Bryan Davis Keith · Thursday July 2, 2009
Guess who’s coming to Daytona?
That’d be none other than formerly-suspended Jeremy Mayfield. With high-powered attorney Bill Diehl backing him up, Mayfield was granted a temporary injunction that will allow him to return to competition as early as this weekend’s races in Daytona Beach. And while Diehl was quick to label the court’s finding in Mayfield’s favor as an “independence day” for his client, it is really really hard to take anything positive from this latest twist in what has become a black-eye saga for the racing community.
Sure, Mayfield fans will rejoice in getting to see their favorite driver take to the track in the near future and just about everyone (including this writer) will take some satisfaction in seeing NASCAR being taken down a peg or three. But the smiles stop there…because this case has established precedent that no one in their right mind should consider progress.
Consider the cornerstone argument used by Diehl to garner Mayfield his injunction: that because NASCAR’s drug policy requires all testing to be done by laboratories that the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration of the US Department of Health has certified, NASCAR must inherently abide by the same guidelines used to govern drug testing in the federal workplace.
In short, simply because NASCAR has chosen in their drug policy to use laboratories that are held to be of the highest caliber by the US Department of Health, they must act as a federal agency would themselves in conducting drug testing, according to this latest decision.
To call that dangerous precedent is putting it lightly. For all the debate and scorn directed (and rightfully so) at NASCAR for their bumbling incompetence in managing a tremendous sport, there shouldn’t be a single fan out there embracing the fact that federal agency guidelines for drug testing are now being forced upon NASCAR. Think of the groundwork that could be laid here considering the recent power grabs of the federal government (and the fact that they own substantial interest in two automakers that play a huge role in this sport).
Who is going to determine if NASCAR is meeting federal agency guidelines? And how? Call me a conspiracy theorist, but the mere possibilities that these questions evoke scare me. And all of this because NASCAR did the right thing in crafting their drug policy by mandating that the labs doing the testing be certified.
Not convinced? Let’s try a simpler argument. The precedent to follow now is if suspended, simply sue. The precedent is now, thanks to the workings of a courtroom, competitive control has been taken from the very sanctioning body itself, and a driver with a possible outstanding positive drug test has been cleared to compete in one of the world’s most dangerous sports. NASCAR’s new drug policy, which for all of its flaws was truly a step forward, has now been ripped to shreds and will serve as no deterrent to substance abuse in the foreseeable future.
Now before jumping down my throat, let’s be clear: I am not in any way shape or form blanket-defending NASCAR’s drug testing policy. Not having an available, published list of substances being tested for is unacceptable. Not having a plan in place to have second samples tested by an independent lab following a positive drug test is unacceptable. And frankly, the way NASCAR has handled the entire Mayfield fiasco is unacceptable.
But the Pandorra’s Box that has been opened as a result of this legal injunction is going to have repercussions far beyond Jeremy Mayfield, and far beyond the short-lived joy of seeing Brian France and Co. lose a battle to the little guy. The courts are now involved, federal agency standards (and likely the oversight mechanisms that come with them) are now involved, and NASCAR’s admirable hard-line stance on strict suspensions for positive drug tests has been compromised. This is not good news for the racing community.
And, as always, NASCAR has no one but themselves to thank for this utter disaster. Though on the drug-testing front NASCAR has done so many things right, be it being a professional sporting entity willing to suspend a competitor for life or taking immediate action to address shortcomings in its testing policy when confronted with proof of failure (Aaron Fike’s admission to heroin use during races), its utter refusal to be transparent and black and white with the governing of its sport has now truly taken drug testing out of their hands.
Jeremy Mayfield didn’t need a Bill Diehl for his counsel to punch a hole of reasonable doubt in NASCAR’s defense of its actions. Being a driver/owner in the Sprint Cup Series and not being presented with a list of substances that such competitors would be tested for will raise anyone’s eyebrows. Refusing to submit a second sample of a positive test to an independent laboratory for confirmation defies common sense, legal soundness, any measure of accountability. And handling a situation as sensitive as a driver suspension with smoke and mirrors (taking weeks to even identify the substance tested positive for) isn’t going to convince anyone that the right thing is inherently being done.
