NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off: Jeremy Mayfield Innocent Until Proven Guilty

News broke shortly before last weekend’s Darlington race that owner/driver Jeremy Mayfield had tested positive for a banned substance after a random test conducted under NASCAR’s new drug program. Mayfield was the first driver to run afoul of that new testing program and, obviously, the news raised some eyebrows.

Let me go on record as supporting the new drug policy. While players in stick and ball sports generally harm only themselves and the rules of fairness when they take performance-enhancing concoctions or illegal drugs, in racing drivers are often running door-to-door with their competitors at high rates of speed. A driver who is in any way impaired could seriously injure or even kill another innocent driver with one simple mistake. And, as we saw recently at Talladega, even the fans are at risk after a particularly bad wreck.

Unlike back in my youth, we now know that impairment goes beyond the period when a driver is actually drinking or taking drugs. If a guy goes out and ties one on the night before or gets stoned, he might not be visibly impaired come race time — but his reaction times are still compromised, thus rendering him unfit to compete. (Or operate a vehicle on the road, for that matter.) The good old days of guys like Curtis Turner and Joe Weatherly partying until hours before a race are behind us. How different are things now? Buck Baker once admitted prior to a race on a hot afternoon it might be nice to enjoy some cold beer during the event. Thus, Baker recalled, he filled a “douche bag” with beer, put it inside his car, and rigged a hose so he could have a sip of beer whenever he chose. As it turned out, the constant vibration inside the race car rendered the beer too foamy to be fit for consumption, so Baker was only able to enjoy a few sips during the pace laps. One can only imagine how NASCAR and the fans would react now if we found out one of the drivers had rigged up a system so he could drink during a race…

NASCAR’s new drug policy, enacted this year, was borne off former Truck Series driver Aaron Fike’s admission he had used heroin even on days he raced. The old drug policy had been that if a driver appeared impaired, he could be asked to take a drug test. Fike slipped through the cracks on that one; needless to say, the new policy is better.

But the new policy is also imperfect. It needs to be fixed… and fixed right now, given that a driver, even one of Mayfield’s journeyman stature, has his entire career hanging in the balance. Mayfield says he applauds the new drug policy and that the only “drugs” he took were an over the counter allergy medication and a prescription allergy medication. I can vouch for something like that being possible. As an allergy sufferer myself, this seems to be one of the worst pollen seasons in recent memory — at least in these parts. At times, there’s a green fog of pollen you can see blowing across the rear fields here on a breezy afternoon. So far this year, I’ve taken more of my preferred over the counter allergy medicine than I did all of last year just to stay functional.

NASCAR won’t say what substance Mayfield took was discovered in the test. Nor will they even say what drugs are on their banned list — other than telling drivers they will be looking for steroids, speed, and recreational drugs. That’s not good enough. There needs to be a list of banned substances, so if a driver tests positive he can have his own independent test done in an attempt to prove he was clean. If, in fact, there are over the counter cold and allergy medicines or legal dietary supplements or energy drinks that will trigger a positive test, NASCAR participants need to know what they are so they can avoid them if at all possible. A list of banned prescription drugs should be a matter of public record, as well.

Now, most drivers are smart enough to know that if they’ve been prescribed “Oxycontin” for pain, they shouldn’t be racing. In fact, any medicine that states in the small print “Don’t operate a car or heavy machinery (especially at 185 miles per hour an inch off another guy’s rear bumper…)” should be banned during race weekends. But I think we can all recall many Olympic athletes who were banned from competing at events or stripped of their medals when the only “drugs” they took were prescription inhalers for their asthma they didn’t know contained banned substances (like tiny amounts of steroids.) The Olympic committee has since continually upgraded and made available to competitors and the media lists of banned substances, ones that include dietary supplements you or I could walk into a health food store and buy legally — if not wisely.

Wouldn’t it be ironic if the banned “substance” that NASCAR discovered was Claritin, an OTC allergy remedy that is a featured sponsor on Carl Edwards‘ car? Likewise, I have to wonder if some of these new super energy drinks that are sponsors or co-sponsors of other entries might, in fact, be banned. Last summer, my buddy offered me one of those little vials of “energy” they sell at the counter of convenience stores to get my notoriously late sleeping butt going during a vacation. I ended up with such a case of the shakes, I decided I was unfit to operate a jetski and had chest pains bad enough that I almost went to the hospital. And that’s from someone who routinely downs 60 ounces of coffee a day… before noon.

Secondly, NASCAR needs to make public what substance it is they say that Mayfield or any other competitor tested positive for to earn their punishment. NASCAR might wish to cite privacy concerns — but that all goes out the window when a suspension is announced. At that point, the driver is publicly humiliated as is an intended part of the process. The wheels of justice might turn slower in MLB, but when Manny Ramirez was recently suspended, it was clearly stated what substances were found and how much of the stuff was found. Ramirez sheepishly admitted he had, in fact, ingested that chemical as part of a legal dietary supplement marketed nationally. He admitted his own ignorance in not reading the label or consulting his trainers because he, in fact, knew the substance was banned.

Editor’s Note: The U.S. Government also enacted recent privacy laws that make this an even tricker subject for NASCAR. There are certain legal issues at play here the sport does need to contend with.

