whole race, and I was just trying to make them live. Imagine hitting a patch of ice -- you turn the front wheels but nothing happens -- that's what it was like at each end of the track -- every lap!"
It was definitely not an average day at the office!
He said we were welcome to stay and watch the main event -- the Kansas 300 -- from the top of the trailer. But first, he wanted to show some of his sponsors from the ethanol industry around the garage and pit areas. The four of us were more than welcome to tag along, which we did.
We followed him into the garage bay where he briefly explained the safety features of the Dallara chassis. He pointed out the custom seat that is molded to each individual drivers body and the Kevlar that makes up the skin of the vehicle. Everything about the car is designed for speed and driver safety. It's a good thing, too. In the previous race, his car had spun out of control and hit the wall at full force with its back end, the worst possible place because there is so little crush zone to dissipate the energy of the vehicle.
He said his shoulder was still a bit sore, but the design of the car saved him from a debilitating back injury or worse.
Paul Dana (third from left) with EV World editor's daughter (second from left) flanked by friends from Bosnia
But that crash and the accident today have dealt Dana's race plans a serious setback. The more well-funded Infinity Pro teams burn a cool $1 million a year to participate in the 12-race series. Team ISI is trying to run on half that. To save money, they planned to compete in only eight of the races. The Aventis 100 was the half-way point in the series, but Dana admitted that the team was going to have to re-evaluate its plans in the light of the last two less- than-stellar showings. They haven't won the prize money they had hoped for at this point in the season and are running short of funds.
Despite his disappointment, Dana remained both upbeat and a gracious host, answering endless questions, showing his guests around infield, even inviting us to help ourselves to lunch served under a vast awning attached to the side of the transporter.
When asked about IRL's plans for ethanol, he replied that GM -- one of the three main automaker sponsors for IRL -- had performed dynamometer tests on their racing engines using 100 percent ethanol. The results looked promising, so he is optimistic that the league will decide to switch to ethanol if not next year, certainly by the 2005 racing season.
If it does, it will be due in no small measure to a determined young man who might have had a streak of bad luck lately, but remains convinced that switching to a renewable fuel will be a major step towards not only making IRL racing sustainable, but serve as an example to other motor racing programs.
The big Indy cars were making their way around the track in the pace lap, so we climbed up to the top of the transport trailer, passing the wounded 24 car, and emerged into the hot noon sun. Talk about the "best seat in the house!" From this vantage point we could see every part of the track.
The four of us -- as well as team members and other guests -- would remain there for at least 60 laps, turning in an endless circle as the cars -- sounding like a swarm of angry hornets -- roared around us as mind-boggling speeds. Soon it was hard to figure out who the leader was as pack began to stretch out around the track. The noise was so intense that we had to wear ear plugs, so we couldn't understand the announcer. Instead, we kept checking the tower at the center of the infield on which was displayed each car's number and its current lap position.
For the first half of the race, Byran Herta -- driving a Dallara-Honda -- and Greg Ray in a Panoz G-Force Honda battled for first place. I would learn the next day that Herta would win, using the Honda's fuel efficiency to beat out Helio Castrovenes in a Dallara-Toyota.
It was under the third caution flag that I had had enough of the heat and noise and climbed back down to help the team fold up their awning. (The crew chief even offered me a job!). Paul was getting ready to drive back to Indianapolis, so I said our goodbyes, collected my daughter and our friends and headed back to car.
As we walked under the track, the yellow caution flag lifted and with a roar the 750hp Honda, Toyota and GM racing engines exploded into life and the pack accelerated down the backstretch.
This was my first exposure to big league auto racing and I was lucky enough to be given an insider's view. I felt a bit let-down though because of Paul's dilemma. He's got a worthy goal but sometimes the fates aren't always as kind as we'd wish them to be. I am confident he'll find a way to keep his dream alive and someday take his place on the starting grid of the Indy 500. Chances are now pretty good it will be in a car fueled by renewable ethanol.
blog comments powered by Disqus