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A High-Horsepower Spiritual Quest

A friend remembers the only Medill grad he knew who could go zero to 100 in under three seconds.

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Paul Dana was always more than my dear friend--he was a real-life literary figure. When you spent time with him, it didn't matter what you were actually doing--being typical college kids biking drunk around Evanston in search of pizza, driving to Milwaukee to go bowling, sitting on the couch debating environmental policy--because Paul had a way of observing people and telling stories, sometimes as they were happening, that made routine events feel like chapters in a novel. And he, more than anyone, knew they would keep coming. At the end of each adventure, instead of simply saying good-bye, Paul had his own way of telling you he'd see you again. "Down the road," he'd say.

He was a very convincing person. As an experiment with auto racing evolved into his career, his friends came to expect the incredible from him. I got used to describing him as "you know, Paul Dana--my friend who has a journalism degree from Northwestern and races cars." Even now, days after the shocking experience of learning from ESPN that he had crashed and died, I've had to resist thinking of it as just the final turn in the myth he built.

People keep asking me how he ended up on the racetrack instead of in a newsroom. I'd tell them Paul always said he was a writer who didn't write. This was an exaggeration--he did write, and he wrote well. His articles and stories and sketches were full of vivid characters, colorful quotes, and hilarious epiphanies, all of them true. Like the night we went to a pub in Lincoln Park where two underage guys could get some pitchers, and many hours later ended up dissecting Catch-22 and the Cowboy Junkies, arguing about God and evil, and finally agreeing that some good force exists in the world. It suddenly seemed significant to Paul that we were actually just sitting in a northbound el train stalled at Jarvis.

A few days later, Paul read me the opening lines of a story he was working on: "It was the kind of night when anything could happen, and Jarvis was next--Jarvis."

And there was the time he and his brother decided to drive from their family's home in Saint Louis to see the mountains of New Mexico and a girl his brother missed; they listened to R.E.M. the entire way, all of the albums in chronological order, until at some desperate point in the desert they concluded that the girl wasn't worth it, that they should probably get back before the holidays were over, and that Green sucked so bad it should be yanked from the rotation.

Paul was always telling and retelling his stories--to himself and his friends, if not always on paper. It would just have to be a while--maybe years--before he'd have time to actually put them all down. For now, he had other stuff to do.

I don't know anything about racing or even about cars. Paul tried to educate me many times, but I'm the kind of guy who has trouble changing a flat tire, and the sports I favor don't involve engines. It was easier to understand the obsession that drove him: he refused to accept the idea that his life could be normal or insignificant. It's not that he wanted to be famous--he couldn't have cared less about that. Advancing from Northwestern student to track hanger-on to go-kart racer to the big leagues of IndyCars wasn't meant as a demonstration of manliness either. Paul had undertaken a high-horsepower spiritual quest. He wanted to bend the idea of the possible. Why couldn't a wiry five-foot-eight kid who was supposed to settle into the library at a nice private college simply will himself into being a professional athlete? Besides, he really liked driving fast cars.

I was two years ahead of Paul at Northwestern. He looked so young that on one trip to my parents' house my mother carded him when she found him drinking beer in the kitchen. But he was also one of the most directed people I ever met. Early the morning after the kitchen incident, my kid brother found Paul sitting by himself in the dark TV room where he'd dozed briefly during the night. His fists were clenched and his eyes opened wide as he psyched himself up for a run. By the time we were both out of school I felt he'd figured something out that I hadn't yet--and he was moving on it.

For the better part of a decade I would get calls from Paul announcing that he'd be driving past in an hour--did I still have a couch he could sprawl on for the night? Paul was on his way to Ontario to learn how to be a mechanic and drive race cars. He was returning from a trip west, where he'd taken a gig as a driving instructor as a way to cover his rent during the summer racing season. He was working out a deal to write a book for a tool company in exchange for sponsorship cash. He was on his way to see Tonya, his longtime girlfriend, then too-short-a-time wife, who was getting a PhD in psychology at the University of Toronto. In fact, some of Paul's longest-running and funniest material involved the interplay between two characters: the beautiful, brilliant, responsible, mostly if not infinitely patient girlfriend and the guy who slept on the couches and floors of friends, and friends of friends, on his way across the country, always trying to hustle up money, always telling the girlfriend he had to try racing one more season. He wasn't especially proud of acting like a wayward scoundrel, but since this was who he had to be until he got to a place where he'd be at peace, he played up the contrast with Tonya's steady academic progress and unwavering commitment to him. He talked this way secure in the fact that everyone knew he'd fallen for Tonya the first time he saw her, when they were freshmen.

Paul performed well in his races. Just as important, he figured out how to promote himself, and eventually how to persuade the ethanol industry that sponsoring him in the name of environmental activism would be good business. It was a brilliant move for his racing career, but for the first time in years he was also thinking about life beyond the track. Environmental issues--particularly among the environmentally disinterested racing crowd--were the right kind of challenge, once he couldn't go further as a driver. But that was the stunning thing: at 32 he was still going further. Last weekend's race at Florida's Homestead-Miami Speedway would have been his biggest. He was on a team sponsored by racing legend Bobby Rahal and David Letterman. His teammates were Danica Patrick and former Indy 500 winner Buddy Rice. He had qualified in his best position ever.

I can't think of any reason why Paul should be gone. Knowing he'd achieved some personal peak, and knowing the crash happened as he was living the kind of story he wanted for himself--none of that adds up right now. So I keep saying, "Down the road."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/AP Photo/Luis Alvarez.

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