The Frontstretch: Random Drug Testing: Harvick, Earnhardt, Stewart And Granny…Form A Line Over Here! by Tommy Thompson -- Wednesday April 16, 2008

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Random Drug Testing: Harvick, Earnhardt, Stewart And Granny…Form A Line Over Here!

Thompson in Turn 5 · Tommy Thompson · Wednesday April 16, 2008


Recent shocking revelations that former Craftsman Truck and Nationwide Series driver Aaron Fike not only concealed a painkiller addiction from NASCAR officials, but competed in CTS events after using heroin on race day has renewed criticism of the sanctioning body’s present drug testing policies. At the moment, NASCAR does not have a random drug screening policy like other major sports; instead, they maintain the right to test under the broadly worded "reasonable suspicion" edict in their rulebook. This position gives them almost an unfettered right to test anyone at their discretion participating in a NASCAR-sanctioned event.

Additionally, team owners are free to test drivers and crew members either randomly, or on a basis of reasonable cause. This results in two layers of detecting possible problems; but for some, that just isn’t enough.

That’s a shame…because it should be.

But before it’s time to come to NASCAR’s defense, let’s flush out the arguments presented by their harshest critics. Some feel that the sport’s current drug policy is not deterrent enough for participants to abstain from substance abuse, and believe that random drug testing would better serve that goal. Interestingly, these people point to the fact that the other three major U.S. professional sports authorities — MLB, NBA and the NFL — all have random testing policies as ammunition for their argument that NASCAR should follow suit.

On the surface, that bit of information would seem to suggest that NASCAR is, in fact, behind the curve in instituting random testing as a viable and effective deterrent from participants, drivers, and crew members alike using banned substances. Yet, what is not being pointed out is that in all three sports, random testing is routinely detecting such usage; and for some, on numerous occasions. The punishment, though differing slightly between sports authorities, is usually nothing more than a slap on the wrist for the first offense, and only slightly more severe for repeated violations. Only basketball mandates a lifetime ban for repeated drug use… and even then, it’s only after the fourth such violation.

NASCAR President Mike Helton, in attempting to defend the sanctioning body’s drug policies, said on Monday, "…when we do find a situation, and we do authenticate the abuse of a substance, it is a severe reaction. It’s not just a couple of weeks off; it’s a very severe, career-changing reaction from us that I think speaks loudly.”

Helton's words do carry some legitimacy; stock car racing fans can be reasonably assured that the two highest profile cases of substance abuse by drivers known to the public are Fike and Shane Hmiel, neither of whom will probably ever compete in a NASCAR event at any time in the near future…and the chances of them competing at the top levels ever again are slim to none. The penalties handed down by NASCAR are severe — yet fair.

Hmiel’s case is the strongest one yet of NASCAR administrating a responsible drug policy. After having been tested for drugs due to reasonable cause, the young "hot shoe" was suspended for an indefinite period of time by the organization after testing positive for marijuana in September of 2003. In January 2004, NASCAR reinstated the North Carolina native after abiding by the terms of his suspension. However, NASCAR became aware of a potential problem once again, and continued to test Hmiel; finally, in 2005 a second test proved positive for not only marijuana, but cocaine, proving the death knell to the driver’s promising career. The young man who displayed so much talent behind the wheel was again suspended indefinitely; and, as if he hadn’t buried himself enough, a third failed test occurred during his second period of suspension, causing NASCAR to pull the plug on the once promising driver and issue a lifetime ban.

After Aaron Fike's drug confession was made public, several drivers — including Kevin Harvick — called for tougher drug testing policies in NASCAR. But is it needed and more importantly is it right?

Random drug testing is to some — myself included — an undignified and insulting process that is highly resented. That a person functioning not only adequately, but in many cases exceptionally both on the job and socially should have to prove to anyone that they are not substance abusers is by its very nature the antithesis of being a free person in a free country. Having protested the procedure for many years, I have always believed that such an obvious invasion of one’s privacy would eventually be found illegal. But to date, the highest courts in our land have not agreed, and all legal challenges to the practice have failed.

