Friday, March 23, 2012

Workplace Grief: IndyCar-Style

When we hear the term ‘workplace grief’, we probably think of a traditional business setting. Maybe a former employee came back and shot people. Maybe the boss dropped dead of a heart attack. Maybe there was an accident.

But people make their livings in a lot of places that aren’t cubicles: baseball diamonds, stages, beaches, movie theatres, day care centers, gyms.

Sometimes, by virtual of their professions, people also find themselves in the public eye. Knowing you’re going to – rightly or wrongly – be judged by the media and strangers can reasonably compound your grief for your co-worker.

Last October, Dan Wheldon died in a horrific crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. British-born Wheldon, the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner, lived in St. Petersburg, Florida with his wife and two young children. He was 33.

This weekend, the 2012 IndyCar season opens…in St. Petersburg.

There will be memorials all weekend pre-race ceremony; orange ribbons (a tribute to his car) sold to raise money for the Alzheimer’s Foundation; his sister will drop the flag and present the winner’s trophy; Turn 10 rechristened “Dan Wheldon Way”.

Those of us watching on TV will be subjected to repeated replays of the fiery images of Wheldon’s last moments.

His friends – his co-workers – don’t have to watch the replays: many of them saw it happen from their own race cars.

They now have to go do the thing they love – the thing Dan Wheldon loved.

The thing that killed him.

The thing they know could also kill them.

Some of them talked about it in USA Today’s March 20 issue:

“Do I still want to do this? Yeah, I do,” said three-time defending champion Dario Franchitti, who never celebrated the title in the wake of his friend and former teammate’s death. “It was something I had to answer pretty quickly because I was in the car (testing) at Indy a week later, and it didn’t take me long to answer it, and I was quite surprised…I hate to sound blasé,” he said. “It’s not a nice thing. It’s just part of it, man, but that doesn’t mean you forget the person. You get back in the car and get on with it.”

Will Power, who was injured in the same crash, doesn’t know what to expect this weekend:

“I have thought about Dan a lot,” he said. “Every time I see his photo, I can’t help but be sad…and it can happen to anyone. When you get in the car, you have to put it aside.”

Well, you say, it’s a dangerous sport. You have to be a little nuts to enjoy racing around at 220mph, knowing full well you could die at any moment.

That may be true. But danger is everywhere: it’s just a little more obvious on the IndyCar circuit.

Being part of a dangerous profession doesn’t exempt you from grieving your co-workers.

Grief counseling was offered for the drivers, but it sounds like many leaned on each other for support. James Hinchcliffe – in the unenviable position of driving the car that was supposed to be Wheldon’s – appreciated the camaraderie and support:

“We’ve had a good mourning period. I talked to probably 10 or 12 drivers in the last couple of weeks…Especially right after the event, we all needed each other, and some of these guys have been through this stuff before,. This was the first time I’ve ever had to deal with a (racing death), and it was cool to have guys to lean on.”

Though not an official “anniversary” in the sense that we commemorate certain dates after a person’s death, this weekend will be a challenging one for everyone associated with racing.

Kudos to the drivers for accepting the support they needed – professional or other drivers – to help them through their grief.

But even as they prepare to remember Dan Wheldon, and prepare to shut out all distractions to drive their best race, they all know what his close friend and former teammate Tony Kanaan knows:

“Eventually we need…I need…to let it go,” Kanaan said. “I’m going to try to be as positive as I can when I get (to St. Petersburg to race). Try to be strong and not as emotional. But I don’t think you can prepare yourself.”

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