Dealing with Tragedy
OCTOBER 19, 2011
I'll leave it to those who know the facts to comment on the rights and wrongs of the Indycar race at Las Vegas on Sunday. Similarly, I won't claim to have known Dan Wheldon personally. The last time I saw him was in the paddock, chatting with friends during the Goodwood Festival of Speed. The Indy 500 had been less than a month before but you could see that Wheldon's engaging personality was attracting the fans just as much as fresh memories of that fairy-tale victory at the Brickyard.
It has been easy to understand why those who knew him have been deeply upset by the consequences of such a terrible accident. As I said, it's not for me to pass judgement on the circumstances. But the aftermath on Monday has provoked a few thoughts.
We woke to a bright, sunny morning in Korea, only to pick up our cell phones and watch with growing concern the tweets covering events thousands of miles and a day away in Nevada. By the time it came to leave Mokpo for the three-hour train ride to Seoul, everyone's worst fears had been confirmed and the flow of emotion had already begun. This was when I began to experience a downside of Twitter, the social media source that, by and large, can have such a positive and interesting effect on our daily lives.
It was clear that a number of correspondents were tweeting simply because it was the thing to be seen to be doing. I'm not talking about race fans looking for an outlet for their genuine sorrow and shock. I'm referring to those whose profile in the sport seemed to demand - in their minds, anyway - some sort of statement of grief even though they knew next to nothing about Wheldon and wouldn't know an Indycar if they tripped over one while checking out their mentions on Twitter.
Of course, they are entitled to have personal feelings: who wouldn't in the event of such a shocking accident? But I felt uncomfortable and increasingly irritated that some (particularly in F1) were adopting the role of spokesperson for a branch of the motor sport community when their credential history stretches all of five minutes.
Less surprising was the reaction of certain sections of the media, particularly the tabloid press in Britain. One newspaper carried a headline asking why Wheldon was better known in the USA than in his native Britain. The answer is simple; it's because that same paper had given but a handful of paragraphs to Wheldon's win at the IMS less than five months before.
Now, of course, the newspaper's website is awash with stories vicariously pursuing every detail, from Wheldon's latest tattoos to claims from former motor sport champions that Indycar racing is excessively dangerous. There have been a lot of high horses mounted to provide views driven by self -aggrandisement rather than reasoned and purposeful argument from people who really ought to know better.
This was in marked contrast to touching and sincere reactions that really stood out. My train journey to Seoul was in the company of a preoccupied Anthony Davidson, who had raced with Wheldon in karts since the age of eight. Davidson was knocked sideways by the news and yet he was able to gather his thoughts and give a measured and mature response to the interviews with BBC Radio 5 Live (for whom Davidson works as a F1 commentator) that were waiting on the other end of the phone when he arrived in Seoul.
Catching up with media reaction at the end of my 30-hour journey home, I came across a recording of WishTV's coverage of the Las Vegas race. Here we had Derek Daly dealing on camera with the news of Wheldon's passing as word came through; surely one of the most difficult and heart-rending things a journalist/commentator will ever have to do, particularly when talking about the loss of someone he knew and admired. Daly handled this unbearable task with the aplomb and courage we have come to expect from someone imbued with a sense of realism and an understanding of the needs of his profession at a time like this.
This weekend marks the 40th anniversary of the death of Jo Siffert. I mention it because I was a paying spectator at Brands Hatch for the non-championship F1 race on that Sunday afternoon. With the season having finished, the F1 teams were in relaxed mood on a wonderful autumnal day as they celebrated Jackie Stewart and Tyrrell's second World Championship. Siffert's fiery accident on the 15th lap shattered all of that, not just because his hard-charging style had made 'Seppi' popular with the fans but also because this horrible tragedy hit us when we were least expecting it.
The race was stopped and the empty feeling shared by me and my mates was exacerbated by having no means of expressing our sadness and respect. We hung around the paddock, wishing there was some way we could connect, however briefly, with those inside F1 as they silently packed up and headed for home. It was a truly terrible way to end the season and head into the vacuum of winter.
I thought of that while watching a clip of the touching five-lap salute carried out at Las Vegas; a lone piper playing in the background and race fans raising their caps in silent salute. Indycar racing may have made a few misjudgements in recent months, but they got this absolutely right. It put in perspective the faux grief and knee-jerk reactions that would inevitably follow.
Maurice Hamilton , a freelance motor sport writer and broadcaster since 1977, is the author of more than twenty books and contributes to websites and magazines worldwide.
His weekly column for Grandprix.com was Highly Commended in the 2011 Newspress New Media Awards.