Hornaday's testosterone use forces NASCAR to face serious issues

Ron Hornaday Jr., the defending champion of the Craftsman Truck Series, met NASCAR officials Friday to discuss his admission that he took testosterone during the 2005 season.

The meeting was called after Hornaday was confronted with records of his drug purchases by ESPN on Tuesday. The racer, who enters Saturday afternoon's Camping World RV Rental 200 just 94 points out of first place, said that he took the steroid while struggling with illness.

NASCAR accepted Hornaday's explanation that he was seeking medical treatment, not a competitive edge. According to the league, the case is closed.

"It's over and done with, he's clear to race," said Jim Hunter, NASCAR vice president of corporate communications. "We don't see that Ron did anything wrong."

But in clearing the driver, NASCAR -- which is poised to announce a tougher new drug testing policy -- leaves some troubling questions unanswered. Some issues worth considering:

Should a racer take steroids without ever seeing a doctor?

Hornaday's team owner, Kevin Harvick, rallied around his driver Friday, saying Hornaday was sick at the time and desperate for solutions when he first ordered the drugs in December 2004. "He did everything right," Harvick said.

But that narrative doesn't quite fit the facts. Hornaday said a bodybuilding friend referred him to the Palm Beach (Fla.) Rejuvenation Center, a clinic whose owners have pleaded guilty to criminal charges stemming from online sales of prescription drugs.

He said a nurse appeared at Hornaday's home to take a blood sample, then sent the results to the clinic. Hornaday, by his own admission, never saw a doctor before he received a prescription for the controlled substance. It was all done over the phone and by fax.

"They didn't practice medicine at Palm Beach Rejuvenation," says Mark Haskins, the New York State Health Department investigator who probed the clinic. "They pushed drugs."

If Hornaday was struggling with a mysterious illness, why didn't he confide in the people who were on his side?

Harvick said he and his wife, DeLana, talked to Hornaday often about his health. Harvick said neither of them were told by Hornaday about the drugs he was taking. The veteran driver also has many friends in NASCAR's front office. He told no one there, either.

By keeping his use a secret, it could appear that Hornaday knew he was doing something wrong, not something right. During the interview with ESPN this week, the 50-year-old driver changed his story dramatically, saying at first that he used testosterone only once, then acknowledging that he used it nearly every day for 13 months.

How much of a performance-enhancing advantage did he likely receive?

The records from Palm Beach Rejuvenation show that the testosterone cream Hornaday received is called "20% PLO." The owner of a rival anti-aging clinic remarked, "If you are wondering if 20 percent can enhance your performance and put muscle on you, the answer is yes. You can expect to put on about 15 pounds, some of which will be water retention and some will be muscle."

What was up with the human growth hormone?

Hornaday says that he did not use any of the HGH that was shipped to his house. His wife, Lindy, who turns 50 on Sunday, supported the account, saying she used it as part of her own regimen of anti-aging medicine. "I'm a health nut," she said.

But the quantity of drugs received -- six 30-day shipments, most of them mailed to the Hornaday's home in Mooresville. N.C., during the heart of the 2005 season -- raise a separate set of questions.

According to the records from PBRC, Lindy was already getting her own supply. She received shipments of HGH in her own name in 2005. So why were the six shipments mailed to Hornaday in his name?

It is common for anti-aging clinics to prescribe HGH in conjunction with testosterone. Is it at all possible that the shipments were really intended for him?

And if, indeed, he diverted them to his wife, wasn't that a violation of the law?

"You can't just give a prescription drug to someone else," says the rival anti-aging clinic owner.

How much blame should NASCAR bear for this situation?

For years, NASCAR has claimed it doesn't suffer from the same performance-enhancing problems other sports do. But at the same time, NASCAR hasn't looked very hard for them.

Major League Baseball and the NFL conduct mandatory drug tests. NASCAR, by contrast, uses a policy of "reasonable suspicion," meaning it acts only when officials suspect something is wrong. The problem is that the policy is so vague that it leaves too much to chance.

For example, NASCAR has no explicit provision for a therapeutic use exemption, which exists in the NFL and MLB to allow athletes to apply for permission to use banned drugs for health reasons. If that had been possible, Hornaday would have had a formal process to pursue. If he chose not to do so, a disciplinary case would have been more clear-cut. Essentially, he claimed that his steroid use was a private matter that should stay private.

What can NASCAR learn from this episode?

Unlike many other sports, NASCAR has 18-year-olds competing next to athletes in their 50s. That age difference requires a drug policy that can police the abuses of young guns while acknowledging the stresses of the sport on veterans with AARP cards.

It is tempting to see Hornaday as an example of why racers in their 50s need to be held to a more forgiving standard, especially if their health is imperiled. But the real test of the policy NASCAR is expected to announce next month is whether it can establish a framework to deal with future cases such as this one, not simply accept a narrative that allows a favorite son to duck responsibility for his decisions.

Shaun Assael, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, writes extensively about doping in sports in his new book, "Steroid Nation," available here.