Carpenter 'thankful' to be here

Published April 2, 2006

ST. PETERSBURG - Ed Carpenter has seen replays of the crash that killed Indy Racing League driver Paul Dana, an impact so violent those of us who do not drive race cars for a living flinch and turn our heads away. He is not squeamish.

Carpenter knows that was him in the car struck by Dana's at nearly 175 mph. He can recall the panicked instant all the air was slammed from his lungs. He remembers coming to some 45 seconds later.

But the man in the other car that tragic day cannot say why Dana died and he lived.

Carpenter is still here.

And it makes no sense.

"I don't feel like I was in that crash," said Carpenter, 25. "I'm very thankful and I definitely thank the Lord that he did have his hand on me protecting me."

A bruised lung and a scrape on the knee. That's it, the extent of Carpenter's injuries. No concussion. No broken bones. No lingering soreness.

The reason he spent more than a day under observation in a Miami hospital was doctors refused to believe his injuries could be so minor. He has not taken so much as an aspirin.

If only Carpenter could take something for the twitching in the foot that works the gas pedal.

Carpenter is in St. Petersburg for the Grand Prix, but will not race today. The IRL's medical expert refused to clear him for precautionary reasons, despite Carpenter's pleading. His lungs are working fine, he said, but doctors say another impact could cause additional damage.

Carpenter must wait until at least Wednesday, when his Vision Racing team is scheduled to test at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, to get back on the track. The IRL's next race is in two weeks, at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan, which for a man who measures time to the fourth decimal point seems like an eternity from now.

Today, Carpenter will stand on the pit road wall in slacks and a T-shirt watching another man - 47-year-old substitute Roberto Moreno - drive his race car. And, really, nothing causes a racer more discomfort than seeing someone else's fingers wrapped around his steering wheel.

"If it was up to me I would take the risk and be back out there," Carpenter said.

Risk is inherent in racing. Despite the tremendous effort put into making cars and tracks as safe as possible, every driver knows the next race could be the last.

Last race. Last breath.

"I don't want to say I'm desensitized to it, but race car drivers have a different outlook and a different picture of things when there is a fatality in racing," Carpenter said. "As a driver, you know it can happen. You come to terms with that before you ever get in the car.

"People say, "What's it going to be like when you get in the car?" It's going to be great. It's going to be the best thing for me to get back to normal."

Carpenter, an Indianapolis native and resident, would have gone home for Dana's funeral on Friday, but doctors did not want him to fly before today. Debunking a popular theory racers avoid anything that reminds them of their mortality, Carpenter is not afraid to visit hospitals or pay his respects at funerals.

The first funeral Carpenter went to, at age 13, was for racer Robbie Stanley, who was killed in 1994 when his sprint car spun, hit a wall and was struck broadside at nearly full speed by another driver with no time to react.

Seven days ago, Carpenter was in that vulnerable position, sliding backward down the banking at Homestead-Miami Speedway after his car spun during warmups and hit the outside wall. Carpenter's car had nearly come to rest. He was talking to his crew on the radio, telling them he was okay, when Dana rammed into him.

"I remember everything," Carpenter said.

His accident. Sliding down the track. Turning the wheel to find nothing worked. Watching his teammate go past. Spinning around to where he could no longer see traffic.

Then, not being able to breathe.

"Anyone who's had the wind knocked out of them knows," he said. "You're trying to take a breath, looking for air. Your brain is telling your mouth and lungs what to do, but they don't listen. I remember that feeling of panic and then I remember waking up."

Dana did not.

Speculation quickly began as to why Dana, a 32-year-old rookie, did not slow when the yellow caution lights flashed around the track and on his dashboard. Replays show he ran over debris that might have damaged the steering, but that does not explain his failure to slow down. Some blame Dana's relative inexperience.

Carpenter does not. Nor does he need an answer. For any of it.

"I believe that when it's your day, it's your day," he said. "That wasn't my day. Unfortunately, it was for Paul. There's a lot of people that live through things they shouldn't live through, and there are people who die from things they shouldn't die from."

So, Carpenter is here. Without pain. Without scars. Without fear for his next lap, even though it was him in that car.