When NASCAR driver Aaron Fike appeared in court this week for a plea hearing on drug charges stemming from a July arrest, it was the most recent chapter in a story that has been repeated in NASCAR over the past few years. The only real difference was that the 24-year-old Fike was caught in a public place, while Shane Hmiel and Kevin Grubb were caught at the track and their transgressions were handled by NASCAR. But unfortunately, the similarities still glare. Three young, up-and-coming race drivers who somehow let substance abuse get in the way of promising careers.
And while the drugs are just one item on a long list of temptations for young men living on their own, traveling all over the country, with money to burn and questions to spare. Does my girlfriend/new group of friends want me for me or my career? What if it was over tomorrow? What if I can’t do the job? Will I lose my ride? How can I get rid of this pressure? There are more questions than answers for these young drivers, and it must be awfully enticing to inhale or ingest a substance that makes those questions go away for a little while. It’s not a wise choice, but it’s available and easy.
And at least in part, NASCAR is to blame.
Or at least, NASCAR could take steps to prevent young drivers from taking controlled substances and to maybe stop them before they get hooked. The sanctioning body randomly inspects a handful of racecars every week: usually the race winner, the top finisher of each car make and a couple of randomly chosen cars that get a post-race teardown. Why not do the same for drivers?
The current policy allows NASCAR to order drivers to take a drug test if there is suspicion of use. In other words, someone has to notice a driver (or crew member) acting in a manner that raises the suspicion of drug or alcohol use and report it to an official, who then decides if a test is warranted. Basically, a driver who can hide the outward effects of drug use could escape testing. And that could lead to using again and again. Before long, it’s too late for a suspension to really help. Yet that’s what typically happens. The driver is suspended and then given a probationary second chance, but not put in an inpatient rehab program. They can be randomly tested at the track, but if the damage is done and an addiction has a firm hold, it’s not enough. As Hmiel and Grubb could surely attest, it isn’t enough.
What NASCAR should do is randomly inspect drivers the way they do cars. Each day at the track, send a randomly selected group of drivers for a urine test. Perhaps five on Friday, five on Saturday, five more Sunday morning and again after the race. Make the test policy standard in every series. And then enforce it. Suspend anyone who tests positive, and make a reputable rehab program mandatory before the driver can apply for reinstatement. NASCAR has taken a stand on safety in recent years, mandating new rules and car designs to help drivers walk away from a wreck. Why not take it one step further and aim for safety outside the cars as well as in?
A policy that randomly tested drivers every day of every race week would be the kind of proactive solution that could nip potential drug problems in the bud. If there were a constant threat of being caught and suspended, perhaps drivers would make a different choice. Sometimes that’s all it takes. One bad choice can lead to another, ending in addiction and the end of a promising career. But if testing policies were more stringent, perhaps the fear of being caught would stop the first use would end a potential career and life in ruins. It’s time for NASCAR to take a proactive stand that could not only keep drivers who take drugs and then race, as Hmiel apparently did, from doing so, but also make young drivers think twice about even trying drugs to ease the pressure or to have a “good” time. Maybe that would be enough to save careers, and lives.