NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Drivers Not Rushing to Judge Allmendinger–And Neither Should We

For the first time since AJ Allmendinger was suspended for a positive drug test last week, Sprint Cup drivers sat down with the media to have their say on the situation. And the responses were nearly the same across the board: shock at the news, but unwillingness to pass judgment against Allmendinger—or against NASCAR’s drug testing policy–without more facts about the situation.

Everyone should take their cue from them.

While it’s natural to react to a piece of news, especially one as completely out of the blue as Allmendinger’s suspension by rushing to judgment, it’s unfair to all involved to make a snap decision to condemn anyone here. Could Allmendinger be lying and have taken some illicit substance in Kentucky? Sure. On the other hand, could there be a flaw in the way NASCAR handles these situations, leading to Allmendinger being falsely accused of doing something he didn’t? Of course. But until one of these—or something else—is proven, we simply don’t know what the whole story is.

Kevin Harvick says that there are simply too many facts missing right now. “I think as we go through the next weeks, and obviously, I think there is still a B [sample] test that is going to happen, [but] I really want to wait and see those kinds of facts and understand exactly where everything is at…you hate to see all that happen, and hopefully it’s something that can be explained to everybody so we know if there is something out of bounds that is something from over the counter or something that is just pretty obvious.”

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Though AJ Allmendinger was not present in the media center Friday at Loudon, the Cup drivers that were all opted away from passing judgement on NASCAR’s biggest illegal substance episode since Jeremy Mayfield’s back in 2009.

Harvick brings up a couple of good points here. One, the drivers don’t know any more than the rest of us. They don’t know what Allmendinger tested positive for, and from their point of view, that’s most of the story. Also, the drivers trust NASCAR’s testing policy, at least mostly, but at least among the ones who spoke to the media Friday, there hasn’t been a known situation where NASCAR’s medical officer confronted a driver about a questionable test, accepted the driver’s explanation, and let it go. Both are huge question marks right now. Would the sanctioning body have acted less quickly or more leniently depending on what substance was found? Would they not have suspended Allmendinger if he had been able to provide them with an acceptable answer to why his test read the way it did? The only thing we know about those questions is that we don’t know at this point.

Matt Kenseth said Friday that drivers must trust the process for the simple reason of safety. “It’s hard to comment on taking him out right before the race because I don’t know what [the substance] is,” Kenseth said. “I don’t know what they found and obviously, when you’re out there racing at 200 miles an hour, you want everybody to be right. That’s what the program is for, so if there was something wrong, you don’t want to be out there with somebody if there was something wrong with them.”

This is perhaps the most compelling reason to understand that NASCAR made the decision based on the information they were given for the safety of everyone in the field. Racing is dangerous enough without the unknown of a driver racing on a substance that could alter his judgment, mental state, vision, or reaction time during a race.¬¬¬ But it’s not absolute proof of guilt. There are things that have caused false positives for a stimulant on a urine test, or so say the anecdotes. The test of the remaining sample, which will be done by the same agency under the watchful eye of an independent toxicologist as is Allmendinger’s right, could provide some more answers if results are broken down further than with the original sample. So, taking the suspension as the final answer is premature.

While it’s impossible to say that NASCAR’s system is flawed without the pertinent information, there are undoubtedly questions. One of the largest involves the time involved for results to come back. From a safety standpoint, a week is a long time. If a driver was taking something that could impair his driving, it seems important that NASCAR know right them, not a week later. Second, are there issues with having both samples ultimately tested by the same company? Aegis laboratories handle both samples…and that could lead to speculation about internal pressure to make sure both tests have identical results.

Carl Edwards did touch on this aspect, and has an idea of how to add an extra level of protection for drivers. “I’ve thought pretty hard about that. I think we’re all kind of in a position where, let’s be honest, it’s an imperfect world. People are imperfect. Tests are imperfect,” said Edwards Friday. “The people who make different products sometimes use factories – one of the first things my trainer told me when he started working with me is he said, ‘Be careful. Anything you ingest is made somewhere and you don’t know what that factory was making the day before it made the product you’re using.’”

