Will Drug Scandal Crush NASCAR Fans?

A prominent NASCAR driver tested positive for methamphetamines a second time. Now his mom is telling tales on him to national media. NASCAR's drug testing is a recent phenomenon, and with the Jeremy Mayfield scandal causing such a ruckus, sportswriter Ryan McGee fears NASCAR's attempts to lure new fans to the sport will be crushed. Guy Raz talks with McGee about what this scandal will do to NASCAR's reputation.

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GUY RAZ, host:

We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

NASCAR has spent years trying to break free from its hillbilly caricature. Despite some rough patches because of the current recession, NASCAR still reigns as the second most popular TV sport after football.

Now, though, comes a drug scandal involving one of NASCAR's drivers Jeremy Mayfield. He recently tested positive for methamphetamine, his second positive test; and that's only the beginning.

Here, with the rest of the tale is Ryan McGee. He broke the story of Mayfield's first positive drug test this past spring for ESPN The Magazine.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. RYAN McGEE (Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine): Thank you.

RAZ: Mr. McGee, first off, give us a little background on Jeremy Mayfield. Who is he?

Mr. McGEE: Jeremy, he's your classic NASCAR success story. He grew up in Owensboro, Kentucky, which has always produced great NASCAR talent. And Jeremy was the last person to come out of Owensboro; came to Charlotte, landed a ride with NASCAR legend Cale Yarborough, and has won five Sprint Cup Series races and a very likeable guy. And that's why, quite honestly, this last chapter of his career has been such a shocker.

RAZ: Well, what happened to him this past spring?

Mr. McGEE: Jeremy turned 40 just recently, which in NASCAR is kind of the golden number. Once you hit 40, it seems like your history says that's the backside of career as opposed to the ascent.

Coming into the 2009 season, he wasn't able to secure a ride with the full-time Sprint Cup Series team so he started his own. It was this great kind of story that the fans clung to, which was the man that just said, you know, what, I'm going to do it myself. He had a lot of volunteers working on the team, building his own racecars. It was kind of throwback story.

And then he tested positive, failed his drug test the first weekend of May. The following weekend, NASCAR announced the suspension. No one knew what he had tested positive for, and then eventually we learned that it was methamphetamines.

RAZ: And he recently tested positive for this again. He is denying this. But at the same time, his stepmother has come out saying that she has seen him use methamphetamine on, at least, 30 occasions.

Mr. McGEE: That's where this entire story has taken a Jerry Springer turn, and it just has happened in the past week. Certainly, he was being tried in the court of public opinion. There was a huge line, the dividing line in the grandstand at the racetrack. Some thought he was guilty, some thought he wasn't.

Same can be said for the garage where the people that work within the sport, some jumped to Jeremy's defense but the vast majority, behind closed doors, they would say they thought he was guilty or they just didn't want him on the racetrack.

You know, NASCAR is like the circus. It's the only sport where everybody packs up and goes to the next town, and it's the same group of people: team owners, sponsors, NASCAR officials, media members, crew members, you know, other drivers, crew chiefs. It's really a very small, very tight-knit community, and everyone knows what everyone else is doing. And, you know, there are rumors and there is truth. And, you know, it really is just like being back in high school.

RAZ: So, is Mayfield's career over? I mean, does he have any future in stockcar racing?

Mr. McGEE: No, he doesn't at all. And he himself has started to admit that, you know, this week.

RAZ: Mr. McGee, I understand you used to work for NASCAR. How big of a deal is the Mayfield case for NASCAR sport that has really been trying to work on its reputation as a kind of a suburban lifestyle sport?

Mr. McGEE: Yeah. And when I worked for the league, it was a very deliberate -it wasn't malicious, but it was a very deliberate plan, which was bringing in new fans. It wasn't necessarily cutting ties with the old fans. But it was bringing in, you know, housewives. And it was bringing in white-collar businessmen. And it was bringing in people from the West Coast and people from the Northeast that don't necessarily come from a car culture.

Part of that was trying to put some distance between itself and the old school, you know, Southeastern, you know, fair or unfair redneck image of the sport. And that's why this hurts so much because you certainly couldn't come up with more of a redneck situation, quite honestly, than a driver from Kentucky testing positive for methamphetamines and doing it twice, and now dragging the whole stepmom and some of the things that he said in public.

So, you know, whether he's guilty or innocent, at this point, the league is scrambling a little bit to make sure that, you know, the perception isn't that it's like this with everybody in the garage, because quite honestly it's not.

RAZ: That's Ryan McGee of ESPN The Magazine.

Mr. McGee, thanks for joining us.

Mr. McGEE: Thank you.

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