Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Is Nascar facing a drug problem?

The recent news that Craftsman Trucks Series and Nationwide Series driver Aaron Fike had been arrested for heroin use and his confession that he had injected himself with the drug prior to racing is very disturbing news for the world of Nascar. Aaron's problems raise questions about just how wide spread is drug use in Nascar. As disturbing as Aaron's confession is, I'm guessing that illegal drug use in Nascar is not that big of a problem, but it is certainly a concern.

Nascar instituted a policy that allows random drug testing of basically any driver, at any time. We will never know just how often Nascar implements this policy, but the supposition would be that Nascar does random drug testing. Dale Earnhardt Jr. said, a couple of years ago, that he had never been tested for anything. I've worked for companies before that also had random drug testing policies, and I was never tested either, except for preemployment screening. Once, I sustained an injury on the job, and had to take a drug test prior to a visit to the doctor, but that was a Workman's Comp case, and from what I understand, that is standard procedure. I'm fortunate in that I've never had a problem with using illegal drugs, and the random testing policy was always enough to keep me from wanting to experiment.

But what about people who do have drug problems, for one reason or another? Apparently, Aaron Fike started taking pain killers following a racing accident, and became addicted. That addiction eventually led to heroin use. I don't think anyone reading this would dispute that Aaron should not be allowed on the race track after taking a pop of heroin. One of my best friends is on a narcotics squad for a state law enforcement agency, and his take on heroin is this: Give a guy a little heroin, and he'll go to sleep. Give him a little more, and he'll die. Obviously, Aaron wasn't taking enough heroin to put him to sleep, but the thought of him on the track with other drivers, racing at high speeds, with heroin in his system is enough to make me shudder. In a way, I'm glad Aaron got arrested. I'm also glad he confessed to the pre race drug use. The first step in recovering from an addiction is admitting you have a problem. I think Aaron's got a long road ahead of him, and his racing career is certainly in danger. But I'd rather see Aaron live a long healthy life off the track than I would to see him kill himself with heroin.

Shane Hmiel is currently under a lifetime ban by Nascar, after being suspended for failing a drug test in 2003, testing positive for marijuana. Shane was reinstated in 2004, but failed a drug tests again in 2005 and 2006, this time showing positive not only for marijuana, but also cocaine. It is not known if Shane was actually under the influence of either of these drugs while racing, but the residue can be picked up weeks later after use by most drug testing methods. Nascar apparently has a 2 strikes policy for drugs, at least it did in Shane Hmiel's case. Will Nascar give Aaron Fike another chance, since Shane had another chance? Who can say, since this is Nascar we're talking about.

To me, there is a big difference between smoking a joint on your day off or showing up at the race track and puffing away in the hauler before the race. I don't know that Shane was doing either the first, or the latter, or both. Virtually everyone knows somebody that smokes pot on a casual basis. If you don't think you do, then you're most likely wrong. I'm not talking about everyday use, but maybe a little hit on the weekend, or maybe just a few puffs while on vacation. Personally, I don't have much of a problem with that. I don't use marijuana, but when I was about 18 or 19 years old, I tried it. It made me paranoid, so I quit, and I haven't used it in well over 20 years now. Back in those days, I would smoke a little, and suddenly feel like the SWAT team was about to take down the door and take me away in shackles. For me, that was all the reason I needed to quit. I've had good friends who have smoked a little though, and most of them have led perfectly normal lives. I certainly would not want to see a race car driver take a couple of last tokes and then climb into the race car though. I know of a few drivers that could probably benefit by mellowing out a little, but that's probably not the best way to do it.

I'm going to make some dangerous assumptions here, and I know, it's always dangerous to assume. I have no idea how Nascar implements it's random drug testing policy, but let's assume that roughly half of the drivers have been tested at least once since the policy came into existence back in the late 1980's. If only 2 drivers have had problems in all that time, I'm guessing that Nascar does not have a drug problem. Think about it. I'm only talking half here. Or if it was only a quarter of all drivers since the late 1980's. That's a lot of drivers. That's not much drug abuse found. Compare that with virtually any other major sport, and Nascar looks pretty good.

Nobody gets into any of Nascar's top 3 series without racing a lot of hard races to get there. Every one of these drivers have had crashes, some of them very painful, and have been administered drugs to help with the pain. Most of them eventually heal, and stop having to use the painkillers. But as happens in life, a few get addicted and continue to take the drug, often acquiring it illegally. It's a shame, because promising careers can be ruined, but it happens in every occupation, every day.

Nascar does need to step up it's testing policies though. I think all the drivers should be tested at least once in a while, if not for fairness, then at least for safety.

I don't believe Nascar has a drug problem, but they need to be sure they catch anyone who does before he or she causes big problems on the track, and ultimately, for the sport itself.

As for Aaron Fike, I hope he can beat the drugs and will race again. I hope the same for Shane Hmiel.

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