Editor’s Note: Beyond the Cockpit, our weekly driver interview feature, will return next week. In its place we have a special article by our own Bryan Davis Keith about the Jeremy Mayfield incident and its aftermath.
Just as Major League Baseball’s new era of drug policing caught perhaps its biggest name yet in Manny Ramirez, just last week NASCAR’s enhanced drug testing policy snared the most notable driver in recent memory for substance abuse in Jeremy Mayfield, a two-time Chase contender and current Sprint Cup owner. After the positive test was announced just prior to Saturday night’s race at Richmond, the veteran has been sidelined indefinitely and prevented from even associating his name with the No. 41 Toyota he’s driven since February.
Mayfield is disputing the test results, and the case remains unresolved as to whether or not his claim that allergy medications are responsible for a “false positive.” It’s shaping up to be a rather nasty fight, indeed, with the substance in question not being publicly named while the veteran considers possible legal action to compel his return to the sport. But while innocent until proven guilty may seem to lean towards allowing Mayfield to race until those results are confirmed, NASCAR did the right thing in responding to a major name testing positive: They got the person in question off the racetrack, and in doing so went a long way towards demonstrating their sincerity in enforcing their drug-free policies.
For that, credit should deservedly go to NASCAR for stepping up to the plate and responding to what was a glaring shortcoming in its sanctioning practices after Aaron Fike admitted to racing under the influence of heroin back in the spring of 2008. The fact that Mayfield was caught and suspended, however, is not proof positive that all is well with regard to drug testing in big-time stock car racing.
This random test just happened to land a big fish… but is the sport doing enough to land the next smoking gun?
According to what was learned by the media this offseason as to the nature of NASCAR’s new testing policy, four drivers and a dozen or so crew members are being randomly screened each race weekend. That’s a marked improvement from the old policy that merely tested on “reasonable suspicion” – but that doesn’t mean it’s a comprehensive program, either. Just look at the numbers; on any given race weekend, there’s 40-plus drivers and hundreds of crewmen at the track. Random testing will persuade a number of racers to stay clean, sure; but with less than a 10% chance of getting tested, there’s plenty of others that could be willing to play the odds. It’s one wide, sweeping gray area that still allows for those drivers and crew members inclined towards drug use to keep indulging themselves. With such a slow rate of testing, it means some drivers might not have to submit to one for the first time until Memorial Day weekend – one of only three times they might be checked up on during an entire 36-race season.
That type of minimal scrutiny is just not enough given the inherent danger of NASCAR racing to begin with. In a sport that involves men driving 800-horsepower cars at 200 mph, there is absolutely no room for any kind of drug-influenced behavior. Drugs don’t just endanger the men behind the cockpit, either; they’re always a few dozen feet from thousands of spectators, as well as crew members handling highly flammable substances while doing high-speed auto work in an environment the equivalent of a traffic-filled highway. One mistake, and as Carl Edwards showed at Talladega, a car could be hurtling in a tragic direction either into the grandstands, pit road or even the infield itself.
Further, unlike stick-and-ball sports, there is little, if any, use for performance-enhancing drugs in stock car racing. So chances are if there’s a positive test in the NASCAR garage, it’s not going to be a steroid, but something more illicit and likely more dangerous for anyone who slides behind the wheel. The message is clear: in the perilous, high-speed garages of NASCAR, there is absolutely no room for tolerance of intoxication. So, the only way to ensure that this doesn’t happen is to test every team member. At every track. Every race weekend.
This task is not too much to ask of NASCAR or its competitors. Considering how much screaming and hollering was done by fans and the media alike following the Edwards/Brad Keselowski melee at Talladega (over safety features that actually worked), how a policy that would leave no room for any doubt that everyone taking to the track was clean could even be remotely opposed is beyond me.
To settle here is disingenuous, given that NASCAR made such a public stance that they were taking the lead in sports sanctioning with regard to drug testing. Such a stance also remains consistent with a sanctioning body that has always prided itself on making safety first. And if they’re looking to keep it that way, a drug-free environment for competition should move to number one on their priority list.
But is a small-time, random testing program enough to achieve that level of importance? If there’s one thing drug offenders in other sports have shown us in recent years, they’re no slouches in learning how to keep up with both technology and a changing drug testing culture. So when NASCAR made the decision to announce a fixed date for the tests, Ryan Newman was very quick to point out, “The whole idea of announcing it kind of takes away from the people that know how to cheat the system. Obviously, I know there’s probably going to be some follow-ups with certain people… but it just seems to me that you’re only eliminating the really, really naïve people in the first testing or in the first screening like this.”
That’s an astute observation that didn’t take an engineer to make — and one that a number of crewmen and at least one driver abusing drugs have already figured out a workaround for. As a result, the only way that fixed-date drug testing is to truly work as a deterrent would be to test on fixed dates in intervals that make drug use between testing impossible… kind of like how weekly tests for 38 weeks would work.
NASCAR has ascended to the ranks of a major professional sporting entity because it was unafraid to be different from the pro stick ‘n’ ball sports. And there is no need for them to be afraid to be different here. By making weekly drug tests mandatory across the board at every track, NASCAR will find itself at the forefront of sporting safety and sanctity of competition.
Come on, Brian France. Even you can get this one right.