NASCAR's new drug dilemma

Jerry Bonkowski
Yahoo! Sports

Aaron Fike's startling admission that he used heroin on the same day he raced in NASCAR's Craftsman Truck Series races in 2007 is by no means an indication that NASCAR has a widespread drug problem.

But NASCAR would be well served to take some serious action toward improving its current substance abuse policy, which focuses on testing selected individuals only if allegations or observed behavior warrant it.

NASCAR, which arguably has run the cleanest ship among major sports leagues when it comes to substance abuse, has seen its policy lead to the apprehension, suspension and even banishment of several drivers over the years. But Fike beating the system without drawing attention to himself is enough cause for NASCAR to scrutinize and potentially revamp that same system.

Cop does what NASCAR didn't: catch Fike

One week after earning a career-best fifth-place finish in a truck race at Memphis, Fike and fiancée Cassandra Davidson were caught in the parking lot of a Cincinnati-area amusement park with a 100-count box of needles, bloody napkins and black tar heroin, according to ESPN.

But it wasn't NASCAR that caught them. Rather, it was a Mason, Ohio, police officer who observed the drug paraphernalia in their SUV and then arrested them after a short chase.

Had Fike not been caught, one can only wonder if – or more likely, when – Fike's habit would lead to tragedy on the race track.

Rather than wait for some tragedy – like Dale Earnhardt's death – to occur before taking action, NASCAR now has the chance to take a major leadership role in a sports world that has seen its share of ineffective substance abuse and steroid policies.

But NASCAR, which did not immediately return emails and phone calls seeking comment for this story, has much more to lose than other sports. A football or baseball player being amped up is one thing, but if a NASCAR driver is under the influence of a chemical or alcoholic substance, the devastation could cause incomprehensible damage.

Not only could drivers be at risk, but fans also could be put in danger, as some bad wrecks in recent years – especially at open-wheel events, including the IRL race at Charlotte in 1999 – have killed or injured spectators in the stands. Drugs and alcohol weren't involved at Charlotte, but such an incident shows how vulnerable fans could be.

It's carnage on four wheels waiting to happen.

IRL mandates drug testing

NASCAR need look no further than the Indy Racing League for direction on how to improve its substance abuse policy.

The IRL had a strong policy in place when the series formed in 1995. But prior to this season, the league toughened its policy by implementing regular, mandatory testing of virtually anyone associated with a race team in a competitive position.

"We've gone one step further," IRL vice president of communications John Griffin told Yahoo! Sports. "All drivers were given the policy, they had to sign the policy and they were all tested in January in Indianapolis when they underwent their annual physicals."

In addition, IRL officials and team members also are subject to annual mandatory testing, with IRL president Brian Barnhart being the first non-driver to take the test when it was announced.

The IRL also made improvements to how specimens are tested and handled, allowing for quicker results and more safeguards against tampering, Griffin said.

"There's more immediacy and no second-guessing," Griffin said. "There's not going to be any funny stuff."

The yearly test will also be supplemented, if situations or allegations arise, with additional random testing throughout the season.

"We reserve the right to do random testing if there are any out of the ordinary habits and/or allegations," said Griffin, who added that over-the-counter medications and alcohol abuse also are part of the policy.

"Drivers are contacting us if they even take any over-the-counter medication," Griffin said. "They're just being safe. We haven't had any issues."

The policy seems to be working. Only one driver in series history – Scott Harrington in 2000 – has ever been caught or penalized, and that was an off-track, alcohol-related incident that Harrington failed to report to league officials, Griffin said.

IRL policy dictates that if a competitor is found to have tested positive for illegal substances, they are immediately placed on indefinite suspension, followed by a thorough investigation.

Drag racing, not drugged racing

The National Hot Rod Association's substance abuse policy is not as strict as the IRL's, but it's still tougher than NASCAR's.

The NHRA has a firm perform random tests on between 50 and 100 professional and sportsman drivers at several – but not all – of the NHRA's 24 nationally sanctioned races. While the testing is random, it is also mandatory if a driver's name is generated by a special computer selection program.

"Testing is one of the conditions of licensing and racing," NHRA senior vice president of racing operations Graham Light told Yahoo! Sports.

Currently, only drivers and NHRA safety and front-office officials are tested. Crew chiefs and team members are not tested.

The NHRA allows drivers who believe they have a problem with illegal substances or alcohol to be tested without the NHRA's knowledge. If a problem is found, the driver or official is given seven days to enroll in a treatment program. If he/she passes that program, the NHRA is never told of the problem.

However, if that driver or official fails a second test, the NHRA is notified and that offender is suspended for a minimum of one year – which is the same punishment if the NHRA itself discovers if a driver or official is abusing drugs or alcohol.

If the offender goes through a treatment program but again tests positive, he/she is banned from the sport forever.

"You're gone, period," Light said.

Light takes pride that the NHRA has had to permanently ban just one driver during his 24-year tenure with the sanctioning body, that coming about 10 years ago. He refused to name the banned driver.

"We have not had any issues," Light said. "We have no resistance from anybody."

NASCAR's next move

NASCAR's substance abuse policy has worked for the most part, but Fike's case shows it still has flaws.

NASCAR is to be commended for catching and penalizing drivers that violated its policy. But without as comprehensive a policy as the IRL, it begs the question of how many offending NASCAR drivers, crewmen or other team members have not been caught over the years.

Who's to say that some of the sport's biggest names today aren't abusing without NASCAR having any sort of clue?

NASCAR followed the IRL's lead when it came to SAFER barriers, and that has dramatically changed the sport for the better.

Perhaps NASCAR president Brian France might want to pick up the phone and call Barnhart or IRL founder Tony George and ask them to fax over a copy of the league's policy.

And then France might want to call Fike and thank him for coming clean and opening a lot of eyes in NASCAR.

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