HOMESTEAD, Fla. - Paul Dana was an up-and-coming rookie driver living his dream, a former motorsports journalist who was hours away Sunday from beginning his most promising season yet.
Then, before the green flag flew, something went terribly, inexplicably wrong.
While streaking around the Homestead-Miami Speedway oval during a warmup session, Dana failed to notice that another car had spun to a stop, slamming into it at close to 200 mph. Two hours after his shattered car came to a rest, the 30-year-old Dana was pronounced dead at a hospital.
"Obviously, this is a very black day for us," team owner Bobby Rahal said. "This is a great tragedy."
Dana believed he had finally gotten his big break in the months before the season-opening IRL IndyCar Series race here. After a string of modest successes rising through racing's ranks, he had secured a ride with the elite Rahal Letterman Racing - the same team that fields IRL phenom Danica Patrick and Indianapolis 500 winner Buddy Rice.
Patrick and Rice did not run Sunday, but the race went on as planned, with defending Indy 500 and IRL points champion Dan Wheldon beating Helio Castroneves by a nose cone.
If the drivers had any jitters going into the race, it didn't show by the end - Wheldon and Castroneves carried off a side-by-side, tire-bumping duel in the final laps en route to the thrilling finish.
"Our thoughts and prayers are with the Dana family and all of Rahal Letterman racing," said Wheldon, who ran the race with Dana's No. 17 on his side pod. "It's a very, very sad day. I think hopefully we put on a good race."
Two days before his death - the first in the IRL in three years - Dana was strolling through the paddock, shaking hands and signing autographs.
"I can't wait to get started because I want to prove to everyone that I can do the job," Dana told a longtime acquaintance. "I'm feeling good and I know I can race with these guys. And now I've got great equipment."
Dana's wife, Tonya, was in Indianapolis, where the couple lived, and was notified of her husband's death while attending a church service.
Dana, who began his career in Formula Fords and worked his way up through the ranks, was known as a strong self promoter. He got his new ride by bringing the Ethanol sponsorship to the Rahal Letterman team over the winter.
Still, the wreck might have been the result of a rookie mistake by Dana, whose previous IRL experience included just three races last season. Moments into the 30-minute warmup, Ed Carpenter, grandson of IRL founder Tony George, crashed in turn two and went spinning down the racetrack.
Yellow lights came on around the track, and several cars could be seen slowing, some of which avoided Carpenter's car. But Dana's car kept its speed, passing Buddy Lazier and Scott Sharp.
"He carried way too much speed in and wasn't aware of what was going on around him," Lazier said.
Seconds later, Dana's Honda-powered Panoz slammed into Carpenter's Dallara-Honda at nearly full speed - about 200 mph.
Dana's car nearly split in half. The chassis flew about 6 feet off the ground and pieces were strewn down the track. It nearly turned over, but landed on its wheels before sliding to a halt.
"I really don't know at this point what happened or who was at fault," said George, who founded the IRL in 1995. "It's just a real shame. I don't know that it was inexperience. I don't want to say anything about that."
Both drivers were flown by helicopter to a Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, where Dana was pronounced dead about two hours after the 10:03 a.m. crash. IRL officials said tests revealed no injuries to Carpenter, but the 25-year-old third-year driver was kept overnight for observation.
Dana's previous three IRL races with Ethanol Hemelgarn Racing came at the start of the 2005 season. He finished a season-best 10th at Homestead, but his year ended in May when he sustained a broken back while practicing for the Indianapolis 500.
There was no immediate explanation for Dana's failure to slow down several seconds after the yellow lights came on around the track because of Carpenter's crash.
"That's just the first time of the weekend that we got all 20 cars on the track at the same time," said IRL president Brian Barnhart. "Ed had his problem in turn two initially. The yellow lights were called immediately and all systems functioned properly. It's just a busy time out there, with a lot of cars and a lot of traffic."
Rahal, co-owner of the Rahal Letterman team, said he knew of no problem with communications.
"The spotter made clear the incident," Rahal said. "From what I could see, there was a car on the outside. Paul was just passing or had just passed, but I think it would be conjecture and probably very irresponsible for me to try to dissect as to why what happened, happened. But there was no problem with communication."
The Rahal Letterman team withdrew Patrick and Rice from the Toyota Indy 300, and a moment of silence was observed before the start of the 300-mile race. Otherwise, the prerace ceremonies, including the introduction of the remaining 17 drivers, went according to schedule.
Several drivers dedicated their race to Dana, but the fatality didn't slow them down a bit. The crowd was on its feet for the final 20 laps and the spectacular finish. The winning margin of 0.0147-seconds was the ninth closest finish in league history, and there were no serious accidents in the race.
It was Wheldon's first victory with his new team, Chip Ganassi Racing.
"It's difficult to race under such circumstances," Wheldon said. "It's a job and it can be pretty vicious at times. But there can be a lot of highs as well."
Rahal, who co-owns the team with television talk show host David Letterman, said the plan was to field cars for Patrick and Rice at next Sunday's race in St. Petersburg, Fla. He said any future plans for the No. 17 entry, the car driven by Dana, "are unclear at this time."
"Paul Dana's passing is a terrible tragedy and I want to express my condolences and sympathies to his family and friends," Letterman said in a statement. "I did not know Paul personally, but we were all proud to have him on our team and are deeply saddened by his tragic passing at such a young age."
George owns the Vision Racing team that fields cars for Carpenter and Tomas Scheckter, returned from the hospital about one hour before the start of the race. He said he was relieved that his stepson escaped serious injury.
"I guess he was pretty lucky," George said. "It was a hard hit."
Dana is the first IRL driver killed since Tony Renna died in a crash during testing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in October 2003. The last NASCAR driver killed was Dale Earnhardt in February 2001, and the last driver to die in Formula One was Ayrton Senna in May 1994.
It is the third racing death at the Homestead track - John Nemechek was killed in a NASCAR truck race in February 1997 and Jeff Clinton died in a Grand Am sports car event at the track in March 2002.
The IRL also had a tragedy in May 1999 when a wheel from a car sailed into the grandstand at what was then Charlotte Motor Speedway, killing three spectators and injuring eight others.