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Ingram: Drug Tests Put NASCAR In Tough Spot

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, May 14 2009

NASCAR vice president of corporate communications Jim Hunter informed the media prior to the Southern 500 that  Jeremy Mayfield had been suspended.  (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

NASCAR vice president of corporate communications Jim Hunter informed the media prior to the Southern 500 that Jeremy Mayfield had been suspended. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Correspondent

Stock car racing has come a long way since the days of binge drinking the night before races, bourbon in water jugs, cigarette lighters on the dashboard, amphetamines in the tool box or smelling salts taped to the dash.

One might say its a brave new world, because drug testing has arrived.

It’s a world where NASCAR remains betwixt and between when it comes to policing participants’ use of banned substances as evidenced by the black eye brought on by the indefinite suspension of Jeremy Mayfield.

The first Sprint Cup driver to run afoul of this year’s new random testing, Mayfield was winning races and participating in the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship as recently as 2005.

The random test that resulted in his suspension raised a lot of thorny issues, starting with the problem of perception. In the week that baseball star Manny Ramirez was suspended 50 games for using a banned substance, is NASCAR painting itself with the same despicable brush by suspending a Sprint Cup driver?

NASCAR’s test, administered the opening day of the race weekend at Richmond, did not prevent Mayfield from driving in the race the next day. The results did not arrive until eight days later – after Mayfield had practiced and made a failed qualifying attempt at Darlington as well.

According to a NASCAR official, the drug in question was not considered one that enhanced performance.

So where is the benefit of a random testing policy that produces bad publicity, doesn’t necessarily protect the safety of other drivers and suspends drivers for substances that are not performance enhancing?

In this light, how difficult is it for fans to understand the sanctioning body’s drug testing and intent?

On the other hand, NASCAR now feels obliged to face up to the specter of the same problems existing in its sport as in other professional leagues.

The possibility of steroid use among pit crew members, whose earnings can often be in the six-figure range, is real.

Ron Hornaday, a NASCAR champion in the Camping World Truck Series, last year acknowledged he was taking a medication that included testosterone, which can improve stamina, particularly for an older driver. So there’s another real problem.

Drivers in the ranks of other major NASCAR touring series have been caught and suspended for use of banned substances under the sanctioning body’s former policy of “reasonable suspicion” resulting in drug tests.

One who wasn’t caught was Aaron Fike, arrested and indicted for heroin possession in 2007. He later confessed that he used the drug on days he drove in NASCAR’s Camping World Truck Series events.

NASCAR was stymied initially in the drug wars when Tim Richmond successfully sued the sanctioning body after he failed a drug test results prior to the 1989 season. According to the Associated Press, Richmond later won an out of court settlement in excess of $500,000 over issues of whether the tests actually detected a banned substance versus over-the-counter medicine.

Since that law suit, NASCAR has been relatively slow to move from “reasonable suspicion” to random tests for all licensed members in its major touring series. The improvement of drug testing, the prevalence of banned substances in other sports and their occasional high profile appearance in NASCAR seems to have left the sanctioning body’s officials thinking there was little choice.

There are choices when it comes to zero tolerance, as indicated by Major League Baseball’s policy, which included negotiations with Ramirez and his attorneys as well as a long confirmation process after a positive test took place during spring training. Medical records were exchanged – which further damaged Ramirez’s position, as it turned out. In the end, he got kicked out for 50 games.

In Mayfield’s case, the announcement of his indefinite suspension came roughly six hours after NASCAR received the results of his test.  

Unlike Major League Baseball, NASCAR is not an employer of team members, rather its participants are independent contractors. But apparently NASCAR has been able to handle this legal issue in the process of licensing participants, in no small part due to the endorsement of random testing by many drivers and crew members.

The new policy is clearly designed and implemented as a deterrent. It’s not designed to catch someone stepping out of the cockpit or walking off the pit road after a day’s work. That really would make for some bad publicity even if it made more sense from the point of view of safety. And an indefinite suspension would also make more sense with this type of testing if drug use during a race is caught red-handed.

Alas, it’s not a very inviting prospect for post-race interviews to end with, “Oops. Gotta go. Tonight’s my night for a random sample.”

Under the current methodology, when a driver such as Mayfield gets caught by regular screening, that leverages the case on NASCAR’s behalf that it is working hard to keep drug use from getting into the sport in ways that have seriously undermined other professional leagues.

There’s still plenty of room for doubt.

A high profile participant has been declared guilty in the court of public opinion. Although alcohol was ruled out, it’s still not clear just what the offense was in the case of Mayfield, which further lends the proceeding an air of inquisition.

Given that it was not a performance enhancing drug that Mayfield tested positive for, is the sport’s zero tolerance policy the better part of wisdom?

In the future, one wonders if a temporary medication taken by, say, a respected NASCAR champion might trip the test in the wrong direction. Or, if the announcement of a suspension would follow six hours after the results were confirmed in a case like this.

As inevitably occurs when this issue comes up in sports, there’s only one reliable piece of advice. Stay tuned. The drug wars are just getting started. 



| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, May 14 2009
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