Bicycle racing and NASCAR have more in common than the fact that both depend on their success for the wheel. Both are infected by the doping bug. Everyone knows that the sport that some might consider a touch effete has had a long history of doping. Learning that it also infected NASCAR came as something of a surprise.
Descriptions of bicycle races are almost always accompanied by news of the drug tests that accompany them. On February 17, 2007, for example, a New York Times description of the Tour of California explained that the tour’s sponsors had been proud of the fact that none of the riders in the 2006 event had tested positive for banned substances. To the sponsors’ embarrassment it turned out none of the riders had been tested for Erithropoietin (EPO) that gives the body extra oxygen carrying capacity, an oversight that was corrected in 2007.
Prior to the 2006 tour de France two of the top favorites were not permitted to race because of allegations they’d been involved in a Spanish doping ring. Their removal before the race proved to be nothing more than a preview of the main event that was the announcement of the results of Floyd Landis’s urine tests.
Mr. Landis had made one of the most spectacular recoveries in the history of the sport. At the conclusion of the final climb of the 16th stage of the 20-stage race, Mr. Landis was 8 minutes behind the leader, a deficit considered to be insurmountable. It was not. The next day he made a brilliant recovery that was described as one of the greatest performances in the history of the event. That recovery, combined with additional time made up in the final time trial enabled him to ride into Paris the winner of the 2006 Tour de France. Then a bad thing happened.
Mr. Landis’s urine sample produced an "adverse analytical finding." Instead of a normal ratio of 4-to-1 of testerone to epitestosterone, his ratio was 11-to-1. Two reports suggested the testosterone did not come from natural sources. A hearing on May 14 before the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency will determine whether or not he is guilty of doping.
The news of Valentine’s Day was that bicycle racing is not the only form of racing involving the wheel that is plagued by doping. So is one of George Bush’s favorite sports, NASCAR racing. (Pictures on the White House webpage show a beaming president standing in the middle of the 2005 Nextel Cup Champion team and their car taken on Jan. 24, 2006. Another picture on the same site taken February 7, 2007, shows Mr. Bush in the Oval Office with the 2006 Nextel Cup Champion, Jimmie Johnson.)
On February 14 it was disclosed that doping had become part of the NASCAR scene. The car doing the doping was a Toyota making its NASCAR debut. It was driven by Michael Waltrip, a two-time Daytona 500 winner. Cars, of course, are different from humans and have different parts from humans. Nonetheless, probing their insides can produce the same kinds of surprising results obtained from urine samples taken from humans. In this case the incriminating sample came from a car’s manifold.
In a pre-race inspection a NASCAR official reached his hand into the Toyota manifold, the part of the engine that supplies the fuel/air mix to the cylinders. He was looking for loose parts. Instead he encountered an illegal substance he said he had never before encountered. The substance, it turned out, was similar to but not the same as, EPO. It was a jet-fuel like substance described as an oxygenate that would boost the octane in the fuel and make the engine run better at higher horsepower.
Mr. Landis and Mr. Waltrip reacted similarly to news of the presence of banned substances in their respective machines. Mr. Landis insisted his testosterone was his own and not an additive. Mr. Waltrip acknowledged it was an additive but has no idea how it got into the manifold.
When illegal substances are found in bike racers they are banned from the race or stripped of the title, as appropriate. NASCAR did not ban Mr. Waltrip from the race but kicked Mr. Waltrip’s crew chief and team director out of the race for cheating and suspended them indefinitely from future NASCAR events. The crew chief was also fined $100,000. Commenting on the episode Mr. Waltrip said, "This was an independent act done without consent or authorization from me or any of my executive management team." He was, of course excluding his crew chief from that description.
There is a heartwarming side to this tale. Even though geographically and politically NASCAR fans and bicycle racing fans are far apart, doping serves to bring us all closer together.