“Even if it’s just like a weight protein powder or something like that, you have to watch what you ingest. My point is that I think until the drivers, this is just my theory, I think the drivers need to get together and we need to have our own group that is paid by us, that works for us, to be here in tandem with the NASCAR drug testers and have them test us at the same time so that we have not just an A and B sample, but an A and B testing facility, and we can all agree on that facility, it’s no big deal. I don’t think it would be a contentious thing, I think that would remove almost all doubt in any situation of a positive test. If a driver had someone that they could go to and say, ‘Hey look, this is my representative. They tested at the same time on the same day and we have this result.’ If the results are the same, obviously I think we’d all agree that it was a positive, and if they’re different, I think it would give a different perspective. But I think until we do that, no matter what is found to be positive, no matter what the test results are, there is always gonna be that little question of, ‘Maybe there was a mistake.’”

Edwards’ idea is a sound one. Certainly tests run on the same sample by two separate laboratories would add an extra layer of reliability. Drivers can always be tested by an independent lab at their own expense, of course, but unless the sample is collected at the same time, there is little point.

One thing the drivers agree on is that they hope to get more information in the coming days and weeks “I think we’ve got to wait to hear more results. I hope we get a full story,” Jeff Gordon told the media. “I haven’t asked anybody or talked to anybody that has any real details and I don’t even know if they’re capable of giving those details. But you’d certainly like to know what it is. Obviously the test came back with something positive. So, I have pretty strong faith in that system that when it happens, that they’re right. But what could have caused it? Is it something very minor that could have caused it or is it yeah, somebody made a mistake or that it definitely should have shown up that way. So, I was shocked. I didn’t expect it. I definitely have had a great relationship with AJ on and off the race track and didn’t see that one coming.”

And in the end, until there is more information available, there is really no judgment to be made. Many have been quick to condemn Allmendinger for his actions. (And make no mistake, if the end result is that Allmendinger took a banned substance that put others in danger, it’s worthy of condemnation.) But while, yes, it is ultimately the driver’s responsibility to know everything that he puts into his body, it’s impossible to know exactly caused the result of this particular test right now.

There has been a lot of speculation; Allmendinger has issues a statement saying that the substance in question is a stimulant, and that could cover anything from an illegal drug such as cocaine or methamphetamine, it also covers things like caffeine and other ingredients found in energy supplements. Even if it was something heavy, consider this: there is anecdotal mention of show horses testing positive for cocaine because their grooms handled money and then hand fed the horses, and at one point in the 1990’s, there was speculation that up to 75% of American bills had cocaine residue on them in a measurable amount. In the case of the horses, the threshold of what’s allowed is so low and the tests so sensitive that it produced a positive test.

Is this a possibility here? It depends on those same factors-whether a trace amount of a substance is allowed as normal and how sensitive the test is for that substance. If Allmendinger was, as he claims, just slightly over the allowable threshold, such a scenario is at least plausible. Many people have pointed out that Allmendinger gained a new energy drink sponsor. There is anecdotal speculation that the ingredients in that drink, which include L-phenylalanine caffeine, and other stimulants, can cause a false positive on a drug test.

On the other hand, it wouldn’t be right to condemn NASCAR’s policy, either, until we know more. Perhaps the sanctioning body did suspend first and ask questions later. Maybe the result was a false positive. It’s hard not to wonder what stake Aegis and NASCAR have to ensure that the B sample has the same results so as not to damage their own credibility, but there’s no proof of that.

As the facts come out, that’s when it’s time to pass judgment on one or both parties. The one certainty is that there will be plenty of time for that. Until then, it’s important to consider both sides of the story. It’s possible that the truth does, in fact, lie somewhere in the middle.

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