Case in point, Tuesday night’s surprising exchange between driver Jeremy Mayfield and NASCAR CEO Brian France.
Suspended since a failed substance abuse test in May of 2009, Mayfield popped up on Motor Racing Network’s "NASCAR Live" radio program Tuesday evening, utilizing the show’s open-phone format to lob an unexpected query at NASCAR’s top boss.
"I just want to ask Brian if he's willing to accept the fact that I'd like to come back racing, and if we could sit down and talk about it and figure out what we need to do to make that work," said Mayfield.
The question was almost certainly rhetorical. Mayfield is well aware that the path back to NASCAR’s good graces is the “Road to Recovery;” a program that guides suspended drivers and crewmembers through a focused, individualized protocol of rehabilitation, counseling and testing. That option was extended to Mayfield immediately following his suspension in 2009, and it has remained on the table ever since.
Mayfield, however, chose litigation over rehabilitation, clinging doggedly to his assertion that he has never used methamphetamine and blaming his failed drug test on a combination of Adderall – used to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder – and the over-the-counter allergy medication Claritin-D. He clung to his story even as experts debunked the possibility of such a mistake, then launched a dizzying series of conspiracy theories at NASCAR, its drug testing agent, Aegis Laboratories and France himself, accusing them gross incompetence, willfully falsifying test results and harboring a personal vendetta against him.
|An opportunity for Jeremy Mayfield|
Some of his allegations seemed plausible at first, while others were downright bizarre and defied belief. Despite spending huge sums of money on high-profile, celebrity attorneys -- at least one of whom quit the case and sued him for non-payment -- Mayfield experienced an uninterrupted series of legal setbacks. Three times, judges sided with NASCAR in the dispute, before U.S. District Court Judge Graham Mullen finally ruled in May of 2012 that Mayfield’s case was without merit, and dismissed it.
By then, Mayfield had new legal issues to attend to, being charged with multiple felonies after Sheriff’s deputies raided his home and discovered a large quantity of methamphetamine, dozens of firearms and goods allegedly stolen from local businesses, including the now-defunct Red Bull Racing team. Through it all, Mayfield continued to profess his innocence, claiming he had been the victim of a vast conspiracy involving NASCAR, the courts and multiple law enforcement agencies.
“I don't need to go to rehab, because I don't have a problem," said Mayfield at the time, toeing a defiant line in the face of repeated setbacks.
Now, however, it appears the Kentucky native may be ready to try a different tact.
"You know the path back for you," said France Tuesday, reminding Mayfield of his open Road to Recovery. "It's the path back for anybody. I've always hoped that you would choose the right path and not litigation… but that's up to you. You have a welcome mat out, anytime you want”.
Mayfield has not said whether he will accept France’s offer, undergo the RTR program and apply for reinstatement to NASCAR. Rest assured, however, that anything less will forever cement his status as an outcast from the sport. Unfortunately for Mayfield, reinstatement comprises just one step in the marathon of personal redemption that almost certainly lies ahead. Completing the Road to Recovery will be child’s play compared to finding a team owner and sponsor willing to back him in big-league NASCAR competition. He also faces more than a decade in possible jail time on the outstanding felony charges, and said yesterday that he will decline any plea bargain that includes time behind bars.
Even if those hurdles can all be cleared – and many doubt that they can -- the sport has changed dramatically since Mayfield last strapped into a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race car. Adapting to today’s machinery will be a daunting prospect, at best.
The odds remain stacked against him, and no one knows for sure whether Mayfield really wants to return to NASCAR. Tuesday’s odd encounter was either a final, desperate gesture by a man incapable of surviving outside of the public spotlight, or a genuine indicator of remorse. For Mayfield’s sake, and for the sake of the sport, I hope it was the latter.
Unexpected as it was, Tuesday’s exchange offers an opportunity for Mayfield to reverse his course and take a positive step for the first time in nearly four years.
I hope he follows through.