The folksy line making the rounds in the lead-up to this year’s Daytona 500 was, "If you ain’t cheatin’ you ain’t competin’." In other words, what’s a little rocket fuel among friends?
That’s one description of the substance allegedly used by someone on the team sponsoring NASCAR legend Michael Waltrip. No one fessed up to the crime, but Waltrip stared into the cameras and said the buck stopped with him. "I’m ready to bear all responsibility for what happened," the two-time Daytona 500 winner said.
By the time he had finished apologizing, Waltrip had NASCAR fans feeling sorry for him instead of chastising him for cheating. He said he almost pulled out of the race entirely.
"I didn’t want to damage the integrity of the sport further by going out there and having people think, ‘What’s he doing out there?’ " Waltrip said.
Integrity of the sport? Isn’t this the game founded in the back hills of the Carolinas by bootleggers whose cars and wits were fast enough to outrun alcohol tax agents from the federal government?
It really goes to show how far NASCAR has come from its early days.
Waltrip was one of several individuals or teams charged with rules violations at Daytona as NASCAR aggressively stepped up enforcement of its competition policies. But the cheaters are becoming increasingly sophisticated. Now, instead of hiring hillbillies with wrenches, the Fortune 500 companies that sponsor NASCAR teams to the tune of millions of dollars have scientists working on their cars.
Similarities to horse racing? Yes and no.
No horseman in recent memory has done a Waltrip-like mea culpa. Perhaps it’s because the France family runs NASCAR with an iron fist and horse racing resembles a rudderless ship. Knee-jerk reaction to most sanctions in horse racing involves an attorney and an appeal, not an apology.
As with NASCAR, chicanery is part of horse racing lore. Those who think it started in the latter part of the 20th century haven’t heard stories from the old-timers who were around before drug testing of horses began. Also, back then, fast horses were often "hidden" in morning workouts by providing false names to clockers. Try that today and chances are a trainer will be fined or suspended.
Whether they race cars or horses, cheaters are getting more sophisticated today. Blood-doping agents or venom from exotic snakes and sea creatures are believed to be in use by some unscrupulous horsemen as performance-enhancing stimulants or painkillers. In a sense, it’s the same kind of rocket fuel Waltrip’s team was accused of putting into its Toyota.
But there is a big difference between horse and auto racing. One uses a machine and the other a living, breathing animal. Many of the substances alleged to be used in horses are not even designed for animal use. There is danger in exposing the drugs to an animal of any kind, especially one that exerts itself the way a Thoroughbred does.
Just as NASCAR appears to be cracking down on its cheaters, so is racing. Increased security and surveillance at major events are an absolute must. So is the kind of out-of-competition testing employed in other sports that finally is gaining traction in horse racing. Tougher penalties are needed for those who do get caught, with repeat violators banned from the game.
Major obstacles remain, not the least of which is the regulatory structure of horse racing, one that emphasizes state-by-state oversight rather than a national approach. As a result, instead of employing one national laboratory to conduct all drug testing for horse racing, state racing commissions are usually required to find an in-state lab.
What small progress has been made points to the need to continue the fight against the cheaters who would ruin the game