News From Terre Haute, Indiana

July 25, 2009

From The Press Box: Mayfield case still raises doubts

By Todd Golden

Speedway — Not once in all of my years of going to NASCAR races in Indianapolis or elsewhere have I ever thought to myself ... I wonder how Jeremy Mayfield is going to do?

Never have I considered what the fan reaction to Mayfield at a race would be because I knew it would be polite applause followed by silence. It never crossed my mind to think of him as a contender, a pretender, or a factor in any way.

He won the odd race here and there early in his career, but for the most part, he was just there. A field filler. Of the 43 cars in the field, he was likely to be among the 33 you barely notice as they put in their 160 laps and head to the next race.

What’s more, Mayfield isn’t even at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway this weekend. Yet Mayfield is the first thing on my mind during this trip to the Brickyard 400.

Mayfield’s methamphetamine suspension has been the talk of NASCAR. Mayfield, who owned his own team, chose to fight NASCAR in court, a rarity for NASCAR’s usually pliant drivers, and his case has grabbed as much attention as anything on-track this summer.

Mayfield’s saga took another twist Friday.

A U.S. Court of Appeals judge in Richmond, Va., reinstated the suspension NASCAR levied against Mayfield in May after he tested positive for meth. The stay of an earlier injunction came after a lower court reinstated Mayfield with a temporary injunction on July 1 after it deemed there was the likelihood of a false positive.

Some are going to view Friday’s ruling as vindication for the series and its drug testing policy. NASCAR naturally did.

“We are pleased with the 4th Circuit Court’s ruling to reinstate NASCAR’s suspension of Jeremy Mayfield. This was an important decision for NASCAR to make fair and equitable regulations for the safety of competitors and spectators at the track. We will continue to respectfully make our case for as long as the litigation continues,” a NASCAR press release said.

NASCAR shouldn’t do any legal burnouts yet. This was a battle won in what is likely to be a protracted war.

What bothers me about the Mayfield saga is the presumption, held by many fans and some among NASCAR’s media, that Mayfield is automatically guilty. This case is way too gray to believe that either side has an open-and-shut case, yet it seems that NASCAR gets the benefit of the doubt in the court of public opinion.

I don’t think one has to wear a tinfoil hat to take a critical eye to NASCAR’s case. Mayfield has proclaimed innocence, of course, and that’s admittedly not enough to presume he’s right. However, there are other factors in Mayfield’s favor.

The possibility of a false positive exists to the point where Mayfield won a court injunction based on the premise. When NASCAR announced a second failed test on July 6 it also provided an affidavit from his estranged former stepmother stating that he had abused meth for a decade.

Why would NASCAR feel the need to produce an affidavit if it explicitly believed in its testing policy? Mayfield has been on several teams during his NASCAR career, no one inside the series who worked with Mayfield could present a similar account?

In another affidavit this week, a Florida medical examiner disputed the level of meth detected on the positive test saying it was “astronomical” and claimed the results “could be remotely accurate, unless he was deceased or a chronic abuser.”

Should any of Mayfield’s counter-claims be taken at face value? Of course not. There’s evidence in NASCAR’s corner too.

But there is a lot of smoke here, but many don’t want to acknowledge there might be a fire. After all, guilt is presumed over innocence … just because NASCAR said he is. The vibe of what-NASCAR-says-goes is pervasive. It permeates the drivers, teams, media and fans. The cult of personality the series has shrewedly built for itself is that it can do no wrong … and many believe it unconditionally.

I understand NASCAR’s desire to protect its drug policy. Given what’s at stake if someone is impaired on track, if there’s a sport that needs an ironclad drug policy, it is motorsports.

But it needs to be a policy that works, a program that doesn’t punish the potentially innocent in the interests of snaring the guilty. Mayfield’s case has raised issues as to whether’s NASCAR’s policies meet that standard. Neither party should get any benefit of the doubt.

NASCAR says its policy is “fair and equitable.” But I keep seeing that smoke over the horizon and wonder if there’s a fire.

Todd Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 231-4272 or