COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - Although NASCAR contends it has the best anti-doping procedures in sports, some experts see flaws in the policy and question whether drivers are getting a fair shake in the lab or a safe ride on the track.
The debate between outfits that run Olympic-style testing programs and leagues that enforce their own - NASCAR, baseball and the NFL among them - has been going on for a while, but it's taking on new relevance in the wake of Jeremy Mayfield's case against NASCAR.
NASCAR suspended the 40-year-old driver May 9, eight days after failing a random drug test. NASCAR has said Mayfield tested positive for methamphetamine, but he has denied ever using the illegal drug.
Last week, a federal judge issued an injunction and overturned the drug suspension to let Mayfield to compete. NASCAR is appealing the judge's ruling, saying that allowing 'a proven methamphetamine user' back on the track could lead to fatal consequences for other competitors and fans.
The Mayfield case 'will be used as Exhibit 1 of what can go horribly wrong when you don't have an effective policy in place,' said Travis Tygart, the CEO of the U.S. Anti-Doping Association, which oversees America's Olympic athletes.
'The truly clean drivers, frankly, should be outraged,' Tygart said. 'Because you either have a drug user who got off on a technicality due to poor policy, or you have a clean athlete who is falsely accused. Either way, I'd be scared to death if I were a driver.'
NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston conceded the policy wasn't perfect, and that NASCAR is always looking for places to make improvements.
But nobody, he said, should question the intent. A big difference between NASCAR and other sports is NASCAR must be on the lookout for drugs that enhance performance and those that impair it.
'Our sport is different, and that's why, again, maybe the whole issue is so simple it confuses people,' Poston said.
Despite being cleared to race, Mayfield couldn't find a ride for last weekend's race at Daytona, and on Thursday, his attorney said he would not be in Chicago for this weekend's race.
Experts from the World Anti-Doping Agency and the Anti-Doping Research lab in Los Angeles joined Tygart in flagging a number of elements in the NASCAR policy that don't conform to standards used by Olympic sports.
Among the flaws, they said, was NASCAR's lack of a published list of banned substances for drivers.
'Unfathomable,' said Gary Wadler, who helps design WADA's list of banned substances. 'I can't conceive of any athlete who was going to be drug tested and not know what drugs they can take and are not allowed to take. It makes no sense to me. The whole program is a nonstarter without a list.'
NASCAR disputes that, saying there is, in fact, a list that was distributed to teams at the beginning of the season when they were required to have their crews drug tested. That list was nowhere as detailed as the list WADA puts out, but NASCAR has a reason for that, as well.
'I wish someone would look up that WADA list and attempt to tell me if it educates them on what they can or cannot take,' said David Black, CEO of the Aegis Sciences Corp., which runs NASCAR's program. 'Every participant has my cell phone number. Any participant is allowed to call me about any issue related to a supplement, a prescription. I do speak with them. They're all given that opportunity.'
Tygart also said testing programs should be transparent, independent from the sport, and should include effective sanctions that are clearly spelled out, along with a fair process for those who are being punished.
NASCAR's 51/2-page policy lays out a path to reinstatement for banned drivers but calls only for 'indefinite' suspensions, with no specific time frames. Cases run by WADA and USADA call for a two-year ban on a first offense and a lifetime ban on a second, with a clearly defined appeals and arbitration process, along with opportunities for reductions due to unusual circumstances.
Don Catlin, the founder of Anti-Doping Research who used to lead the WADA-accredited lab at UCLA, agrees with NASCAR in saying that WADA standards aren't the only ones that are acceptable. But he said he finds it troubling whenever a sport administers its own drug-testing program.
Aegis, based in Nashville, Tenn., tests samples and advises NASCAR on its policy. Final decisions are made by NASCAR officials in consultation with Black.
'Programs need to involve people who don't have a stake in it, who don't really care and will try to see the facts as they are,' Catlin said. 'Independence is the word. You go back to the Mitchell Report, with baseball. In there, you find a lot of justification for independence.'
Black, however, said he has never seen a conflict of interest between the recommendations he gives NASCAR and the decisions NASCAR makes. Though NASCAR's drug policy became more widely publicized this year when it added random testing, the racing circuit has been testing drivers on reasonable suspicion for two decades, Black said.
'In the 20 years I've consulted with NASCAR, I have never sensed that there is anything other than a sincere desire to put in place the best possible program,' Black said. 'I've never run into a disagreement with NASCAR with regard to application of the policy, no matter who the person was that was determined to be the drug user.'
Now, however, some possible flaws are being exposed as the Mayfield case winds its way through the federal court system.
When athletes sue, judges almost always refuse to take cases involving WADA rules because the clearly defined appeals and arbitration process ends at the Court of Arbitration for Sport, based in Lausanne, Switzerland. Cases decided there are, like any, subject to lawyering, but are normally decided by people with more background on doping issues than most state or federal judges.
'They've opened this Pandora's box, and now they're stuck with it,' Catlin said. 'They can play it out in whatever court it's going to play out in. There are people who can sort it out for them, but the way the program is structured, I don't see anyone sticking their neck out to get involved.'