Friday, June 19, 2009

NASCAR and its “Youth Movement,” drug testing and the Jeremy Mayfield fiasco

Bill Elliott after he won the Winston Million, 1985 (Getty Images)

You might be wondering why in God’s name am I even thinking about this! Come on, NASCAR is a redneck southern state sport!

The truth is I used to be a passionate follower of this sport from the mid-1980s up until 2003. I started paying attention to the sport after reading about a driver who was eligible to win a million dollars if he won the race at Darlington (Southern 500) on Labor Day weekend, 1985. His name was Bill Elliott.

Bill and his brothers were truly a rags-to-riches story, except the riches never seemed to go to their heads. The Elliotts never went all Hollywood like today’s NASCAR drivers. They were honest, clever, and did much with limited resources early in Bill’s driving career, which started in 1976. Bill ultimately won his first race at Riverside (the location of that challenging road track is now a bunch of tract houses, how sad!), and was the first NASCAR driver to be featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

After Dale Earnhardt died following an accident at the end of the 2001 Daytona 500, NASCAR went bonkers with really stupid changes. All of a sudden there was this emphasis on youth, “Young Guns,” and for whatever reason the “old guys” (anyone over 40) was squeezed out of his ride (Sterling Marlin, who was dropped by his team because the sponsor, Coors, wanted a younger guy) or saw the writing on the wall and retired (Rusty Wallace). After the 2003 season, Bill went to part-time after helping Ray Evernham Motorsports build a competitive team. Bill was in the Top Ten in points that last season. He had plenty more in him, but he claimed he wanted to spend more time with his young son.

Since that time, Bill’s been kicked around, taking rides as favors to owners here and there, and is now in a very part-time effort for the legendary Woods Brothers (#21). The car is usually not very competitive.

Consequently, watching the races is no longer must-see TV for me. (Somewhere I have two photos of me with Bill at his hauler at Sears Point in 1993 and 1994.)

As for the Mayfield thing …

NASCAR implemented random drug testing this season after a Truck Series driver admitted he used heroin the same day as he’d race. So every weekend NASCAR would have a computer randomly select drivers, owners and crew for random testing. NASCAR never really released a list of banned substances, but come on. This is about performance-enhancing drugs.

For nine years, between 1992 and 2000, I was one of the nurses at the infield care center (actually in the garages at Sears Point). We had copies of each driver’s physical exam and list of prescription drugs the driver may have been on. If we needed to prescribe anything, we were asked to use good judgment and not give anything that could impair the driver or give him an unfair advantage. That meant no decongestants or antihistamines with pseudoephedrine. There was one time when we needed to prescribe an albuterol inhaler for asthma that was induced by allergies, and we asked NASCAR for approval. One of the side effects is an elevated heart rate and wakefulness (but only if the guy overdid it!). The driver was given permission to use the drug that weekend only, and had to follow up with his personal doctor when he got back to NC.

Mayfield tested positive for three drugs on May 9—and he quickly manned up and admitted to those drugs being Adderall and Claritin-D, which would react as amphetamines. However, there was a third drug identified, an illegal street drug with no therapeutic value. It has since been leaked that drug was meth.

Mayfield isn’t one of my favorite guys. Just as he was beginning to become successful on the NASCAR circuit, he dumped his first wife, Christina, who I believe was working as a hairdresser and supported Mayfield while he hung around the NASCAR garage looking for rides, building race cars for local Kentucky tracks. He left Christina for the person who is now his wife. I remember seeing Christina in the garage area—not gorgeous, but a sweet unassuming person. This new one was a total Barbie, and I laughed as she followed Mayfield all over the garage area, dressed to the nines in strappy sandals, her hair impeccably cut and highlighted, sitting on the pit box, following him to the port-a-potty and standing outside waiting for him.

I question his need for the Adderall. I found a timeline for Mayfield’s troubles, and he was prescribed the drug after a 30-minute appointment just this past March (2009) with a non-specialist doctor who gave him the drug for ADHD. Please. The guy is now 40 years old. I’m speculating he asked for the drug for weight loss or to help him withstand the rigors of owning his own racecar team. He claims NASCAR knew he was taking the drug.

I cannot imagine NASCAR just saying “oh that’s cool, you finally decided you have ADHD at the age of 40.”

NASCAR is a dictatorship and most all of the decisions made by the guy currently in charge have killed any interest the sport used to have for me. But drug testing was long overdue. And common sense should dictate—just look at the list of banned substances for the Olympics, the NHL, MLB, etc. Heck, there are therapeutic drugs that elite swimmers aren’t allowed to take, even if they need them to live (albuterol comes to mind for asthmatics). And one current NHL player, Jose Theodore, is banned from international competition for another year or so (I think) for using Rogaine for hair loss (Rogaine is used as a masking agent).

Mayfield should be suspended permanently for the Adderall alone. I could understand his needing the drug if he had the actual chemical disorder that causes ADHD and ADD. But he’s gone for nearly 40 years without a publicly-disclosed diagnosis, why now?

NASCAR did the right thing in this case, and I don’t say that very often.

Now if someone would give Bill Elliott a good ride for a year or two, I might be lured back to the track and making NASCAR must-see television on the weekends.


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