The tragic accident in which NASCAR star Tony Stewart struck and killed fellow driver Kevin Ward during a dirt track race this weekend has enveloped the sports world, but it has also overshadowed an uplifting story from another race that took place just down the road.
Sunday, at NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series race at Watkins Glen, AJ Allmendinger drove into victory lane after a spectacular final two laps of beating and banging against the car of Marcos Ambrose. It was the first career victory for Allmendinger, and it was a remarkable enough feat that he was driving an underfunded single-car team owned in part by former Cleveland Cavaliers star Brad Daugherty in a sport dominated by multi-car, big-money powerhouses.
That his victory grew out of the darkest moment in his career, though, made it all the more significant. Just two years ago, Allmendinger was out of racing and facing a threat to his career after he tested positive for amphetamines during a post-race drug screening. When the “B” sample he submitted also failed, NASCAR immediately and indefinitely suspended him from competition.
NASCAR’s drug policy is more stringent than those in other professional sports, which makes sense, given the inherent danger present in driving 3,400-pound cars, sometimes in excess of 200 miles per hour, just inches from competitors doing the same. NASCAR’s policy has received plenty of criticism from drivers, but what makes it different than drug policies in other sports is that it places an emphasis not just on punishment but on recovery.
The current rules, dubbed the “Road to Recovery,” stem from a 2008 incident in which Craftsman Truck driver Aaron Fike confessed to using black tar heroin on race days after police caught him shooting up in the parking lot of an Ohio amusement park. Before that, NASCAR’s 1980s-era policy called for testing only when there was “reasonable suspicion.” Under the new policy, NASCAR randomly tests approximately 20 individuals after each race, including at least five drivers, plus crew members and officials.
Those who test positive, like Allmendinger, are not handed definite suspensions like athletes in other sports. Instead, they must complete a step-by-step recovery program that is uniquely tailored to their own situation, making long-term rehabilitation more likely. And that is a stated goal. “Our first priority is keeping events safe and fair, but the opportunity to help someone receive help or treatment is an important part of the program,” NASCAR’s official policy states.
Though Allmendinger insisted his was a “one-time mistake,” he credited the program with helping him get past it.
“I knew I didn’t have a problem, I knew it was a one-time mistake,” Allmendinger told The Associated Press in 2012. “I’m going to use the word ‘educated’ because I feel like I was educated on a lot of things and a lot of things about myself. I just needed to get my priorities straight and my life straightened out. And learn to be happy as a person away from the race track. If you are not happy away from the race track, you aren’t going to be happy at the race track. So much of what I was doing at the race track was dictating the person I was.”
NASCAR’s drug policy has received criticism in the past from drivers for its opaqueness, as drivers worried in the aftermath of Jeremy Mayfield’s 2009 suspension for methamphetamines that they could accidentally fail tests for over-the-counter or legally prescribed drugs.
Mark Martin, an elder statesman among NASCAR drivers, was concerned about the lack of clarity as to what specific substances are banned. “If you’re taking something as prescribed, what does zero tolerance mean? It’s our careers, man… . People have allergies, people have whatevers, injuries and stuff. I’m sure that’s all fine. Dr. Black [the doctor who runs NASCAR’s testing program] says that’s all fine, but it’s still pretty scary.”
NASCAR has since made drivers more aware of the types of substances and drugs that are impermissible.
Allmendinger’s suspension also drew concern. “People are imperfect. Tests are imperfect. One of the first things my trainer told me when he started working with me is, ‘Be careful. Anything you ingest is made somewhere, and you don’t know what that factory was making the day before it made the product you’re using,'” fellow driver Carl Edwards said afterward, adding that drivers could benefit by forming an organization to represent them on drug testing issues (NASCAR drivers do not have a union or organized representation of any kind).
AJ Allmendinger’s road back into NASCAR’s top level was not easy. Allmendinger had the support in particular of Roger Penske, who allowed him to race in the Indy Car and score victories for him in the Nationwide Series, NASCAR’s second-tier division. Now, two years after his failed test, Allmendinger has finally made it to victory lane. While NASCAR’s drug policy may still need tweaks, his win provided a feel-good redemption story on an otherwise grim weekend for the sport.
“I dreamed about this moment and I’m not going to forget it,” Allmendinger said after the race. “It’s just a dream come true.”
Ari Rabin-Havt is host of The Agenda on SiriusXM.