Dan Wheldon

There has been no blogging for a while, for which I apologise – up to a point. You see, I had something penned last weekend and ready to post – then Dan Wheldon died. Anything to do with motor sport that is in any way flippant, light-hearted or frivolous has no place at all when a man has lost his life.

Death in motor sport is just as awful as death in any other arena of life. At least one person loses their life, and many others lose a loved one, parent, relative or friend. Observations such as ‘they were doing what they loved’, ‘they knew the risks’ or ‘why would you do something like that in the first place’ just don’t wash. One can be killed or seriously injured doing any number of things where there is a relatively strong perception of risk – martial arts, rugby, recreational flying – but as the last twenty years of social science has shown us, notions of risk and the experience of what it is to be alive and doing things are two largely separate and incompatible entities.

Watching the scene unfold on Sunday evening was one of the most horrible things I have ever seen on a screen. I do not intend here to give a blow-by-blow account of how things panned out from my view, suffice to say that it was pretty clear early on that events were not going to turn out well. What rankled with me, however, was the portrayal of Wheldon’s passing in some sections of the media. But at the same time, I was again hugely impressed by the measured actions of two journalists for whom I have the utmost respect.

Indeed, I saw some things that impressed me greatly in the hours and days following the accident. Chief among these was the appearance of much-maligned BBC broadcaster and former Formula 1 commentator Jonathan Legard, who featured on BBC News to discuss the accident and its causes. Legard avoided apportioning blame or pinpointing the cause of the happenings in Las Vegas, instead offering an even-handed account of the context of the crash and explaining how things would be investigated in due course. Similarly, on his well-read blog, hugely experienced F1 writer Joe Saward left a short statement saying that immediately after a man’s death was not the time for speculation, and that he would instead be pausing and respecting the passing of a great sportsman. He encouraged his readers to do the same.

Then I found myself flicking through a newspaper whilst waiting in the barber’s shop the next day. A two-page spread was devoted to the pile-
up, featuring a time-series of the fifteen-car crash as it unfolded. I shall not repeat or regurgitate what this time-series featured, suffice to say it did not stop at the point where one would consider it respectful and dignified to stop. In the aftermath of the Japanese tsunami, the major broadcasters elected to avoid showing footage or imagery that clearly showed individuals being killed, so it struck me as both odd and disappointing that the same discretion was not applied to a sporting event. In a similar vein, action replays of the accident (from a range of angles) in full were being shown over and over while the condition of Wheldon remained unknown – rather morbid and ghoulish, in my view.

At times like these, I am always torn by the outpouring of sympathy and interest in motor sport from mainstream media outlets. On one hand, it is always nice to see non-specialist press affording appropriate respect and recognition to those who have passed in motor sport, particularly when this celebrates the career of the individual in question and lays down the facts of their death rather than recourse to sensationalism or blame-seeking. On the other side, once emotions have settled and things in the motor sport world have started to return to something approximating ‘normal’, such events can serve as a reminder that media and public interest in motor sport (outside of F1) tends to peak only when someone gets hurt – ‘hurt’, of course, being a euphemism for the unthinkable.

As I said before, it is always pleasing to see a motor sport personality gaining posthumous recognition among society more broadly, especially if such success took place outside of the UK magnifying glass as it did for Dan Wheldon. But at the same time, I do always have a lingering doubt as to why the mainstream media’s interest in motor sport is suddenly pricked. Former World Rally Champion Richard Burns – a true professional and model sportsman – died of a brain tumour several years ago, and as horrible as it is to think such thoughts, I sometimes wonder how much more coverage his passing would have received had it been on the stage as opposed to in the hospice.

Motor sport is something that evokes strong responses from people at the best of times, be it on class, environmental or safety grounds. When emotions are running high, what is needed are calm and reasonable voices to convey the facts to the public and to pay appropriate respect to the deceased. As someone that is, at base, a motor sport fan – no more, no less – it pleases me greatly to know that two of the journalists I look up to the most were able to do just this over the course of the week.

Rest In Peace Dan Wheldon, a true motor sport hero.

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