Had this been a jury trial, the deliberation would have been short. There is no way to get around the haziness surrounding the entire Mayfield episode and how NASCAR has handled it.
You’d really think after all these years that NASCAR would catch on and realize that for all its efforts to create non-committal rules and regulations that allow them to make it up as they go, such a strategy is going to come back and bite them time and time again. Just look at Talladega this past April: Thanks to an utter refusal last October to acknowledge that Regan Smith had in fact bested Tony Stewart safely, and thus fully in the spirit of the yellow-line rule, NASCAR made a knee-jerk move to ensure that well-known Smoke, and not rookie Smith, went to Victory Lane, directly contradicting past rulings made regarding the yellow-line that allowed Dale Earnhardt, Jr. to score a win at Talladega in 2003, or Johnny Benson to make a daring pass in a Truck race at Daytona.
The result? When push came to shove again at the Cup race this spring, Brad Keselowski was left no competitive choice but to send Carl Edwards spinning…an episode that sent a 3400 pound projectile hurtling towards thousands of spectators.
Unfortunately, though, NASCAR’s constant refusal to set rules and follow them has robbed them of the very control they so desperately seek over their sport. They’ve made a bed for themselves, and now they must sleep in it.
It’s a bed that has the involvement of courts and federal regulations looming. It’s a bed that has rendered an attempt by the sanctioning body to be at the forefront of professional drug regulation worth less than the paper the regulations are printed on. And it’s a bed that will now force NASCAR and its competitors to sit back and watch as a driver who is well-known throughout the garage to have possibly failed a drug test allowed back on the track, well-earned suspension be damned, to race once again.
Any celebrations in any camp regarding this injunction will soon be extinguished. Mayfield may well get the chance to race in the near future, but it won’t be this weekend. Sources tell Frontstretch that Mayfield Motorsports does not have the wherewithal to get their No. 41 team trackside in time for the upcoming Daytona race weekend, and the Gunselman Motorsports ride that ESPN reported as a possibility for Mayfield is not going to be available (plate ace Mike Wallace is scheduled to drive the car and has already attempted races for the No. 64 team this year). There’s also the problem of an already small team having laid off 10 of its employees over the team’s competitive hiatus.
And even if the No. 41 team gets to the track at Chicago, it’s not like there’s any performance to look forward to. Back at Atlanta in March, I wrote about how intriguing the team’s mentality was regarding their approach to Cup racing on a tight budget—essentially shop for ready-built race cars from Triad Racing Technologies and show up on Sundays. Unfortunately, as great a strategy as that may be for Mayfield, who in that interview noted that despite being the “owner” of the team that his involvement at the track did not go beyond his role as the driver, it’s clearly not proving to be a competitive model; the team has only qualified for five races in 2009, with a best finish of 32nd. Numerous Frontstretch writers, myself included, have also noticed Mayfield to be absent from the team hauler and garage stall for extended periods of time during race weekends; If you’re going to race Cup small-time, hands-on involvement is a necessity, not an option.
As for sponsorship, forget about it. Injunction or not, I don’t buy this notion that there will be companies out there lining up to back the driver who took on NASCAR and won. Spending money to sponsor a driver who, despite today’s victory, has a positive methamphetamine test and inevitable further lawsuits pending doesn’t ring up as a solid sale, especially with dollars to go racing so hard to come by.
A driver with a hazy past and uncertain legal future returns to a back-marker ride with no certain team composition or financial future. The sanctioning of big-time stock car racing is now being held to the standards of a federal agency, and stands poised to lose control over a vital element of its competitive policing as well as an issue that it stood to make up valuable ground as a professional sports entity. Stock car racing’s headline as it heads to hallowed Daytona and the vital summer stretch will be far removed from the actual race track. And what was supposed to be one of the toughest drug testing policies in professional sports has now been reduced to scrap.
There’s no silver lining to this one. A black-eye for NASCAR, and stock car racing, just got blacker.
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