Monday, March 27, 2006

The "Blame Game" Can Wait

The Sunday practice crash that took the life of Indy Racing League driver Paul Dana at Homestead-Miami Speedway is already undergoing microscopic analysis, complete with a healthy dose of second-guessing by many in the media. Unfortunately, in the headlong rush to point the finger of blame, some writers and commentors are running roughshod over the usual boundaries of good taste and decorum.

Just hours after the crash, Open Wheel analyst Robin Miller penned a column for entitled, "The Sad, Cold Truth." In that column, Miller wrote, "With all due respect to the deceased and his family, Paul Dana was in over his head; the victim of a system where people have been buying rides at the highest level for more than 25 years. Dana...lost his life here Sunday morning in an accident that more or less confirmed he was out of his depth at 200 mph."

I have a great deal of respect for Robin Miller. He is unquestionably one of the top Open Wheel reporters in the business, and his knowledge of the sport and the people in it are beyond reproach. In this case, however, his desire to be right has overridden his sense of common decency.

Miller correctly points out that in this sport, it takes money to compete. Lots and lots of money. He calls it the "Walter Mitty scenario," wherein a relative novice is able to compete in a professional sport, based on nothing more than the ability to finance their own ride. I fell in love with racing at a very young age, and often dreamed of becoming a championship driver myself. The cold, hard realities of life soon asserted themselves, however, forcing me to accept that I was never going to challenge "King" Richard Petty's 200 career NASCAR wins. I simply didn't have the talent.

If my father had 10 million dollars in the bank, I might have been able to ignore that fact for a few more years. And perhaps, with a little luck, I might have made it to NASCAR Nextel Cup racing, in spite of myself. There are enough Buckshot Jones stories out there to keep hope alive, at least.

Motorsports is the only game in town where a kid can buy his way onto the roster; with or without an abundance of talent. Miller clearly believes Dana to be an example of this, writing, "Dana didn't replace Vitor Meira on Rahal's team because he was a better driver, he simply brought money, in the form of sponsor Ethanol. (He) certainly wasn't the first or the worst to buy his way into an Indy car. We've seen Patrick Bedard, Dale Whittington, Jack Miller, Paul Jasper, Dennis Vitolo, Randy Lewis, Lyn St, James .... there's a long list of people who were much better at marketing than they were at driving."

This phenomenon is certainly not unique to the Indy Racing League. It happens on the rival Champ Car World Series, and it happens in NASCAR. It happens just about everywhere in motorsports, and there's nothing Robin Miller and I can do or say to change it. Which is what troubles me most about this mad rush to judgement on Paul Dana.

Dana climbed the ladder to the top of the Open Wheel Racing world, and he did so appropriately. Most recently, he won a pole and a race on the IRL Infinity Pro Series, the Triple-A league for aspiring Indy Car drivers. Did the lucrative backing of Ethanol -- and the willingness of Bobby Rahal to use that backing to put him behind the wheel of an Indy Car -- lead directly to Dana's death?

Quite possibly. But what's the point? Even Miller admits that Sunday's tragedy was unavoidable, given the current state of affairs in Open Wheel racing.

Bobby Rahal has second-guessed his decision a million times by now. Dana's widow, Tonya, has suffered through the first of many sleepless nights, wishing she could have talked her husband out of his lifelong dream. Everyone associated with Paul Dana or Rahal-Letterman Racing has spent the last 24 hours looking back, wondering if there was something they could have said or done to save his life.

The answer, of course, is `no.'

It's cliche' to say that Paul Dana died doing what he loved. But it's also true. There will be plenty of time to analyze what happened Sunday, and plenty of time to second guess. Right now, let's avoid the urge to assign blame in favor of something more worthwhile; supporting those who are left behind.

Rest in Peace, Paul Dana.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous9:13 PM

    Very nicely stated Dave. I have much respect for both you and Robin Miller and even more so for the men and women who risk everything to be the racers that they are. When a tragedy like this occurs there will always be a tendency for some of us to be "Monday morning quaterbacks". Some people will be more intimately involved/informed than others and some of us (Robin and yourself included) will have a public forum to express your emotions, opinions, outrage and sorrow. It may seem that Robin's words were callous, but I suspect that he was truly trying to express despair in both the tragic sadness of Paul Dana's passing and the absurdity of open wheel racing's current state of affairs. We all know that the split between IRL and CART has ruined American open wheel racing, a series that at one time (in my opinion) was as worldly a procuct as F1, but now leaves us with with two
    struggling entities trying desparately to compete with NASCAR for TV and ad revenues, not to mention driver talent. When we have all of the young super talented drivers bailing out of the open wheel/dirt series to go for the NASCAR money there will inevitably be seats filled in the other series by men/women who may or may not be ready. The loss of anyone's life should never be reduced to fodder for a news scoop or an op-ed high brow piece of journalism, and I don't think that Robin intended his piece as such. As a fan of all forms of motorsports, I really do admire and envy all of the people who get to make a living as participants (both as drivers, crew members, etc. and
    those of you with the talents to present the races to me as writers, commentators, and photographers).

    My point after all of this is that we have lost one of own own. Me as a fan, others as family. Both you and Robin have the passion for the sport that we love, and you both have a core desire to see the best possible world for our heroes to compete in. Our words may not always be appropriately timed, but that should not dampen our intentions.

    Godspeed Paul Dana.

    Thanks Dave for both a great show on Sirius 123, and a great forum for me to share my opinions.

    steve p.
    raleigh nc