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Why getting back on track will help some

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Holly Cain

Holly Cain has covered racing in all its forms for 21 years, winning multiple awards from the Associated Press Sports Editors and Society of Professional Journalists for feature and news writing. She chronicled NASCAR Champion Rusty Wallace's final season, authoring a book called "Rusty's Last Call." Follow her on Twitter.

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.

It’s been four months since they buried their colleague, and friend, Dan Wheldon.

The IZOD IndyCar Series and much of the racing community has grieved publicly and privately for the popular two-time Indy 500 champ who was killed in a horrible multicar accident a handful of laps into the 2011 season finale in Las Vegas.

Drivers and teams have embraced Wheldon’s family — particularly his wife and two young sons — and they have supported one another and dissected the crash to secure a safer future.

But, to a person, the drivers say the best way to honor Wheldon and heal their own wounds is to get back to work.

And that’s what they will do for the first time in Sunday’s season-opening Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg — a street course located within a couple of miles of Wheldon’s home.

“It’s going to be tough, but Dan was a competitor and that’s our job,’’ said Marco Andretti, who would have re-teamed with Wheldon at Andretti Autosport this season.

Back on track

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“I’d want the same. Life goes on — you just keep working and try to stay busy and try to win St. Pete for him. I know he was very proud of this city and this race.’’

While jumping into a cockpit, racing at high speed and competing wheel-to-wheel only a few inches from a concrete wall gives new meaning to “getting back in the saddle,” sports psychologist Dr. Christopher Carr says that’s exactly what he’d expect of these drivers. That is their coping mechanism.

“For them, getting back in the car is what they need to do,’’ said Carr, with the Indianapolis-based St. Vincent’s Sports Performance Center, where Wheldon used to train. “It’s such a unique athletic personality to do this sport and, probably, most racing drivers will experience the loss of a colleague throughout their career.

“This certain personality understands and accepts the risks involved. My sense is they are prepared for when these events occur. They never want something like this to happen, but when it does, they are more prepared to manage their emotions than others might be.’’

NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson said he feels for his open-wheel brethren this week. He’s experienced similar heartache and the challenge of returning to work under extreme emotional circumstances.

“It is tough,’’ Johnson said last week. “One thing those drivers have — or two things I should point out; one is some time, and two is they aren’t going back to the same track. I lost one of my closest friends, Blaise Alexander, at Charlotte. The next day at 9 a.m. I was in a race car on track looking at his marks into the wall and was faced with that reality all weekend long.

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“There is no way around it. It is extremely difficult. It just sits in your mind. You try to shake it off, but it’s still there somewhere. But hopefully a lot of the pain is behind them and they are able to be in the happy space and tell great stories about Dan and go down that road instead of the hurt being up front.”

Because the Las Vegas race was called after Wheldon’s accident — and points leader Dario Franchitti declared the series champion — it was an abrupt ending to the year and a heart-wrenching send-off to a nearly five-month-long offseason.

So while this will be the first IndyCar race since the tragedy, most of the drivers have logged an unusually high amount of miles testing during the offseason, learning a new car — chassis and engines — that will debut this week. It’s a car that Wheldon helped develop last season and one that features safety upgrades over the 2011 model.

Many of the racers who will fill Sunday’s starting grid purposely competed in other forms of racing during the offseason, including the Rolex 24 at Daytona and 12 Hours of Sebring sport cars races, to stay fresh in skill and occupied of mind.

They are antsy to get behind the wheel and race now, but Carr doesn’t think the lengthy down time was entirely a bad thing. And, in his opinion, it was definitely the right move not to ask the drivers to restart the Vegas race after the melee.

“That was such a traumatic event and information that you can’t help but focus on,’’ Carr explained. “I think you would be putting drivers at greater risks at a time they need all their faculties and focus. You cannot lose focus for even a split second.’’

“So I would say the situational timing of it being the last race was probably beneficial in the healing process because the drivers and teams had the time to grieve and support each other. The initial, natural feelings of shock, the denial of loss, those kinds of things would make it harder to find focus.

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These drivers all have one thing in common. They are 2011 champs.

“When you have a longer time to go through the grieving process, you then allow yourself to move into the acceptance phase. That’s when they can go back to doing what’s so close to their identity, which is a race car driver. That’s where they get the normalcy and sense of self-esteem.’’

Two-time IndyCar Series champion runner-up Will Power is among a group of drivers who have not competed much since the Oct. 16 IndyCar season-ender.

“Very sad end to the year, and I have to say that I think about that — I pretty much have thought about it every single day for three months after it,’’ the Team Penske driver said somberly. “(It’s been good) to get back in the car, a lot of testing and everything — just moving ahead.

“For me, it’s kind of helpful to get in the car and get moving — the whole process you go through in developing the car, and it keeps your mind on that job.’’

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