Well, drivers this week were put on the spot and asked if they supported random testing; and to a man, not one has objected. Though I find it hard to believe that there is not at least one civil libertarian-leaning driver that might oppose the practice on principle, I understand the unanimity of their replies. They know that not supporting the issue would cast suspicion on them; so, they have taken the path of least resistance in order to avoid the possible fallout. Since most drivers are clean anyways, it’s better to go along and get along; past controversies have proven they simply do not need that kind of trouble. There are sponsors to satisfy and races to run that prove far more important to their future instead.

Very telling, though, is that none of the drivers believe there really is a significant substance abuse problem in their sport. Sprint Cup driver Kevin Harvick, for whom Aaron Fike drove for briefly in 2006 in the Nationwide Series without ever being drug tested at Kevin Harvick, Inc., is leading the criticism of NASCAR for not pursuing random testing. But Harvick knows that it is all about perception more than substance: "The bad part is, it isn’t fair to the 95 percent of his garage that is clean,” he explained last weekend at Phoenix. “But I want everybody in the world to know our sport is clean. I want fans and sponsors to know this garage is clean.”

Harvick is correct that the vast majority of the garage is clean, and certainly those on the track; Fike has proven the exception of the system and not the rule, as did Hmiel before him. And if there are any other drivers yet unnamed that need to be scrutinized closer, by all means NASCAR, as well as team owners, should be looking closer at that individual. No one wants an impaired driver on the racetrack operating a race car at 200 mph.

Drug and alcohol abuse is rampant in this country; that is not news. But I would bet my bottom dollar that it is not the case in NASCAR, as some critics would like you to think after these admissions. There are just too many obstacles in the way of a driver to compete at the high level required of them; not just behind the wheel, but off-track as well. NASCAR drivers are under more scrutiny than perhaps any other athlete, and are not only required to maintain their finely tuned reflexes in the seat of the race car, but be able to function lucidly and appropriately for their many sponsor and media events. Clearly, that does not foster an environment conducive to hiding a drug or alcohol problem for long.

Of course, there is no guarantee that another Aaron Fike situation will not occur. In fact, it is almost assured considering the state of our society. So, what do we do? Certainly, if all drivers were tested on race day and then held in quarantine until climbing into their cars, there would be even greater odds that drivers would be in 100% compliance. But really, how far are we going to go with this?

My answer is not very far.

Unfortunately in life, there is a certain amount of risk involved in our daily lives. Chief among those dangers is transiting the highways and byways of our country. Drunk drivers and other similarly impaired wheelmen are responsible for thousands of deaths per year, and it is no secret that Grandma is taking handfuls of prescription drugs that would not be allowed under any drug screening program and running over to the Wal Mart pharmacy for more each day. Sometimes, they don't make it, and harm themselves and others in the process. Same for the under-25 crowd, notorious for abusing drugs and alcohol; they probably should all, just like Granny, be randomly tested, as well.

So, let the critics criticize all they want; but part of what NASCAR is doing with its policy is protecting the basic privacy rights of its participants. And it would behoove those that are so quick to limit the privacy rights of others to think about what argument they will have left when it is their rights to be treated with respect and dignity that are being taken away … not someone else’s.

And…that's my view from Turn 5.

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04/16/2008 09:00 AM

It is the very zenith of naive to think that NASCAR, or anyone in NASCAR, is worried about protecting anyones’ basic privacy rights . NASCAR is the definitive example of the term “ self-serving “ .
As for the suddenly urgent debate over substance testing , i imagine that like every other facet of life , NASCAR has a small number of drug and alcohol abusers . And that small number obviously represents a threat to the safety of everyone concerned , from drivers and crew members to track workers , officials and spectators . But if the drivers and others really believe a drug test policy should be instituted , then it really needs to be mandatory testing at every race . Random testing is just that , some get caught , some make it through without getting caught . The level for potential disaster is pretty high when you’re talking about the speed and weight of a stock car . Why not check each competitor each week to be sure ? Any lesser abuse policy would just be the type of knee jerk reaction that NASCAR is famous for .

