NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thompson in Turn 5: Jeremy Mayfield Hearing Delayed, & The Whole Mess Could Have Been Avoided

It has been almost a month since the suspension of Sprint Cup owner/driver Jeremy Mayfield and the matter is no closer to resolution. Wednesday’s scheduled hearing before a North Carolina Superior Court Judge in Mecklenburg County, N.C. was cancelled due to an 11th-hour move on the part of NASCAR to have the case heard in a federal court. Mayfield and his attorney, Bill Diehl, were attempting to gain a temporary restraining order from Superior Court Judge Forrest Bridges that would have lifted NASCAR’s suspension of Mayfield on May 9th for allegedly violating the sanctioning body’s substance abuse policy. If successful, Mayfield would have been allowed to attempt to qualify for Sunday’s Pocono 500 and following events until the matter is settled in court.

NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston offered the following in way of explaining the request for a change in venue, “Administration of NASCAR’s substance abuse policy extends to every state in which it races, which is why the logical forum is federal court.”

The ball is now in Mayfield’s court as to whether to fight the change or wait for a court date to be scheduled at the federal level. Either way, Mayfield will not have his day in court as soon as he had wished.

In the mean time, the sordid affair will continue to gain headlines and attention in what will become a permanent black eye for both NASCAR and Mayfield. It’s a fiasco that would have never occurred except for NASCAR’s unwillingness to stick to the heretofore sensible and considerably more practical “reasonable suspicion/just cause” substance abuse policy that it jettisoned last season, a policy that required drivers and team members to submit to testing if they exhibited suspicious behavior or the organization had information that an individual may be using a banned substance.

Instead, following an ESPN interview in April of 2008 by former Craftsman Truck and Busch series driver Aaron Fike in which he said he had used heroin on race day, NASCAR began transitioning to a random drug-testing policy that was fully implemented by this season’s opener, the Daytona 500. The Fike incident brought to a crescendo the criticism by many, both outside and within the sport, that NASCAR’s drug-screening policy was too lax and too lenient. Faced with the mounting negative PR nightmare, NASCAR opted to take what seemed at the time to be the easy way out and implement its new screening procedures.

Here is the crux of the matter as it pertains to the Mayfield saga (and if it isn’t a saga yet – it will be before it’s done!) – had it not been for the newly implemented drug screening policy, there would have been no pending court case. Under the old policy Mayfield would have not been tested because there was no justifiable reason for him to be tested. There is no one stepping forward suggesting that he seemed impaired in anyway that would have prevented him from competing at Darlington (where the test samples were obtained.) NASCAR did not receive a tip that Mayfield may be under the influence of any substance or was a user. Mayfield would still be struggling to make races and NASCAR would have gone about its business trying to revitalize the sport.

In April of 2008, this column addressed the random drug-testing premise in an article titled “Random Drug Testing: Harvick, Earnhardt, Stewart and Granny, Form A Line Over Here!” in which the following position on the topic was expressed: “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.”

Whether Mayfield had used unprescribed drugs or not is still an open question. He is adamantly denying any such use and as a result of the drug screening has been compelled to divulge what should be private medical information to explain his test results. Mayfield contends that a mixture of a allergy medication and a prescribed drug for a medical condition that the world now knows is Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) is the reason for the failed test results.

Judging from the extent to which Mayfield is willing to take the issue of his suspension, it may very possibly turn out that he is being completely honest. The prescribed drug in question (Adderall) does test positive as an amphetimine in drug screens. So, should Mayfield eventually be exonerated and reinstated he’ll now be known forevermore as the driver that takes drugs because he has ADD, most probably a private medical condition that he had preferred to not share with the public… or NASCAR.

What’s the big deal if he has ADD? First of all, it doesn’t need to be a big deal for a person to want to keep it, or any other personal imformation private. However, it is certainly not information that will be a positive for his career as a driver or attract sponsors as a team owner. He now forevermore has the stigma of a guy that requires medication to focus normally. It could be the “deal breaker” when competing for a driver’s position on a race team or asking sponsors to entrust him with millions of dollars of their money to field a team. Yes…businessmen need focus as well.

There is little risk of drivers being injured or killed on the track in today’s NASCAR due to drug or alchol abuse. Certainly not as great a danger as the average person traversing the highways or bi-ways in this country faces everyday due to a great number of individuals that routinely drive under the influence of illegal and prescribed drugs, as well as alcohol.

As stated in the aforementioned April 2008 article, “Drug and alcohol abuse is rampant in this country; that is not news. But I would bet my bottom dollar that is not the case in NASCAR, after these admissions [Fike]. 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 racecar, 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 problems for long.”

Make no mistake about it, NASCAR knew that it did not have a serious drug problem on the track. They held out as long as they could and defended what was a reasonable substance abuse screening process, one unnecessarily intrusive, but effective when needed. However, in the end they gave in to public pressure.

Now, they have a mess on their hands. NASCAR is being crucified for the administration of the new policy and their reluctance to provide a list of banned substances. Others are aghast at the organization allowing Mayfield to take part in practice at Richmond while awaiting a second batch of samples. All this while wrestling with the possibility that they may have at least one driver that uses illegal drugs and the fear of not knowing how far-reaching the problem may be.

The legal maneuvering that has delayed Mayfield getting his day in court may, or may not ultimately work to NASCAR’s advantage. But the can of worms has been opened and Jeremy Mayfield will not be the last one to crawl out of it.

And that’s my view from turn 5.

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