Homestead, Fla. -- A black limousine drove slowly Sunday afternoon through Main Street here at Homestead-Miami Speedway before stopping in back of a huge transporter reading "Rahal Letterman Racing." Shortly after 2:30 p.m., one hour before the start of the Toyota Indy 300, tiny Danica Patrick walked barely noticed out from behind the transporter in a hooded sweatshirt, jeans and dark glasses, stepped into the limousine and was slowly driven away.
On a day Patrick and the rest of the Indy Racing League were to celebrate the beginning of their season - in the middle of all the celebrities, Playboy models, hospitality suites and tiki bar - a pall fell over this race.
And not even a brilliant azure sky could burn through the darkness.
"A very black day," is how team owner Bobby Rahal described the death Sunday of his rookie driver, Paul Dana.
"When I heard this news," said two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Arie Luyendyk, "my blood flowed out of my body." Just after 10 Sunday morning during final practice, Ed Carpenter's car spun out in Turn 2, bounced off the wall and slid down the track, where Dana slammed into it at more than 175 mph.
Dana's car splintered into pieces and so too did the heart of the Rahal Letterman Racing team when it learned Dana had died of multiple trauma. By 1:30 p.m., Rahal announced the cars of Dana's teammates, Patrick and Buddy Rice, would not participate in the Toyota Indy 300.
Yet the show had to go on. Drivers went to their pre-race meeting and final checks were done on the cars.
"Everything happened so suddenly," said Helio Castroneves. "Maybe for us drivers it was hard for us to try and understand, to sink in. Obviously, the owners, everyone was trying not to talk about it around us to make sure we go back and do our job." And they did in grand fashion when Dan Wheldon beat Castroneves in the ninth-closest finish in Indy racing history. But the celebration was muted and the afternoon cheerless. Dana, a 30-year-old husband who once worked as a mechanic at the Bridgestone Racing School in Canada for time behind the wheel rather than cash, was dead.
"It's tough when you lose a colleague," Castroneves said. "But all drivers know the risk ... We're part of the show. We're here to be able to play that role to fans." And so they did. For 25 minutes, Patrick solemnly stood outside her team's transporter wearing impenetrable sunglasses, signing hats, cards, model cars and magazine covers while accepting condolences from fans. Patrick had watched Dana's excitement this week after qualifying ninth.
"Life can be cruel sometimes, and this is one of those times," said former Indy champ Mario Andretti. "This is what builds the character. Life must go on." And so it did. They raced, they finished, and then they made plans for next week's race in St. Petersburg.
"I think we all knew what we needed to do was go out there and race," said third-place finisher Sam Hornish Jr.
But what about Dana? How do you not think about such a horrific accident just hours after it happens? "The day that I start thinking about those things, that's the day that I decide I need to quit doing what I'm doing," Hornish said.
Yes, Castroneves admitted, the day was a tough one. But, he said, "we need to know how to deal with it.
"It's not the first time it happened. And unfortunately, I don't think it will be the last time."
Dave Joseph writes for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.