Ninety minutes before Saturday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Daytona the announcement came that A.J. Allmendinger had failed a random substance abuse test and had been suspended.
It’s fair to say that among fans and media members there was a strong feeling of disbelief. The announcement, made by Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s vice president of competition, was brief and shocking. No questions were addressed.
Among the media cell phones and laptops were put into high gear in hope of reaching assignment editors at newspapers and websites.
The subject of drug testing is all too familiar given the sad demise of Jeremy Mayfield, a former NASCAR star who failed a drug test in 2009 – and went straight downhill to bigger legal problems.
Allmendinger was asked to take part in a random drug test after the race at Kentucky on June 30. His A sample tested positive. The type of drugs and amounts in question were not disclosed.
Under established NASCAR rules, Allmendinger has the right to request that his B sample be tested within 72 hours. Should he refuse to have that sample tested, or if that test is positive, he will be suspended indefinitely.
In a last minute, dramatic substitution, Sam Hornish replaced Allmendinger in the No. 22 Dodge at Daytona and is scheduled to drive the car again at New Hampshire this weekend.
In an article in USA Today on July 8, team owner Roger Penske said, “You know it’s a disappointment at this particular time, but we’re going to wait and see what the second test results are before we make any comment or decisions.
“I don’t think it’s fair to him. I think as you look at sports, things happen like this. It’s unfortunate, but I don’t really want to make a statement pro or con right now. I’m counting on another test being proper for him within 72 hours, and at that point we’ll make a decision.”
To be fair to Allmendinger, it is possible that the test was a false positive. Until conclusive evidence proves he is guilty, none of us should rush to judgment.
After Mayfield’s very public fall from grace and the years of court battles that followed, NASCAR has been very cautious and thorough about drug testing – and about every aspect of Allmendinger’s suspension.
I do believe NASCAR officials would rather not have to travel this road with any of their competitors.
Still, once again, a top driver is in the news for substance abuse and is the subject of negative press.
The saddest part of this story is that Allmendinger is truly one of the nicest guys in this sport who had worked hard to get to NASCAR’s top level.
For years, his parents made huge financial sacrifices to help him race, to the tune of several home mortgages to keep his dream alive.
He is a commoner that came up the hard way and a driver with whom fans can relate.
Allmendinger reached the pinnacle of his career when the call to drive the No. 22 Penske Dodge came prior to the start of the 2012 season. He was tapped to replace Kurt Busch, a driver who had displayed his hot temper one time too many and lost one of the premier rides of his career.
Allmendinger has been a breath of fresh air for Penske since January. He’s helped put bad publicity aside, been great with fans and was considered a driver for whom success was merely a matter of time.
It may well come. Let’s get one thing straight. Allmendinger is involved in a very difficult, and career threatening, situation.
But as of now, he has not been proven guilty of anything. That may never happen.
However, right now he is still a high-profile driver implicated – implicated, mind you – in a drug abuse scenario.
Nine drivers who have competed in the Camping World Truck Series, Nationwide Series and Sprint Cup Series have been suspended for failed drug tests since February of 2002. Crew members from those divisions have also been suspended over the past decade.
Allmendinger is only the second driver in Sprint Cup competition to be suspended, following Mayfield.
Even if Allmendinger emerges as “clean” following a second test, it may be that, however unfairly, he is tainted.
Today in NASCAR, many winners of the biggest and most prestigious events can’t find full-season sponsorship.
Given that, it seems virtually impossible for a team to sell a driver with any hint of substance abuse, real or otherwise, to, say, a Fortune 500 company.
One question remains: Why do NASCAR competitors partake in such behavior?
During the vast majority of NASCAR’s six decades of existence drug testing was never a consideration.
Make no mistake there has always been substance abuse. For example, I think it’s accurate to say that over the years many hungover drivers came to a track on race day.
But as the times changed and all of professional sports were plagued by cases of drug abuse – ranging from alcohol to steroids and everything in between – NASCAR felt a policy needed to be put in place.
Demands are huge for any individual who competes in any of NASCAR’s top divisions. Everyone is watching, listening and scrutinizing every move a driver, and team, make.
There is pressure in any professional sport and sometimes the need to do well can overtake common sense.
That may be true, but it is not an excuse. If drugs are used to relieve that pressure, that does not make it right.
If they are used recreationally, let’s just say for the hell of it, well … there are no excuses whatsoever.
I would like to think that perhaps NASCAR could offer some counseling or intervention before positive drug results make the headlines and ruin careers.
I doubt that will ever come to pass.
But I would also like to think that A.J. Allmendinger will emerge unscathed – with a lesson learned.