I’m not saying that Mayfield is innocent. Maybe he’s been caught red-handed. But Mayfield is innocent until proven guilty, and the fact NASCAR says he failed the test is not proof of guilt. If you or I are ticketed for speeding by an officer wielding a radar gun, we have our day in court to try to show that radar gun was calibrated incorrectly, used incorrectly, used by an untrained operator, or might have been clocking another car running in a lane beside us. If we can convince a judge or a jury of our peers that was the case, the mere fact we signed the ticket isn’t proof of guilt. As an aside, the presumption of innocence is under serious attack in places other than the halls of NASCAR. Here in Pennsylvania, our cars carry plates only in the rear. Red light cameras installed in the area show a picture of a car and plate rolling through a red light… but contain no image of the driver. Under current law, the registered owner of the vehicle is ticketed, and the cops say it’s up to that driver to show who was driving the car. Well under our Constitution, it’s up to the cops to prove who was driving the car — and I take that as a serious affront. Yeah, that’s my car, and it went through the red light. But given the presumption of innocence afforded me, you need to prove it was me at the wheel. Continuing along those lines, the ownership and possession of a handgun used in a felony, combined with forensic evidence that weapon was used to commit a crime, is not enough evidence to convict. Then, of course, we have the whole suspension of Habeas Corpus and the Patriot Act… but I’m not going into politics here.

Instead, my chief concern is reminding us all NASCAR’s track record in drug testing is less than perfect and, in one instance, was used to destroy the career of an innocent driver they didn’t care for with premeditation and malice. Even the media has its own list of mistakes. As recently as last year, Truck Series driver Ron Hornaday was accused in a story of using steroids. It seemed a slam dunk case, an aging athlete using a performance-enhancing drug to compete against younger men. Hang him! Only the steroids in question were a topical cream prescribed by a doctor to treat a somewhat serious medical condition, not a performance enhancer.

Then, we had the sad case of Tim Richmond. Richmond missed the start of the 1987 Cup season and clearly wasn’t well. Even when he did return, it was clear that something wasn’t right with his health. It all came to a head when Richmond overslept in his coach and almost missed qualifying at Michigan. There were rumors Tim was using drugs, including heroin and cocaine fueled by his partying lifestyle and connections to Hollywood. (And a good deal of jealousy about the company he kept.) Only Tim wasn’t on drugs… he was dying of AIDS. At that point, AIDS was commonly referred to as a “gay flu” or Divine punishment by an Old Testament God for needle drug users. At that point, few people realized that AIDS could be transmitted by good old heterosexual sex. To admit he had AIDS would have further fueled the rumors Tim was a drug addict (nobody with half a brain was going to think he was gay, given Tim’s taste for pretty women… and lots of them.)

After missing the last half of 1987, Richmond announced he was going to try to compete in the 1988 Busch Clash, a relatively short race that would give him a chance to assess his abilities to compete in longer events. He had a car lined up and ready to go, as well as a sponsor to support his effort. But before allowing a return to competition, NASCAR decided to make Richmond take a drug test. Well aware that finding AZT in his blood would reveal his secret, Tim had stopped taking it a month before the race weekend. Having been threatened with drug tests before, that same day he provided a sample to an independent lab before his NASCAR-mandated pee test.

NASCAR announced Tim had failed his drug test. Once again, they wouldn’t say what substance they had found… but Richmond was banned from the sport “indefinitely.” Tim was humiliated and dishonored. And naturally, he was enraged. Faced with the evidence from the independent lab, NASCAR was forced to admit later the “banned substance” found in Tim’s urine was an over the counter cold remedy.

Let me address an issue here before it is raised again. Some have defended NASCAR’s big lie, claiming they knew Tim had AIDS. If Tim was in a bad wreck and was bleeding heavily, his infected blood could have put track safety personnel at risk, the logic goes. Sorry. EMTs and police officers in our country are routinely called to traffic accidents, shootings, and stabbings involving individuals infected with AIDS. They take proper precautions. They glove up. They wash up afterwards. We as a society can not banish those with AIDS to some modern day leper colonies because we fear infection.

Anyway, Tim sued NASCAR. Their guilt was clearly evident, and he should have won millions. But NASCAR got a friendly judge to agree that as part of the suit, Tim would have to submit his medical records. To do so would have revealed Tim was dying of AIDS; he’d have been ostracized, and likely evicted from his home. An out of court settlement was reached, and Tim never raced again.

The parallels here make me uneasy. Mayfield says he took only over the counter medicines and others prescribed to him by a doctor. NASCAR won’t say what they claim they found. Maybe NASCAR can make their case and Mayfield deserves to be suspended. But until presented with compelling evidence that shows me without a doubt Mayfield knowingly violated the sport’s drug policy, I am offering him the presumption of innocence. I didn’t confer that right on him; the Constitution does, and way too many men and women have died defending those inalienable rights.

This might just become a test case that validates or invalidates NASCAR’s drug policy. Regardless, I hope they conduct themselves with honor and fairness this time. Because the only thing worse than no drug policy is an unfair drug one that destroys the careers and lives of the innocent. And full transparency is what is called for right now to prove NASCAR isn’t railroading another innocent victim.

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About Matt McLaughlin

Matt McLaughlin
Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.