Commentary

Will Fike's revelation about drug use prompt NASCAR to take action?

Will Aaron Fike's revelation that he used heroin on race days prompt NASCAR to reexamine its drug-testing policy? It should, writes David Newton.

Updated: April 9, 2008, 3:08 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Charles Yesalis wanted a favor. His wife passed away a few weeks earlier and he needed tickets to attend the Sprint Cup race at Dover International Raceway just as he had with her for many years.

So a call was put in to a few NASCAR officials, the same ones whom Yesalis had been at odds with in several stories over drug testing in their sport.

[+] EnlargeCharles Yesalis
AP Photo/Kevin WolfCharles Yesalis, right, has maintained that NASCAR is in denial if it thinks its substance-abuse policy is adequate.

They gladly obliged, and even agreed to meet the Penn State health and policy professor and sports-drug expert who had testified six times on Capital Hill for issues involving drugs and steroids in sports.

In print he warned that NASCAR was in denial if it believed a more stringent drug-testing program wasn't needed. He sent the same message to series director John Darby and vice president of corporate communications Jim Hunter in person on that sunny day at Dover behind the governing body's hauler.

They listened, but politely disagreed.

Aaron Fike's admission in the latest edition of ESPN The Magazine that he competed in the Craftsman Truck Series while under the influence of heroin should make them pause and reconsider Yesalis' recommendation that they adopt the same testing used for Olympic athletes.

Fike's problem wasn't caught by NASCAR. It wasn't until he was arrested and charged with possession of heroin and drug abuse last year that he was indefinitely suspended.

They were lucky it wasn't after a crash at nearly 200 mph.

"Every sport organization, and I've been doing this for almost 30 years, has been at one point or another in a period of denial," Yesalis said at the time of Fike's arrest. "The NCAA. The NFL. The Olympics. You name it. Hell, the NCAA and NFL are still beating that crap.

"Every organization has used that flimsy excuse that it's a problem in other sports, not ours. Good management tends to be proactive rather than reactive."

Fike's suspension sparked a strong reaction from drivers Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton. They called for NASCAR to test everybody -- drivers and crew members -- randomly at least twice a year instead of on reasonable suspicion as the current policy states.

Better safe than sorry, the same message Yesalis preached.

"I think we owe it to the sponsors and the fans to 100 percent know that this is a clean environment," Harvick said. "It would eliminate a lot of those problems of the younger drivers that disrespect the sport and the system.

"Shame on NASCAR for not policing our garage better than what they police it right now."

Shame, indeed.

NASCAR implemented a substance-abuse policy between the 1987 and '88 seasons after driver Tim Richmond refused to give his complete medical records to the governing body.

The policy allows NASCAR to conduct drug and alcohol tests on anyone with a NASCAR competitor's license, which covers practically every member of every crew.

The tests can be conducted randomly throughout the season without warning.

Kevin Harvick

I think we owe it to the sponsors and the fans to 100 percent know that this is a clean environment. It would eliminate a lot of those problems of the younger drivers that disrespect the sport and the system.

-- Kevin Harvick

Only five drivers -- Brian Rose and Tyler Walker of the Truck Series, Shane Hmiel and Kevin Grubb in the Nationwide Series, Sammy Potashnick in the Winston Series West -- are known to have tested positive over the past five-plus years.

Only six -- including Hmiel, who failed three tests -- have been suspended since '88.

The problem is NASCAR tests based on reasonable suspicion. They depend on officials, other drivers and crew members to police the garage and notify them when there is reason to believe a driver is on drugs.

Some drivers believe that is enough, arguing that they aren't stupid enough to climb behind the wheel souped up with alcohol or an illegal substance in their system.

Fike is a perfect example that the system doesn't always work.

There could be, and probably are, others.

Yesalis, a former sports trainer and open-wheel driver, believes NASCAR may one day find itself addressing drug testing the way it did safety after the death of Dale Earnhardt in 2001.

"If there was some tragedy and all of a sudden somebody does something goofy on the track or somebody gets hurt and somebody is implicated that caused the accident to have drugs in their body, that would cause a helluva big stink," he said.

"A good analogy would be dragging their feet on the HANS [head and neck restraint that now is mandatory] and other safety breakthroughs. What finally triggered it was to lose the sport's biggest star."

This doesn't suggest Yesalis believes NASCAR has a drug problem. He doesn't. But to avoid scrutiny that stories such as Fike tell, he insists officials would be smart to turn the entire testing program over to the World Anti-Doping Agency.

"To look the other way, to pretend that it's not happening is one issue," Yesalis said. "But when you have drugs that can dramatically alter behavior when an individual is driving at a high speed and others are at risk, when drugs alter perception in a tiny way that could be deadly or very harmful at least, to me it's a no-brainer."

It should be. Under the current policy, drivers undergo a physical exam at the beginning of each season and sign an agreement that says they are subject to testing under reasonable suspicion.

The policy does not call for steroid testing, and NASCAR officials consistently decline to comment on how many tests are done per year. The last reported figure was 40 tests in 2005.

That's not many when you consider there are more than 80 drivers and 500 crew members among the three series.

Some team owners, such as Joe Gibbs, Jack Roush and Roger Penske, have drug policies in their company manuals that allow them to test outside the supervision of NASCAR.

JGR's policy is printed in the team manual, and every employee must sign off on it.

"Obviously, it doesn't work because we've had a couple [of cases] here in the last three years," team owner Ray Evernham said last year. "We don't need that kind of reputation in this sport, and I would 100 percent support them if they got tougher on it.

"The point is, even if there is one percent it needs to be handled because it should be zero."

Hunter has argued for years that NASCAR's system is one of the best in sports. He says that because drivers and crew members work so closely with one another and with officials, the chances of a violator not being reported are slim.

"In the policy itself there are all sorts of things -- change in behavior, droopy eyes -- that are very obvious, and if somebody is acting pretty strange we wouldn't hesitate to test them," he said.

There were some in the garage last year who said Fike showed those signs. Hunter said that was garage-area gossip.

Gossip or not, the system is flawed. That's why Yesalis urged Hunter and Darby to push for more stringent testing. He told them NASCAR is no different than the PGA Tour, where on the eve of last year's British Open, legend Gary Player said he knew of at least one golfer who used steroids.

"We're dreaming if we think it's not going to come into golf. I know there are golfers doing it, whether it's HGH, whether it's creatine, or whether it's steroids," the Hall of Famer said. " … The greatest thing the R&A, the USGA and PGA can do is have tests at random. It's absolutely essential that we do that."

And so it is for NASCAR. Heck, even the U.S. Chess Federation likely has a more stringent policy.

"All NASCAR is doing is behaving like every sport organization has behaved," Yesalis has said repeatedly. "Deny, deny, deny, deny until they're backed in a corner and get embarrassed into doing something."

Perhaps this is the embarrassment they need.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

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