By Jerry Bonkowski
NASCAR caught substance abusers Shane Hmiel and Aaron Fike in time before they killed themselves or someone else.
NASCAR also caught Kevin Grubb abusing drugs.
But no matter how much punishment the sanctioning body meted out or treatment it suggested to help him get his life back on-track, it wasn't enough to stop the Virginia native from staying on a path of self-destruction.
That path came to a quick and very sad end – the kind no parent, brother or sister ever wants to hear about – when he reportedly shot himself in the head Wednesday morning in a seedy motel not far from his home in nearby Mechanicsville, Va., ending a tortured existence at the far too age of 31.
I remember Grubb quite well. He was considered an up-and-coming driver first for his family's team in 1997 and 1998. But it was with Brewco Motorsports where he showed he had the right stuff behind the wheel, earning 18 top-10s in three seasons (1999 – 2001).
But just as fast as he found speed and success on the racetrack, both dissolved once he and Brewco parted ways. He sank and he sank fast, bouncing around a couple of mediocre organizations, leading to his first suspension from the sport for substance abuse in early 2004. He was reinstated in June 2006, only to refuse a mandatory test three months later, resulting in an automatic and indefinite suspension.
He never came back after that.
In an ironic twist, Grubb's last official NASCAR race ended with a crash on the second lap of a Busch Series race at his beloved Richmond International Raceway. The suspension came when he flatly refused to take a test afterward in the infield care center.
Did NASCAR officials have a belief that Grubb was juiced at the time of the wreck and that's why they demanded a drug test? I mean, wouldn't you be a bit suspicious of a guy who had a history of substance abuse wrecking on only the second lap of a race on his home track?
And remember, one of the conditions of Grubb's reinstatement a few months earlier was that he would consent to random testing, any time and anywhere.
NASCAR even gave him a second, second chance of sorts that night. When he refused the test, officials patiently asked him to take some time, think about his decision and reconsider. They'd wait all night, if the had to.
Unfortunately, Grubb never took them up on the offer and the refusal stood. We'll never know whether he was juiced and had something to hide or perhaps felt he wouldn't get a fair shake, having already being a one-time loser.
The only thing we do know is he would later claim he didn't remember anything from that night: not the race, the crash nor the refusal. He insisted he had his bell rung so loud that he suffered a concussion – and even offered to take a test to prove he was clean the next day, once the wreck-induced cobwebs cleared from his head.
But by then, NASCARs mind was made up and he was gone, never to return to RIR or any other sanctioned track as a competitor again. I don't know if Grubb sought reinstatement after that or if he truly had cleaned up his act. There must have been enough evidence to NASCAR to keep him on indefinite suspension until he had fully proven otherwise -- something that never occurred, obviously.
I won't begin to try and understand why Grubb killed himself Wednesday. It's a task impossible to fathom. He was still very young and had a whole long life ahead of him.
Whether he was still using drugs or not – and whether they may have contributed to his untimely demise – will be learned after toxicology tests are finally completed in about six weeks. By that time, Grubb's life and death will be pretty much a forgotten entity to everyone except his family and close friends.
He'll forever carry the stigmatic legacy of yet another athlete whose career went to hell because of drugs. Frankly, once the toxicology results are finally released, I doubt if the findings will even make the news, other than maybe in Richmond.
For now, we'll give him the benefit of the doubt that it was something other than drug use that caused him to pull that trigger Wednesday morning – until proven otherwise.
Racing was Kevin Grubbs' life, and when that was taken away from him, his life began to end that humid September 2006 day in Richmond. It took more than two years in a racing-deprived coma of sorts before that slow death finally came to end that no one else wanted … except for Kevin himself.
Hopefully, the demons and lingering urges – if there were any – are gone and he's finally at peace with himself.
And maybe, just maybe, Grubb's death will serve as a reminder of sorts to Hmiel and Fike about how lucky they truly were to be caught, as well as to other racers, no matter what style of racing they do, who to this very day think druggin' and drivin' are okay to mix.
I remember something I heard someone say about Grubb one time, and it will be that memory which will always stick with me, not the drug use or how his life came to such a tragic end: "Damn, that boy can sure drive."
Unfortunately, we'll never see that talent at its best ever again.