Friend recalls Dana's passion
The late IndyCar driver was "like a second son" to a man with a long connection to racers.
By BRANT JAMES
Published March 29, 2006
Brock and Debi Walker pulled out the scrapbook again Monday night. Somewhere amid the memories of 1995 was a picture of their family, including son, Ryan, an aspiring race car driver, and a young mechanic they'd befriended that summer at the Bridgestone Racing School in Shannonville, Ont.
For the next 11 years they had shared in the frustrations and successes of a journey Paul Dana told them he would not be denied.
The Walkers were hardly surprised when he finally made it to the cockpit of an Indy Racing League car last season.
Brock Walker, a spinal care and ergonomic seating specialist who has designed cockpits for open wheel and stock car drivers, spoke to Dana three days before he flew to Homestead for Sunday's IRL season-opener. Dana died on Sunday when he struck Ed Carpenter's wrecked car as it slid down the track following a collision with the second-turn wall during a warmup session. Dana was 32.
"I've seen so many people come and go, so many dear friends," Walker said by phone from his Okemos, Mich., home. "Sometimes, in your life you feel the loss and don't know why, but this is so core. This one hurts."
The causes of Dana's accident remain under review by the IRL, but the Indianapolis Star reported in Tuesday's editions that videos show he might have damaged his steering by running over debris from Carpenter's crash into the wall.
The IRL community continues to mourn Dana as one of its own, but his short stay in the league prevented many from knowing him well. Even Rahal Letterman teammate Danica Patrick said she hardly knew him, saying half-seriously that most of her words with him had been to ask him to move out of her seat next to her engineer. Dana ran only three races last season with Hemelgarn Racing after breaking his back in a practice days before the Indianapolis 500.
Certainly no one in the garage knew him as well as Walker, who considered him "like a second son." Still, Walker had no idea that Dana often mentioned him as one of three key mentors who buoyed his spirits when he could have quit.
"He had a passion to be a race car driver beyond anyone I've ever met," Walker said. "I called Dr. Henry Bock and I said to him, "You've been ... the head doctor at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for how many years now? Have you ever seen one who wanted to be a race car driver this bad?' We started laughing. It was a moment we had together. Boy, this guy wanted to do it badly."
After graduating from Northwestern with a journalism degree, Dana moved to Canada to become a racing mechanic and instructor in Shannonville, Ontario. He freelanced as a journalist and worked various racing jobs until he landed a spot in Gerald Forsythe's driver development program in 2001 and a ride in the IRL's developmental series in 2003.
Dana embraced his rookie status in his 30s and was especially excited to race for Rahal Letterman, he said, because he admitted his "learning curve (was) so steep" and because of how the team managed Patrick's first season in 2005.
"The team is so successful and so organized," he said in a March 2 interview with the Times. "They obviously had a very successful rookie campaign last year with Danica. They know how to do it. They know how to bring a new driver into this sport at the top level."
Dana and Walker hardly discussed racing anymore. The sport had gradually become less important to Walker after his son suffered a head injury and quit a few years ago. They talked about life, politics, business. They talked about the get-togethers they should have had by now with the Walkers, Paul and his wife, Tonya, a physician, an assistant professor at the Indian University School of Medicine and a classically trained pianist.
"Underneath him, he was the most humble, caring spirit," Walker said. "This guy did not let the negativity of the things around him, the evil in the world get him."
Picking at a snack on a table outside his hauler during "spring training" at Homestead in early March, Dana marveled at how far he had come.
"I'm far, far beyond what I ever expected," he said. "Driving an IndyCar around this place today is really cool. It's like, "No way,' this is really awesome."
Dana's ability to land a job in the IRL with what some considered a relative lack of big-time experience was helped by his ability to bring a sponsor. A cold call to a group in the ethanol industry and its subsequent backing not only helped him secure his ride with Hemelgarn but eventually led to ethanol replacing methanol as the series' race fuel next season.
Dana believed he belonged in the IRL because he had played the off-track game well. He wanted desperately to show he could drive with the best, too.
"You have to win on-track, physically in terms of your preparation," he said. "You have to win financially with a fully funded program. You have to win politically in terms of your positioning because there's only 22 seats at the top level here and another 20 in the CART series or whatever. There's more jobs than that with the Indianapolis Colts."
But Walker said Dana did not have the cocksure personality Walker has seen in countless drivers.
"I think he was acting the part rather than being the part," Walker said. "He was a softie. Paul was an anomaly because he was not that way and he did not think that way. But he had enough gumption to make you think he had this under control."