Geoff FL
04/16/2008 09:46 AM

Hey,I’ve got an idea for the drug test thing. How about a pee test zone in the fan zone and if they fail we can throw tomato’s at’em and call’em bad names when they leave

04/16/2008 01:34 PM

There are some aspects of live where we cannot give the benefit of the doubt. This is one of them. The stakes are too high.

04/16/2008 02:20 PM

I’ve been rather vocal on this issue on other columns and I’m not trying to beat a dead horse. Here are the facts as we know them: all drivers/owners are “competitors” and “licensed contractors” thus you have no driver’s union and little recourse toward NASCAR/ISC in cases of injury, lost income, etc. There are other series to run if you don’t like the way NASCAR does things. NASCAR operates much in the same way that pro wrestling used to in that drivers can go where they want, but ultimately choose NASCAR due to the popularity and money. Wrestlers did the same back in the day hopping from area to area and not being tied to any one promoter. I digress. I’ll get to my corrolary later.

I don’t see what the opposition to random screening is. Hell, to serve your country, you need to take a drug test so why can’t you be forced to take one as a stock car driver?These “professional athletes” operate cars at almost 3 times the normal interstate driving speed in close quarters with 42 other drivers. When Harvick says that 95% of the garage is clean, that says to me that 5% isn’t. It’s always dangerous to dabble in percentages and statistics with no proof other than word of mouth—80% of all people know that. NASCAR goes on the reasonable suspicion principle for testing, and it is inherently flawed simply on that premise. They say they don’t have a drug problem and tout that drivers gain no advantage with performance enhancing drugs. I doubt steroids will help anyone’s hand eye coordination or ability to run 3 wide at Richmond, but drugs impair ability and judgement. We all know the history of NASCAR’s drug policy and how it was intended to rid the sport of a driver who was more trouble than he was worth. However, as NASCAR became a mainstream phenomenon, there was ample opportunity to work on a changed policy that at the least would have had some teeth. When a sport has done arguably less than 20 drug screenings in 20 years, that’s a problem to me. That’s the status quo in a sport that has shown a penchant for making up the rules as they go along and ultimately the reason why there is still a big portion of people who do not consider it a sport. If not NASCAR, then the car owners should mandate testing for its employees. I have no doubt Hendrick tests all of his car salesmen and employees at his dealerships and other businesses, he’d be an idiot not to with all of the liability. Why should his motorsports division be any different? Ultimately it’s not going to be the owners, drivers, or even NASCAR that makes this happen. It’s going to be the first major sponsor that says we’re not writing another check to so and so or to sponsor this race until you mandate random testing. When it comes down to brass tacks, money (lost revenue)and tragedy are the only things that have forced NASCAR to react to anything.

Going back to wrestling, it took an embarrassing steroid trial to get the “sport” to half heartedly attempt to clean up and another 80 or so wrestlers dying before they turned 40 to have a legit testing program. I hope NASCAR wakes up and does something with teeth before a driver kills another or some fans in the grandstand.

Dale Jarrett was damn lucky he incurred Shane Hmiel’s wrath at Bristol. Thank God it wasn’t Texas, Atlanta, Pocono, Talladega, or Daytona.

Lunar Tunes
04/17/2008 12:45 AM

Well gee….all the other drivers are FOR random testing…they seem to be the ones driving everyweek…maybe they know something more than those in the media that WATCH.

And Shane Hmiel a once promising driver!? Now I know why you are against random testing across the board!

(my arm outstretched towards you, Tommy) ‘ERE!…….(cough cough cough)

J. Meyer
04/18/2008 08:11 PM

HA HA HA! Never noticed until a minute ago but, look at the ‘ads by Google’ right under the last post! (This one unless someone posts again!)

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