NASCAR's drug policy at a glance
I was on the sports-talk radio circuit from coast to coast Sunday and Monday, called on to answer questions about AJ Allmendinger's pre-Daytona suspension for failing a random drug test. For the most part, I was asked to address the same handful of issues over and over again. Most centered on NASCAR's still-new substance abuse policy and how it is administered.
So, in the name of efficiency, here's a list of those most common questions and the answers:
What was up with the weird timing of Allmendinger's suspension?
That's just the timetable of the testing process. It takes time. The samples are taken, packed, flown to the lab and tested. Then there is the wait for results, the delivery of the information back to NASCAR and discussions and determinations over the next move.
This situation holds true to the same timetable of the only other Sprint Cup driver suspension, Jeremy Mayfield in 2009. Mayfield's test took place during a Saturday night race weekend at Richmond and the suspension was announced just a few hours prior to the start of the following Saturday night's race at Darlington. Allmendinger's test took place during a Saturday race weekend at Kentucky and was announced just a few hours prior to the start of the following Saturday night's race at Daytona. The only variable is the July Fourth holiday in the middle of the week this year.
Why didn't NASCAR reveal what he tested positive for and why didn't it take questions from the media?
First, keep in mind that everyone at the racetrack, from Allmendinger to NASCAR itself, was still digesting what all of them had just been told.
Second, at that point it made no legal sense for Steve O'Donnell, NASCAR VP of racing operations, to say any more than he did. If NASCAR learned nothing from the Mayfield mess it was to pause before saying too much too early. Allmendinger still had (has) an appeal coming. You don't want to stand up there and say, "So-and-so tested positive for Ecstasy" and have that replayed on TV for 50 years if it turns out there was an issue with the testing process.
In '09, NASCAR VP Jim Hunter made the Mayfield announcement and then took a handful of questions. Those questions resulted in little to no new information. It is oft-forgotten now, but no one ever made an announcement about exactly what Mayfield had tested positive for. It wasn't until the court case started later that summer that the methamphetamine result was revealed by ESPN The Magazine.
In other words, be patient. All the info will eventually make its way into the open, one way or the other.
What is the collection procedure?
A NASCAR-assigned program administrator -- Dr. David Black of Aegis Sciences Corp. -- and/or his agents oversee all sample collections. That includes the random at-track collections as well as the mandatory collections that take place during the preseason or when someone applies for a NASCAR license.
The most common sample is urine, though NASCAR also has the ability to collect hair, blood, saliva and/or conduct a breath test. It is up to the PA (program administrator) and NASCAR's medical review officer -- Dr. Douglas Aukerman -- to determine whether the situation requires that they witness the sample collection. The PA immediately checks the temperature of the sample to ensure that it hasn't been tampered with.
If everything checks out, the PA splits the sample into two units -- A and B -- then seals, marks and packs them for transport to the Aegis laboratory in Nashville. The person being tested also fills out a form listing all of the over-the-counter medications that he/she has taken over the previous three months.
What if they refuse to be tested?
Then it is viewed as a positive test and they are indefinitely suspended.
How random is it, really?
Very. The list of NASCAR competitors tested each weekend is spit out by a computer, and those on that list are tested no more than one hour after being notified. Each weekend roughly 20 people are tested per national series, including five drivers. The others are crew members and NASCAR officials.
"I'll put it to you this way," Carl Edwards said earlier this year. "I pride myself on being on time to everything on my schedule. If I show up late for a sponsor appearance during a race weekend you can bet it's because I got pulled out of the hat for a drug test."
How much different is the current substance policy versus what it was pre-2009?
Light years. Prior to '09 the section in the NASCAR rulebook that spelled out the substance abuse policy was 54 words long. In the '12 rulebook, it covers more than nine pages.
