NASCAR Race Weekend Central

“My Health Is My Business” … But Is It?

“My health is my business.” Denny Hamlin could not have been clearer.

Hamlin addressed the media Friday in Martinsville, giving a thorough explanation of the eye problem that kept him out of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race last weekend in Fontana. But the driver, who missed the event due to a shard of metal in his eye, was already under fire from some this week for not releasing information sooner. Among those critical was the sport’s Most Popular Driver, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who said that NASCAR should have intervened with answers.

“I’m worried the perception is bad for NASCAR and the perception is bad for Denny,” Earnhardt said. “… If Denny didn’t race because his vision is blurred and he had a sinus infection, NASCAR should put out a release and say, ‘This is the timeline of events and this is why we made this choice and this is the protocol for going forward.’ That answers everybody’s questions. Don’t you have questions? I have questions. We shouldn’t have questions. We should all feel pretty comfortable with what happened.”

So, who’s right? The answer isn’t simple. On one hand, Earnhardt has a point. If there’s a question about how and why a driver cannot be cleared to race after seeking medical treatment, that does need to be addressed by drivers and teams. A brief explanation of what happened Sunday would have cleared things up, inside the garage while giving fans an idea of whether Hamlin’s overall health was in question.

The driver countered he didn’t have all the answers from his doctors until Tuesday or Wednesday of this week. As a result, he wanted to know exactly what he was dealing with before releasing details, a conservative approach that’s not necessarily a bad idea.

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Could transparency on behalf of NASCAR and Denny Hamlin have saved both parties from being the subject of nasty rumors?

The real problem here is that the lack of any statement from either Hamlin or NASCAR led to some speculation that ran wild. At the height of it, people insinuated he had either failed or refused a NASCAR drug test, or that the sinus infection was a “fake diagnosis,” hiding a more serious condition that could be season or even career-threatening.

As you might expect, that irritated Hamlin, who’s already had enough to deal with health-wise the past few seasons. In a fiery response, the veteran was adamant that he was under no obligation to anyone, lashing out at those who questioned his integrity.

“I’m going to try not to get mad. Like I just said, my health is my business, but what if it was cancer or [a] tumor — I don’t have to tell anyone that,” Hamlin said Friday. “It’s my business. People who think negatively of me or think that we side-stepped some sort of drug test or something is ridiculous. I’m in one of the top-three cars in NASCAR, I would have to be an absolute moron — moron — to risk that. I have a daughter that I have to provide for, for a really long time. For people to question who I am inside and outside the race car, I’ve never done anything to even put that in question. I go to Bobcats games, I go out and hang out with friends out in public — I don’t stay tucked in my motor home, I don’t stay tucked into my house, it’s not what I like to do. Because I’m out there a little bit more, people think I go out and I party. I got a wake-up call because I don’t drink at all, hardly ever. I’ve never done drugs, ever. I’m as clean as they come. I don’t know why people question who I am outside the racetrack. I worked too hard to get here to throw it all away. If anyone has any questions about that, they can ask me directly.”

“I’ll tell you, it bothers me that my character is questioned. People think there’s some kind of conspiracy… like I said, I worked too hard to get here and it’s what I’ve wanted to do since I was five years old. There’s not one thing in the world that I would do to switch positions, with anyone because I just feel that lucky. I’m done justifying and defending myself on those things — I’m not going to let those people drag me down.”

But while Hamlin is correct on what, or when he can choose to divulge information, did his, or NASCAR’s, not revealing anything at all contribute to the speculation? It’s very probable that it did.

Had Hamlin failed or refused a test, he’d have been suspended immediately per NASCAR’s rulebook (refusal to take a test equates to failing one in the rules). Had that happened, NASCAR would also have made a statement to that effect, a process they’ve gone through in the past (see: Jeremy Mayfield or AJ Allmendinger) and the situation would have evolved from there. But there was no situation of that kind. There would be no reason for NASCAR to cover up a positive test, as some have hypothesized, simply because the backlash when the public found out would have been huge.

It’s clear to me there was no crazy conspiracy here. That said, NASCAR did itself no favors by not making a statement that Hamlin had not, in fact, failed or refused a test. Allowing the speculation to run rampant all over cyberspace may have done damage to the sport and to Hamlin; on that count, Earnhardt, Jr. was correct.

Had Hamlin divulged the metal that was found in his eye on Sunday or Monday (and that statement would have to come from him, or with his personal permission because of medical privacy laws) a lot of the questions would have been put to rest. Had he been specific, saying that there was still a bit of rust left (removed Monday) the social media furor would have a decidedly different tone. So, while Hamlin was correct that he’s entitled to privacy, his silence did fuel the rumors that proved so hurtful.

Hamlin’s situation does bring up a bigger question, though. At what point does a driver’s health become more than his private business? At what point does the potential impact on competitors supersede his desire to keep a persona battle to himself? Certainly it’s possible that a driver could race safely after a diagnosis of something like cancer, at least for a while. But at what point is that no longer possible, and what if the driver doesn’t voluntarily step out of the car (at which point, he doesn’t have to tell anyone anything)? What about a condition like a migraine that can affect vision or reaction time, or anything else that could put others in danger? Do the other drivers have a right to know? Surely, there will be questions if someone is not cleared to race due to a medical issue.

Perhaps more importantly, does not knowing make drivers gun-shy about going to a doctor, on a race weekend if they feel they wouldn’t be cleared for something minor? After all, if someone didn’t divulge something more serious, it looks to others like he wasn’t cleared for a minor ailment. Hopefully, faced with that choice, the driver in question would let his competitors in on the actual reason, but he doesn’t have to.

Wanting privacy at a difficult time is understandable; people do need to respect that. Not having all the answers was difficult for everyone, but it must have been terrifying for Hamlin before he knew what was going on. The athlete, in this situation is the one who’s most affected. People need to remember we’re dealing with human beings, possessing real fears and feelings, and there’s no reason to jump to any conclusion when there’s no evidence at all.

On the other hand, there are times that not saying anything is worse than saying there are no answers yet. NASCAR should have said there was no failed drug test, that Hamlin never refused to take one. Perhaps Hamlin should have given updates Sunday night and Monday as he learned more and had further treatment. In a high-profile sport, there are no easy answers when a driver’s health is in question. It’s not fair to anyone to let speculation overshadow the truth, and there has to be respect from all sides because a serious medical issue is already frightening and stressful. But while Hamlin’s health is his business, when he wasn’t allowed to race Sunday, it became other people’s, to some extent.

Hopefully, nothing like this situation will arise in the near future — nobody wants to see a competitor unable to do what he loves the most. But perhaps a little thought needs to be put into what’s said and when… while a little compassion needs to come from the other side instead of ugly speculation.

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