Ingram's Flat Spot On: Say No to Drug Tests

Flat Spot On by Jonathan Ingram Say No To Drug Tests Unlike the athletes in stick-and-ball sports, the athletes who drive race cars usually prefer some form of drug testing out of concern for their own safety. Thrill seekers using illegal...


Flat Spot On
by Jonathan Ingram


Say No To Drug Tests

Unlike the athletes in stick-and-ball sports, the athletes who drive race cars usually prefer some form of drug testing out of concern for their own safety. Thrill seekers using illegal drugs and undisciplined hacks looking for performance enhancement could be dangerous. And now we have the added specter of a champion NASCAR driver, Ron Hornaday Jr., racing while using the controlled substance testosterone.

Mandatory or even random testing might be a necessary weapon to stay alert to all of these circumstances and is often recommended by some of the Sprint Cup's biggest stars, scene of the latest focus on controlled substances and racing.

Considering the deplorable state of Major League Baseball's integrity and longterm records as a result of designer steroid use by self-confessed stars, one is tempted to applaud mandatory testing. And it's also tempting to throw in boos and hisses for unions. In the case of baseball, the players' association has actively resisted any form of testing.

The absence of unions in racing, in fact, complicates American sanctioning bodies' ability to get more aggressive on the issue of drug testing. With no formal legal agreement with its participants, motor racing must rely on the entry forms as a legal basis for testing participants, who are independent contractors. For European-based sanctioning bodies, the legal rules are different and random testing is standard for participants in FIA events.

Ever since the days of Tim Richmond, NASCAR has set the standard for American motor racing when it comes to substance abuse, one that falls well short of random testing. The case of Hornaday, who initially acquired a steroid cream without a prescripton and was later diagnosed with a thyroid condition, brings up these questions once again. Is the NASCAR approach enough to safeguard the competitors? Is it possible the integrity of the sport is at risk due to illegal performance enhancement?

At the time of Richmond's reign, NASCAR hired the same physician used by the National Football League to help establish and implement its drug use policy, one based on so-called "reasonable suspicion." If NASCAR's competition director or other officials, went this line of reasoning, saw an indivudual with red eyes or any odd behavior, that individual might be asked to submit to a drug test.

It was a rule based on the fear of drivers that Richmond was using drugs during the 1987 season following a spectacular second half to the 1986 season. In other words, the same hue and cry we sometimes hear now were voiced to the sanctioning body for two reasons. First, Richmond was winning races shortly after returning from a mysterious bout of double pneumonia contracted during the off season. And second, the relatively eccentric driver's behavior was more erractic than usual.

From the longer view of history, Richmond's behavior had much to do with his affliction of AIDS. Whether he was using drugs in 1987 en route to two victories to compensate for physical conditions remains unclear. But he eventually resigned his ride with Hendrick Motorsports that year under pressure from physical health as well as accusations by fellow drivers.

It was not until January of 1988 that NASCAR instituted a substance abuse policy. When Richmond tried to enter the Busch Clash in 1988 -- the all-star sprint race at Daytona for drivers who had won a pole the previous year -- NASCAR forced him to submit to a test after he refused to turn over his medical records.

It turned out to be a very expensive test for the sanctioning body, which eventually settled a law suit out of court for more than $500,000, according to the Associated Press, due to excluding Richmond from an event under much bad publicity for what amounted to the use of over-the-counter medications. In the interim, the physician relied on to create NASCAR's program, Dr. Forest Tennant, was discredited for poor implementation of the NFL's policy and bias in favor of star quarterbacks.

This case is revived here to underscore the difficulty sanctioning bodies have when it comes to drug use by participants.

NASCAR continues to emphasize its policy remains one of "reasonable suspicion," according to Mike Helton, the sanctioning body president. That policy did not catch up with Aaron Fike. Indicted for drug possession, Fike has confessed to using heroin on the same day while competing in the Craftsman Truck Series.

