Toyota Indy 300
Paul Dana: 1975-2006
March 26 , 2006
The IRL IndyCar Series began the 2006 season on a somber note after Rahal Letterman Racing driver, Paul Dana, lost his life in an accident that also involved Vision Racing driver, Ed Carpenter, prior to the start of the Toyota Indy 300. Dana was set to make his first start with Rahal Letterman Racing following three IRL starts in 2005 with Hemelgarn Racing and a stint in the IRL's Infiniti Pro Series from 2003 to 2004. In honor of their fallen teammate, drivers Danica Patrick and Buddy Rice were withdrawn from the race.
The tragedy overshadowed the beginning of a new season with dramatic changes that began to unfold at the end of last year with the departure of Chevrolet and Toyota , leaving Honda to power all entries. Moreover, the off-season hosted a slew of driver changes that saw defending IRL and Indianapolis 500 Champion, Dan Wheldon, leave Andretti Green Racing for Target Chip Ganassi Racing; Marco Andretti filled Wheldon's vacated seat; Panther Racing became a one car team with Vitor Meira as their driver; Vision Racing expanded to two cars with Tomas Scheckter teaming Ed Carpenter; Buddy Lazier joined Dreyer & Reinbold Racing while P.J. Chesson joined Hemelgarn Racing; and Felipe Giaffone as well as Eddie Cheever both returned to the series.
When the green flag finally dropped for the start of the race Sam Hornish Jr. led just 15 cars across the line as AGR grappled with Bryan Herta's Dallara in the pits. An overanxious Marco Andretti was penalized on the second lap after jumping his first start and later retired with a broken halfshaft. Ten laps into the event the first yellow flew for Vitor Meira's smoking Panther Racing machine. Hornish led an even smaller pack of 12 cars back to the flag with the exit of Meira, Andretti, and Lazier. Hornish led up until the first green flag pit stops when he relinquished the lead to teammate Helio Castroneves who was on an alternate fuel strategy. By about lap 70 the strategies cycled through and Hornish was back out in front being closely followed by Dan Wheldon in his new TCGR seat.
Hornish led over Wheldon and Dario Franchitti through the halfway mark but was slowed on lap 105 for debris in turn 4. The leaders pitted and Hornish emerged on point for the restart while Wheldon fell to fourth behind Franchitti and Castroneves. Soon after the lap 113 restart Castroneves moved into second to make it a Penske 1-2; Wheldon took notice and pushed Franchitti further back to fourth in pursuit of the Marlboro cars. The top three stayed nose to tail until a third yellow was brought out when Tony Kanaan lost control of his AGR Dallara while entering pitlane; the Brazilian ended his day after making light contact with the inside retaining wall. This was the deciding point in the race after Wheldon and Hornish both had an eventful time in the pits that shuffled them to the end of the lead lap cars in fourth and fifth respectively.
The green unfurled on lap 170 but before the field was fully up to speed Kanaan's teammate, Bryan Herta, lost it in turn 1 to bring out the final yellow of the afternoon. With the last drop of the green on lap 178 Castroneves looked poised to take his first win at Homestead Miami Speedway. Wheldon, though, diced through the leaders and caught Castroneves with just under 20 laps left in the race. Both went side by side until Wheldon tucked in behind Castroneves with 10 laps remaining. Castroneves looked like he had the win wrapped up until Wheldon darted to the outside on the final lap; both went through turns 3 and 4 wheel to wheel with Wheldon just edging out Castroneves for his first win of the IRL season. After climbing out of the cockpit, visibly shaken by the day's events, the defending champion said it best, “Our thoughts and prayers are with the Dana family.”