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Mayfield scandal gives NASCAR soap opera spotlight

Sirius NASCAR Radio hosts Buddy Baker (far) and Rick Benjamin. The Mayfield controversy has dominated racing talk shows lately.

NASCAR returns to the track today after being off last week. Teams are in Indianapolis for Sunday's Brickyard 400. And for those involved in the sport, an actual race will be a welcome diversion from a controversy that's dominated the headlines of late. This story actually starts in Darlington, SC in early May. NASCAR had just announced that Jeremy Mayfield had become the only driver in the sport's top series to ever test positive for drugs. Mayfield had tested positive for methamphetamine, sparking a scandal that would soon unfold into accusations of lying, cheating and murdering. The driver sued and a judge sided with Mayfield and blocked the suspension. Then it got really nasty. NASCAR said Mayfield had flunked a second test. And Mayfield's stepmother said she'd seen the driver use meth about 30 times in the past seven years. Mayfield was running hot. And he fired back in an interview on Sirius NASCAR radio. "I'm not even gonna call that lady my stepmom," Mayfield said. "That was a lady who was married to my dad who is very, very angry at me, who actually pretty much shot and killed my dad." His father's death two years ago was ruled a suicide. Mayfield says he's going to sue his stepmother anyway. It didn't stop there. Mayfield also went after NASCAR's president. "You know Brian France, out there talking about effective drug policy, is kind of like Al Capone talking about effective law enforcement. The pot shouldn't be calling the kettle black." Things did die down for a few days. Then Mayfield accused of NASCAR of spiking his urine tests. To back up his claim, he says he's taken other tests that have shown he's clean. A sport that's worked very hard to make itself legitimate to a national audience, all of a sudden had taken on the twist and turns of a pro wrestling plot. Mike Bistline is a NASCAR fan from Harrisburg, PA. He was in Charlotte last week with his family, touring race shops. He says he could see how the Mayfield controversy might perpetuate some old stereotypes. "I think it could be perceived that it's still a redneck sport," Bistline says. "That the money that's behind itthey could almost look past that and say it's still this redneck sport from North Carolina, southern Virginia, West VirginiaYou're drawing a crowd that's out drinking beer and doing drugs every weekend, and it is what it is." Humpy Wheeler is legendary for his days as G.M. of Lowe's Motor Speedway. He says the Mayfield scandal is ugly, but it reminds him a little bit of NASCAR's old days. He smiles as he talks about it. "NASCAR has always been a series of dramatic escapades," Wheeler says. "And that's one of the reasons people like it. There's nothing vanilla about it. Never has been and when it starts becoming vanilla is when we stop sellin' tickets." But the truth is, NASCAR has been almost scandal-free when compared to other American sports. Max Muhleman is a Charlotte sports marketer who's worked with NASCAR since the 1950s. He doesn't think fans will stop watching racing over the Mayfield controversy. And he says if any sponsors are getting spooked, they shouldn't. "If you're gonna have zero tolerance as a sponsor, you probably can't sponsor much of anything these daysfrom entertainment to politicians to sports figures," Muhleman says. Muhleman says years ago, the nature of the Mayfield scandal might have damaged NASCAR's national image. But today, he says, the sport has grown too big with too broad of an audience for that to happen. "NASCAR's got a charming background of bootlegging and poverty but that was when they were running on dirt tracks," Muhleman adds. "And you can't find a dirt parking lot for a race track now, much less a race track. I just don't think this revives anything any more than it would if it happened in another sport." Which may suggest some irony in the whole thing. That it may have taken NASCAR's biggest scandal in decades to show just how far the sport has come.