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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thompson in Turn 5: Random Drug Testing, Harvick, Earnhardt, Stewart & Granny! Form A Line Over Here!

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.

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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.

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 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% 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 racecar 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 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.