In April '08 former NASCAR Truck Series driver Aaron Fike admitted to ESPN The Magazine that he had raced in the series while using black tar heroin. In an instant, NASCAR realized that its original policy, largely unchanged since it was first instituted in the late 1980s, was antiquated. At the time, the "reasonable suspicion" policy that allowed the sanctioning body to test anyone anywhere at any time was viewed as progressive. But the fact that Fike was the seventh driver suspended in seven years revealed its flaws. Drivers and crew members were being caught way too late. In Fike's case, NASCAR never caught him. The police did.
The '09 season began with a new set of rules in place, including weekly random drug testing. That May brought the Mayfield suspension. Mayfield's lawsuit to have that suspension overturned, though ultimately a losing battle, exposed issues with the new policy. Those flaws -- such as a comprehensive list of banned substances and a more transparent handling of samples -- have been bolstered as a result.
So is the old "reasonable suspicion" policy gone?
No. NASCAR, Aukerman and Aegis have the ability to test whomever they want based on a list of reasons spelled out in the rulebook. That list includes everything from prior arrest record to aroma to "behaviors generally understood to accompany the use of prohibited substances" -- i.e. slurred speech, mental confusion, mood swings, etc.
What's included in the rulebook's banned substances list?
An easier question would be to ask what isn't. It's three pages long, broken into sections of stimulants, narcotic analgesics, ephedrine class, benzodiazepines, barbiturates, performance enhancers, muscle relaxers, sleep aids, beta blockers and non-medical use of prescription and over-the-counter drugs, including alcohol, dietary supplements, masking agents and "substances that mimic effects of banned substances."
So, if a driver has a cold can he take anything without being busted?
Sure. The rulebook even goes so far as to say that NASCAR recognizes that people need to take medicine. They just need to take it as directed. All NASCAR licensees are instructed to provide a list of prescriptions to Aukerman and to update that list whenever a new medicine is prescribed. This is in addition to the list provided during the test itself. Simply put, there should be no surprises on either end when the results come back.
If there are any questions at all, a substance abuse policy email address and phone number are provided in the rulebook.
What's Allmendinger's appeal process?
He has 72 hours from his initial notification to request a testing of the B sample, which remained sealed and stored at Aegis. He was informed of his result midafternoon Saturday. He can be present for that second procedure or have an independent non-Aegis toxicologist on hand.
What if the B sample comes back negative?
Per the NASCAR rulebook: "A cancelled and negative test will not be treated as a violation of this policy." In other words, Allmendinger can come back.
What if the B sample comes back positive?
Then it will be a long road back. As part of NASCAR's Road to Recovery program, the sanctioning body works with Black and Aukerman to determine a recovery road map, customized to the perceived issues of the individual. It includes varying levels of rehab, counseling and frequent testing to determine progress before and after reinstatement. That program is spelled out in a letter sent to the violator.
The violator can choose to follow that program or not. Mayfield chose to decline and fight it in court.
How many NASCAR competitors have been suspended since '09?
At least 30 crew members across the top three series, though mostly part-time "hired guns" that Truck and Nationwide teams bring in for help. Aside from Mayfield and Allmendinger, the only other drivers were Truck series racers Shane Sieg and Jack C. Smith, both last season.
Has anyone ever come back via the Road to Recovery?
Yes. Truck series driver Brian Rose was suspended in 2003 under the old NASCAR substance abuse policy. Seven years later he applied for reinstatement, agreed to a lengthy evaluation program, and returned to the Trucks to make three starts in 2010.
That's pretty much it.
It was Dr. Black who explained to me back in '08 that the process is designed to be difficult so that only those who are truly committed to getting better will complete it. "Typically we talk once," he said of the conversations that he has had with NASCAR licensees after their suspensions. "And when they realize how hard the road is going to be, they give up and I never hear from them again."
Why is NASCAR's substance abuse policy "one strike and you're out" when other sports seem to be more lenient with second and third chances?
I'll let Jeff Gordon take this one, from an interview he gave in 2009: "It's one thing to have a guy under the influence out on the basketball court or football field. In the end, he's probably just going to hurt himself. But you put someone like that in a 3,400-pound stock car going 190 mph? He could kill everyone around him too. I can't think of a situation that requires zero tolerance more than that."