When it is working, "reasonable suspicion" operates via the rumor mill, which adds a tawdry pall to it. In other words, it may best be called a snitch policy, dependent on competitors who pass on hearsay, innuendo or perhaps reliable information to officials.

NASCAR also encourages teams to test its individual employes by commenting favorably on such policies. The teams, say NASCAR, are independent contractors with the sanctioning body and therefore have the only legal right to insist on the random testing of those under a team owner's direct employ. Obviously a team owner has much to lose when it comes to a driver's performance and relationships with sponsors, hence this encouragement from NASCAR. In effect, it's a skirting of the issue of random testing.

The stock car sanctioning body has tested individuals and found them in violation of its substance abuse rules. Suspension and rehabilitation is mandatory if an individual is found outside the rules, as is subsequent random testing if an individual returns to competition. A third failed test can lead to a lifetime ban from the sport. The latter scenario most notably occurred in 2006 in the case of Shane Hmiel, a second-generation participant in NASCAR and rising star driver in the Craftsman Truck Series and Nationwide Series.

From this writer's perspective, there are two major areas of concern.

In March of this year it came to my attention at the behest of one of NASCAR's best known stars -- who declared his comments to be strictly on background -- that a relatively young and talented driver had been showing up for work at a major team too hung over from excessive drinking to do his job properly. This brings to mind the fate of the 1990 NASCAR Sprint Cup rookie-of-the-year Robbie Moroso, who accidentally killed himself and another person in a highway crash during his sophomore season while under the influence of alcohol.

I would be a lot more worried about young competitors who have trouble adapting to stardom and falling into alcohol abuse than the oddball who gets into a stepping stone series and uses heroin. (An aside here that also gives one pause. One former Indy 500 participant, Chip Mead, used to laugh when he said his crew thought he drove better with a hangover and bought the beers the night before the race.)

Of less emotive concern is the possible use of designer steroids by pit crew members to gain an edge in jobs that pay as much as $120,000 per year. If it's happening in other major league sports, the chances are good it's happening on the pit road, too. On the other hand, the NFL's random testing policy still leaves some doubt whether all steroid users are getting caught.

The bottom line: to test or not to test on a random basis?

Without a drivers' or crew members' union, it's not possible to go there legally on a definitive, across-the-board basis. At least that's the conclusion of NASCAR's highly paid and well-schooled attorneys. With a union, there's a whole new can of worms and negotiation hurdles -- as currently evidenced by baseball's predicament.

As for the integrity of the sport, does anyone believe there's an illegal substance that enhances a driver's chances of winning a race? I didn't, of course, until the testosterone issue became public. Evidently, steroids can enhance endurance over the course of, say, 500 miles or 500 laps.

The key question boils down to whether it's safe to drive on NASCAR's superspeedways without fear of another competitor being under the influence of illegal drugs. The degree of driving difficulty at the major league level makes the use of drugs unlikely. But the specter of steroids that may enhance endurance for a talented driver has now been raised, perhaps a second time given the history of Richmond.

Nary a soul, including NASCAR officials, believe Hornaday's victories or championships in the Craftsman Truck Series (which do not have any 500-mile or 500-lap races) result from anything other than talent. Yet the prospect of someone benefitting from steroid use remains an uneasy problem -- like a small-sized pachyderm in the room.

NASCAR intends to address the issue in the near future with a policy likely to emphasize medical supervision to keep levels of steroid use within reason and under any level that might influence performance. Such a policy -- as part of its current "reasonable suspicion" approach --would help sustain participants' confidence without unfairly dragging motor racing into the same sort of profound perception problems that have justifiably plagued other major league sports.

To me, the prospect of racing against a rich family's unqualified son or daughter -- a species that continues to show up regularly in all forms of American racing -- is far more worrisome than the possible presence of a drug abuser.

Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jonathan@jingrambooks.com.

Write a comment
Show comments
About this article
Series General , NASCAR
Drivers Ron Hornaday Jr. , Shane Hmiel , Aaron Fike , Mike Helton , Tim Richmond
Teams Hendrick Motorsports