Sunday, April 02, 2006

Living on the Edge After Someone Has Slipped

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As some of you know, I'm a big fan of the Indy Racing League. Sure, NASCAR races are OK, but what really excites me is to see open wheel cars running at 220 miles per hour with mere inches separating the tires of one car and the tires of another. I grew up in Indiana, so my interest began with the Indianapolis 500 when I was a small boy. Since that time, I've been blessed to not only attend races, but also to get to meet some of these people who drive these ground-based rocket ships. These people are usually young and brash, often egotistical and always ready to go racing. It takes a special kind of human being to risk their lives day after day, all in pursuit of a race win.

One of those guys was killed last weekend in a crash during morning practice at Homestead Speedway, near Miami, Florida. His name was Paul Dana.

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I never met Paul Dana. He was fairly new to the series. He began his rookie year last season, only to be injured in a crash at Indianapolis and to be forced to sit out the rest of the schedule with a broken back. The team he drove for last year was not a fast one. But over the winter, Paul and his sponsor agreed to switch teams to drive for Rahal Letterman Racing. This was the chance of a lifetime for Paul. Big name owners 1985 Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal and TV talk show host David Letterman. A first-rate team with plenty of resources and lots of speed. Two high profile teammates in 2004 Indy 500 champ Buddy Rice and media darling Danica Patrick. This was Paul's chance to show everyone what he was made of.

The final practice before Sunday's race was only a few minutes old when another car spun, hit the wall and slid back down across the racetrack. As it was slowly coming to a stop, there was a horrific collision. Dana's car was coming too fast. It hit a piece of debris on the track, momentarily disabling the steering, taking away any last chance for Paul Dana to miss the car sitting on the straightaway. Remarkably, Ed Carpenter, the driver of the car which had spun came away from the wreck with mostly bruises. Paul Dana was extracted from what remained of his race car, but was pronounced dead once he reached the local hospital. He was 30.

I first saw the video footage of the crash after I had heard the outcome. I've seen many crashes, but even I wasn't prepared for the sheer violence of the impact. It was shockingly brutal.

Paul, it was joked, had held every job in racing except announcer. He began as a mechanic before becoming a journalist, covering motor racing for various publications. He was smart. He was well-liked. He adored his wife, Tonya, who was pulled out of a church service in Indianapolis to be told of her husband's death.

Paul's death served as a reminder to race fans that the sport that we love is rife with danger. We get used to seeing spectacular crashes with drivers stepping from the wreckage with hardly a scratch. Some foolish NASCAR fans are often seen cheering for accidents and nudges into the wall, but these poor people have forgotten that death always seems to hang around racetracks.

Drivers also put the oh-so-real danger of their profession out of their minds, or at least in the farthest back compartment. Some have wondered why the race went on as scheduled just over three hours after a man had lost his life on that very track, and the best answer I can give is that the drivers needed to race. But at the same time, racers know that any time they venture out onto the track could be their last. Most have lost friends to accidents. Older racers can tell many stories of losing brothers and best friends because something happened on the track. The improvements in car construction have lessened the serious injuries, but scenes like the one below are not as uncommon as we would like.

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So how does one carry on after being reminded just how dangerous the situation really is? Not by hiding out in a closet and refusing to continue. These drivers wanted to race. Then they wanted to get home and leave the place where tragedy had struck, and if things had been a little different, could have struck them also.

While that may not make sense to some, to me it simply reminds me of life. We will occasionally drive by the scene of an accident, but that rarely keeps us from getting behind the wheel again. The odd case of food poisoning doesn't keep us away from restaurants. We are used to the fact that bad things can happen. We simply choose to go on in the belief that it will never happen to us, or if it does we will deal with it at that time. But we can learn from the things which go wrong. When we sin, it becomes easy to see our weaknesses. When others sin, we can learn from their mistakes and not repeat them.

When tragedy strikes, we find something else is true also. We find that God's love is constant. A grieving widow may not always see God's love just before the funeral, but later on it becomes more apparent how God works to comfort and strengthen His children. God does not hide from us in our time of need. He works through family, friends and well-wishers. And He works supernaturally, providing strength we didn't know we could access. I know this first-hand.

My heart goes out to Paul Dana's widow and family, as well as his crew and teammates and all those he touched in his brief thirty years. I am comforted by the fact that I know God is in the midst of the tragedy, bringing strength, comfort and the peace which passes all understanding to all who feel a bit emptier this week. I am reminded that we can continue on in our lives after tragedy more easily when we know that God remains on the Throne. He allows the evils of a sinful world to afflict us now, but He provides the way for us to come through it a stronger and better person if we choose to allow Him to do so. Even though someone is gone or has been hurt, we can be confident that God will remain with us, seeing us through in any situation.

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Paul Dana 1975-2006


Jennifer said...

That was a nice tribute. I have been a widow, and I testify that you speak the truth! God never leaves us. Even when we can’t see Him or feel Him, He is there. It is often only in hindsight that we can look back and see His hand.

R. Stewart said...

I'm not sure how anyone survived at all. I saw that crash and it was as bad as I've ever seen.

I hate that death is in this world, but I rejoice that even in tragedy God is there.