Commentary

Give NASCAR some credit

Notoriously reactive NASCAR got proactive with its drug-testing policy. And that's a very good thing, writes Marty Smith.

Updated: January 12, 2009, 10:15 AM ET
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

When Aaron Fike tepidly walked into a Nowhere, Ill., breakfast joint and spilled his soul to ESPN The Magazine writer Ryan McGee, whispering a barely audible admission to racing at more than 100 mph as black tar heroin coursed through his veins, the NASCAR world dramatically changed.

For the first time, NASCAR was pressed for answers regarding its reactive drug policy. Prominent drivers called for change, including Kevin Harvick. To prove his mettle, Harvick instituted random testing at his own company, Kevin Harvick Inc., which houses two Truck teams and a Nationwide Series program.

[+] EnlargeAaron Fike
AP Photo/Terry RennaAaron Fike was arrested in an amusement park parking lot in July 2007 and charged with possession of black tar heroin.

Granted, NASCAR had sent drivers home in the past, Shane Hmiel being the most notable. But until that cold, windy day in Galesburg, "reasonable suspicion" was always a good enough excuse.

No more.

See, Fike had finished fifth in Memphis, the best performance of his young career. And no one had a clue he was high.

In the aftermath, NASCAR chairman Brian France appointed a group of company officials to determine whether to add a staff substance-abuse expert and whether random testing should be implemented. It was estimated to take some six weeks.

All the while, NASCAR stressed that the policy based on reasonable suspicion was a good one, that it ensured privacy for competitors. NASCAR, after all, is a free-enterprise domain. NASCAR drivers and crewmen are not company employees. They are in fact contract employees of their respective team owners. So the debate began: Who is ultimately responsible for this?

In the end, the sport's integrity was at issue. In one race and with one sentence, Fike had made a mockery of the notion that self-policing was the best way. NASCAR has long been a self-policing garage, and will continue to be to a degree. But again, no one had a clue Fike was high, so no one had so much as an opportunity to be accountable.

NASCAR again came under fire in September, when yet another ESPN The Magazine report confirmed that then-defending Truck series champion Ron Hornaday had received shipments of testosterone and human growth hormone from a Florida antiaging center.

Again, NASCAR stood by its policy. NASCAR officials and almost everyone in the industry -- me included -- had the utmost confidence that Hornaday, who had a hormone imbalance, wasn't using to gain a competitive edge. It's simply not his style. When he started taking testosterone, he had already lost noticeable weight and felt like crap. He should have informed NASCAR he was taking the medicine, by all means. But he's old-school. Revealing that information would, in his mind, be admitting weakness.

The fact is he was sick as all hell and did what it took to feel better.

But that doesn't change the fact that he was using unnoticed.

That is the entire point.

As a result, NASCAR changed its policy to include random testing.

NASCAR anticipates it will test, at random, 12 to 14 individuals per series each race weekend this season.

Pit crew members, including the over-the-wall variety; crew chiefs; car chiefs; tire, fuel and pit crew operation personnel; spotters; and race-day support personnel including engineers, engine tuners, shock specialists and chassis specialists are among those who must undergo a baseline test before Jan. 16. Ensuring those tests are completed before the deadline is the responsibility of the teams for which the individuals work. They will be tested for some 40 drugs.

The driving corps, meanwhile, will undergo testing administered by NASCAR. There is no specific banned-substance list for drivers.

NASCAR's 60th season was its most taxing. A racial discrimination and sexual harassment lawsuit filed by former official Mauricia Grant hovered over the sport for the final six months of the year. The meteoric rise the industry so greatly enjoyed for the past decade stalled. Industry-wide layoffs meant hundreds of jobs lost to the economic downturn that will continue to threaten the sport through 2009.

Despite all that, Fike's admission and Hornaday's revelation might be the most astonishing developments.

And somehow the most overlooked.

Maybe that's because notoriously reactive NASCAR got proactive, leaving no doubt in the court of public opinion that it knew it was caught with its pants down. Admission is all anyone really wants.

For being proactive, NASCAR deserves credit. Again, integrity is at stake. Not to mention safety.

Drivers guide missiles around closed-circuit courses at blinding speeds. Precision is a job requirement. Pit road, too, requires precision. The margin for error is minute for all involved on race day. Any doubt about a competitor's merit is too much.

Reasonable suspicion left suspicion.

The gray area in the NASCAR rule book is harder to come by these days.

In this instance that's a very good thing.

Integrity is too important.

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.