Wednesday, April 9, 2008
NASCAR's archaic drug-testing policy needs an overhaul
By Terry Blount ESPN.com
NASCAR just got its wake-up call. End this long slumber of a failed drug-testing policy before it's too late.
In the case of Aaron Fike and the people who raced alongside him, it's already too late. Fike admitted in an ESPN The Magazine story that he was injecting heroin while competing in Craftsman Truck Series events.
Aaron Fike says he hopes his admissions will prompt NASCAR to rethink its drug-testing policy.
What more does NASCAR need to see to realize its 20-year policy of "reasonable suspicion" for drug testing does not work?
It is a system of Russian roulette on a racetrack, a hope that you guess right and catch the driver who could endanger the entire field.
Fike's admission is the long-feared scenario of a driver racing a car at 200 mph while impaired by substance abuse.
Odds are it has happened far more than what we know because NASCAR doesn't have a detailed testing plan in place to keep it from happening.
NASCAR is woefully behind the curve on this compared to other major sports leagues when it should have been the leader in controlling substance abuse.
The reason is obvious: The competitors aren't just endangering themselves. They are attempting to control a 3,400-pound weapon that is capable of killing them and the other drivers on the track.
NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter said no system is perfect. He's right. The black cloud of steroid abuse that haunts baseball is proof positive.
But NASCAR's failure to test every driver on a regular basis is impossible to justify. Seven NASCAR drivers have been suspended for substance abuse in the past eight years. Three of those were caught by law officers.
So NASCAR caught four drivers in eight years. Four in eight years? That can only mean one thing: Others probably weren't caught because they weren't tested. It's unrealistic to believe that in today's society, such a small number of competitors would test positive.
We can only hope backroom deals weren't negotiated. What if drivers did test positive but were given a slap on the wrist and privately told to clean up or face the consequences?
NASCAR and its fans have a possible dilemma if regular testing for everyone becomes the standard. One of its stars could face suspension in the middle of a season or the start of the Chase.
The situation is drastically different from the stick-and-ball sports. Even a short suspension would mean a driver's championship hopes were over, not just for him, but for his entire team and his sponsors.
And what about that driver's fans, some of whom probably spent a week's salary on tickets and travel expenses to see him race?
Not a good situation for anyone, but none of that matters. The possible consequences of ignoring the problem far outweigh the disappointment and loss for the team, the sponsors and the fans.
It was less than a year ago that several Cup drivers spoke out in favor of a more vigorous testing policy.
"Shame on NASCAR for not policing our garage better than they police it right now," Kevin Harvick said. "I think we're all professional athletes and should be treated like professional athletes in other professional sports -- and shame on them for not doing that."
In support of regular testing, Jeff Burton said: "There's too much at stake for this sport, too much at stake for the drivers, the racetrack, the crew members on pit road."
Those statements came last July after Fike was arrested for possession of heroin.
All NASCAR drivers sign a form at the beginning of the season that states they can be randomly drug tested at any time. The problem is it rarely happens.
NASCAR only tests someone if they feel that driver may have a problem. How many parents across America could testify how hopelessly na´ve that concept is?
The irony of this is how NASCAR does a far better job of testing rule violations on the cars than it does the drivers.
Every race car goes through meticulous inspections at every race. Fractions of an inch can bring major fines, points reductions and suspensions for crew members.
NASCAR officials said in 2005 that 40 to 45 drug tests were administered over the previous two seasons. Twenty to 25 tests in a year would mean about half the drivers were tested if you only included Sprint Cup.
Such a limited testing plan has no realistic chance of finding competitors with substance-abuse problems. Each driver should undergo drug testing two to three times a season on a random basis. That policy should include crew members, men who jump in front of moving vehicles and risk injury every week.
It was 1988 when the late Bill France Jr. announced that NASCAR would test drivers based on reasonable suspicion.
They got away with it for 20 years because the vast majority of competitors in this sport are clean. Those who aren't need to be removed.
Since Dale Earnhardt's death in 2001, NASCAR has done a remarkable job of improving the safety of racing. But such an archaic way of policing substance abuse no longer qualifies as an acceptable way to keep competitors safe.
Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.