It wasn't too long ago that Paul Dana was trying to make his way through the maze that is North American open wheel racing. The 29-year-old from St. Louis had tried just about everything to be noticed, from the Bridgestone Racing School Mechanics...
It wasn't too long ago that Paul Dana was trying to make his way through the maze that is North American open wheel racing. The 29-year-old from St. Louis had tried just about everything to be noticed, from the Bridgestone Racing School Mechanics Championship, Skip Barber Formula Dodge Series, Indy Lights and US Formula 3.
It wasn't until 2003 that he landed in the Menards Infiniti Pro Series, having a feast-or-famine first season with Kenn Hardley Racing that saw Dana achieve six top-10 results in 10 starts.
This season, however, things are different - and better - for Paul Dana, now driving the #91 Ethanol Dallara/Infiniti/Firestone entry in the Menards Infiniti Pro Series for Hemelgarn 91 Johnson Motorsports.
Even though he is playing second fiddle in many races to point leader Thiago Medeiros, Dana has managed to grab one pole position, three front- row starts and, prior to racing in the Milwaukee 100 on the tricky, fast and flat Milwaukee Mile, the Northwestern University journalism graduate managed two runner-up finishes to the speedy Brazilian.
It sure looked like he was slated for the same fate this past Sunday, but for the first time this year Medeiros has trouble and Dana was exactly where he needed to be to gain his first Pro Series victory.
"It seems like nobody else wanted to finish the race but us," Dana laughs. "Thiago was quickest and we were sure it was another second place for us. He had a big gap and we were just cruising in second, but then he had a mechanical failure and we inherited the win. After having some tough luck earlier this year, we'll take the win any way we can."
Recognizing that Milwaukee is "one of the toughest tracks we go to, to win there is huge for us. The Wisconsin tracks at Milwaukee and Elkhart Lake's Road America were my first taste of racing," making this win even more of a personal accomplishment.
Now firmly slotted in second place to Medeiros, Dana understands the importance of starting at the front of the field. At Milwaukee, a three- car crash behind him eliminated one third of the field on the first lap. "Those first-lap crashes take out the mid-pack guys," and that's not where he wants to be.
What Dana would like, though, is perhaps a bit more side-by-side racing with Medeiros. "The points gap is not as big as the performance gap," he notes. "We had a lot of bad luck but I think we've changed that" with his first victory on Sunday.
"I knew I got the lead when my brother, who spots for me told me. I didn't see Thiago go out and spin on pit lane so when I was told I was P1, I was shocked," Dana reveals. "It was unbelievably slick in turns 3 and 4 and I knew I had to be patient and not pitch the car into the fence. Those 20-30 laps were a long time to keep up the momentum."
It might have been difficult but that is exactly what Paul Dana did and now he is looking forward to this weekend's 100-mile contest at the two-mile Michigan Speedway. "Hemelgarn 91 Johnson Motorsports has a great car on the big tracks, but Michigan is a weird place.
"It's a drivers and handling track and not as easy as it seems. It can get weird with the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series rubber put down," Dana states. "
Because the Indy Racing League is not willing to have either the Menards Infiniti Pro or IndyCar Series commit to massive tests in-season, it's been difficult to get setups just right at many circuits. "Engineers are extremely important in an all-oval series," according to Paul Dana. "We did test to the end of January before the ban set in, but we have only seven days of testing after that.
"We hired a lot of guys from Panther Racing who helped Mark Taylor get last year's title, so we've got a good starting point and we're beginning to show our energy and ability to take the fight to Thiago," he believes.
Unlike many drivers, Paul Dana didn't come into motorsports with family backing and, with his Ethanol sponsorship, "I'm the luckiest guy in North America to be able to bring them to the national stage. I had to sit out but when I met people in the industry we realized we could promote this American homegrown fuel in racing. There are 25 individual companies who contribute money to this project and they are dedicated and committed."
The Menards Infiniti Pro Series hasn't got huge fields in 2003 and it is, still, in infancy. Dana thinks the "quality is there" even if the quantity of teams and drivers are not. "Even in a lot of competitive fields you're always racing one or two guys around you. This is a new series and right now is not a great time" to entice new operations. "No matter what, you still see the same 3-4 teams and drivers at the front," he insists.
Paul is hoping to move up to the Indy cars with Hemelgarn next year, a team that has produced one championship and Indy 500 victory (with driver Buddy Lazier). "If I keep the car at the front I hope to get a shot at Indy next year." While other drivers have moved up from the Pro series with only middling success, "I've seen Pro series guys struggle. I hope I won't make the same mistakes."