Commentary

Right call made on Hornaday; will right calls be made on testing policy?

NASCAR made the right call allowing Ron Hornaday to continue racing after he admitted taking steroids, but for medical reasons, writes David Newton. But the question remains whether NASCAR's soon-to-be-unveiled drug-testing policy will be effective.

Updated: September 12, 2008, 11:49 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

LOUDON, N.H. -- NASCAR's decision not to penalize reigning Craftsman Truck Series champion Ron Hornaday for using a testosterone cream in the 2004 and 2005 seasons was the right call. The 50-year-old driver did not violate any rules because testosterone is not a banned substance under the sport's current drug policy.

That the new policy that will be released in the next few weeks -- likely next weekend at Dover -- will contain language that would make testosterone, steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs illegal when not properly prescribed by a physician also is the right call.

So whether Hornaday's situation has been overblown, as many are claiming, isn't the point.

The point is NASCAR's policy of testing on "reasonable suspicion" is way outdated compared with those in other major sports.

Unfortunately for the governing body, it didn't heed warnings a year ago when experts such as Dr. Charles Yesalis said the best defense is a good offense.

Had NASCAR put into effect then a more stringent policy that demands random testing and has a broader range of banned substances, it wouldn't be as susceptible to criticisms that have come in the past few months.

Before Hornaday, there was the admission of former trucks driver Aaron Fike that he was under the influence of heroin during several races last season.

Where there are two examples, albeit NASCAR is satisfied Hornaday's decision to use testosterone was based on health reasons rather than on gaining a competitive advantage, there likely are more.

"They had a chance to be ahead of this," said Yesalis, a Penn State professor who has written several books on performance-enhancing drugs and testified before the U.S. Congress three times on legislation related to the control of anabolic steroids and growth hormone abuse.

"They're in the same position all other sports have been in. They wait until the public relations horse is out of the barn before they think about acting. It's regretful, but really they're not behaving any differently than all the other sports."

Yesalis, an avid NASCAR fan, isn't suggesting the sport has a problem with performance-enhancing drugs. He's also not suggesting there isn't potential for problems in an arena where changing four tires in 14.4 seconds versus 14.6 or picking up a fraction of a second because the driver wasn't fatigued on Lap 400 isn't an advantage.

"People are realizing if you are more fit and stronger, both endurance and strengthwise even in the car, then in some of these grueling races and the length of the season and doing the testing and recovering from an exhausting race for the next one, it's beneficial," Yesalis said. "Do I think testosterone might have some advantage? Yeah, I do. We're talking about a sport where being one one-hundredth of a second faster is a big deal. Do I think it might improve performance by that percent or greater? Yes I do."

Assael: Big Questions Remain

Ron Hornaday's admission that he used testosterone brings NASCAR face to face with the shortcomings in its drug-testing policy, Shaun Assael writes. Will the league learn from this? Story
• Hornaday admits steroid use

Hornaday's situation, if all he says is true, is sad. He insisted he turned to the cream after several misdiagnoses of a medical condition that eventually was determined to be Grave's disease, a thyroid disorder he's treating with Synthroid.

At one point, he had lost more than 30 pounds and, as fellow driver Jeff Burton said, "looked horrible."

That team owner Kevin Harvick insisted Hornaday get correct medical attention earlier this season might have saved his life.

"Here's what we know," said Jim Hunter, NASCAR's vice president of corporate communications in a news conference at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Friday. "Our substance-abuse experts have told us the prescription Ron Hornaday used did not enhance performance or impair his judgment.

"It's over and done with. He is cleared to race. We don't see where Ron did anything wrong."

Hornaday's biggest mistake was obtaining the cream through the Palm Beach [Fla.] Rejuvenation Center, whose owners have pleaded guilty to criminal charges resulting from their online sale of prescription drugs.

"He was just trying to get healthy," Burton said. " … In this case, it sure seems innocent to me. It sure seems like he was just trying to start feeling better. It obviously wasn't illegal. Me racing against him, although I wasn't at that point, I wouldn't have felt I was disadvantaged by what was going on."

Four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon agreed.

"The drug policy is working in our series, but we need to do a little more random testing just to make sure," he said. "You can't always go off speculation of whether guys look like they're using something they shouldn't be. Sometimes you need to know for sure."

The new policy will call for more random testing throughout the garage. Anybody who believes that pit crews, particularly with so many ex-athletes on them, aren't looking for a competitive advantage is naive.

How NASCAR structures the language in its new policy will be critical. Officials say they can't use the same philosophy used with violations on the new car, where the penalty is the same regardless of intent.

They say to simply make all steroids or performance-enhancing drugs illegal would be a mistake because there are circumstances in which a driver has a medical condition that is improved by them.

One driver came to the governing body within the past year and admitted that he treated a condition using a drug that would be considered illegal under the current policy.

Therein is the problem with structuring the language. Exactly what is a competitive advantage? Was it an advantage for Hornaday to use the cream? One could argue it was because without it he might not have had the strength to compete.

In some ways, it can be related to what happened with several of the nine Carolina Panthers from the 2003 Super Bowl team who were accused of receiving illegal steroids from Dr. James Shortt of Columbia, S.C.

Several of the players claimed they used the drugs to treat injuries or ailments that lengthened their career, that they simply were a tool to keep them on the field and not necessarily to enhance their performance.

One also could argue that anything taken to keep an athlete on the field -- or behind the wheel -- is a competitive advantage.

"Let's put this in perspective," Yesalis said. "Would [testosterone use] impact a NASCAR race, in my opinion, as much as it would the NFL? No. But the notion that it wouldn't have any impact is kind of naive."

Hunter says it's a complex situation.

"There are certain conditions where testosterone may be prescribed," he said. "So I would hesitate to blanket say a substance is totally banned."

Would Hornaday's situation have been caught by the new policy? Hunter can't say for certain.

But he hopes the new policy will at least make NASCAR less vulnerable the next time a situation arises.

"The one thing we now have that we might not have had in the past is a complete total buy-in by the garage on drug testing," Hunter said. "We have literally talked to everyone and gotten their thoughts and input."

Harvick has been a major proponent of random drug testing. He instituted a more stringent policy for his organization while NASCAR debated whether one was necessary for the entire sport.

He has been a major influence on NASCAR's new policy, understanding there are cases such as Hornaday's in which there's no easy answer.

"There are so many different types of steroids that it's hard to test for one actual steroid," he said. "There has to be real-world instances like was the case with Ron where you have to stay alive and there's only a certain kind of fix … to prescribe to fix certain illnesses.

"So that is well incorporated in what they are getting ready to do and what they currently do."

Better late than never, as they say.

"This story is going to add pressure that they deflected apparently with [Fike]," Yesalis said. "In a highly competitive environment, these drugs work too well for NASCAR to think they're not going to look down this gun barrel."

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

David Newton | email

ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter

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