Aaron Fike vanished on July 7, 2007.

Seven days earlier, he had earned the first top-five finish of his remarkable rookie season, in NASCAR's Craftsman Truck Series, delicately steering his 3,400-pound race car around the Memphis Motorsports Park at more than 120 mph. Through it all, he'd been calm enough to click his radio button and provide detailed information about how his Toyota Tundra was handling. For 200 laps, he'd hit his prescribed marks with precision and traded dents with his rivals. When the checkereds fell, he had climbed to eighth in the series standings; then he dutifully thanked his sponsors and told a national television audience about his hopes for the season's second half. After thanking his team, he drove into the night, to Cincinnati and the next race at the Kentucky Speedway.

All in all, a good night at the track—especially for someone who'd shot up heroin that day.

Nearly nine months later, Aaron Fike reappears, blown in on a windy spring morning in Galesburg, Ill., where he's sitting in the booth of a breakfast joint just off the Lincoln Heritage Trail. When he is thanked for coming out for his first in-depth interview, the 25-year-old Fike replies with a businesslike smile and tone. "No problem," he says. "I just want people to know that I'm still alive. And I want to make sure some changes get made."

Three tables down, a group of businessmen surf the Internet on their laptops. If they were to visit AaronFike.net, they'd find it frozen on June 30, 2007, stuck on a Memphis race preview. A scan of Racing-Reference.info would show that the Galesburg native wasn't in the field for the Kentucky event on July 14. A search of message boards on TruckSeries.com, the very forums that had once predicted Fike was headed down the same career straightaway as Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon, now turns up comments like this: "Don't let the pit gate hit you in the ass on the way out."

To read the next chapter of Aaron Fike's life, you must sift through the file cabinets of the Mason, Ohio, police department and mine an eight-page incident report filled with charts, code numbers and telltale phrases. Kings Island Amusement Park … parking lot … backseat … 100-count box of syringes … bloody napkin … fiancée … black tar heroin.

His family never saw it coming. Neither did his race team or his business manager. Other drivers had heard rumors, but there was no way a guy on drugs could be capable of racing up front, right? The truth was that Fike had been using smack for eight months, since December 2006, around the time he'd signed with Red Horse Racing. A USAC sprint-car crash six years earlier had resulted in a broken wrist, back pain and a Vicodin prescription. When the prescription ran out, he scored pills off the street, eventually moving on to OxyContin. Ultimately, he was ushered to the needle by his Charlotte pill supplier, who nonchalantly explained to his client that he'd been wasting his time:
I can keep selling you pills, but you can have the same high in a lot less time by graduating to H.

"I know it sounds weird, but I trusted the guy," says Fike, who's now five months into a two-year probation sentence, working in the construction arm of his father's sprawling retirement-home business and racing a USAC sprint car on weekends. "People wonder what I was thinking the first time I did it. It just kind of happened." At first it happened once a week, then a couple of days, but always by Monday or Tuesday so the drug would be out of his system in time for the green flag each weekend. Now, for the first time, Fike admits that in the weeks leading up to his arrest, he was using on a daily basis. That included race day, which means he finished in the top five at Memphis with heroin coursing through his veins.

Seven days after his fifth-place showing, he was in a Mason, Ohio, holding cell, seized up in the throes of withdrawal, his veins now burning with "itchy blood." His fiancée, Casi Davidson, had also been arrested for using, and Fike wondered where the cops had taken her. For four days of mandated detox, he curled up in a ball on the jail floor, promising God and himself that he'd never take another hit. His body refused to believe.

Disbelief quickly spread through the NASCAR community. There was the call from police to Aaron's father back in Galesburg. Don Fike had built his company from nothing, eventually underwriting the racing dreams of Aaron and older brother A.J.—from karts to sprint cars to Aaron's Truck series ride. Don had watched Aaron win races from Colorado to New Zealand on his way to supplanting Gordon as the youngest-ever USAC Silver Crown winner. Now Don had to call North Carolina to tell the co-owner of the race team, former big-oil exec Tom DeLoach, that Aaron was in jail.

The following week, as the Cup series rolled into the Chicagoland Speedway, Fike arrived on the other side of the city to begin four months of rehab. While at the clinic, he was informed that NASCAR had suspended him indefinitely and that DeLoach had released him. "All I could think was, No way, not Aaron," DeLoach says now. "He's a good kid from a good family. There were no telltale signs, no indications of trouble. There was no warning at all."

There was also no reliable warning system in place. The four major pro sports—MLB, NFL, NHL and NBA—have, albeit begrudgingly, increased random drug screenings, with the PGA following suit this year. But NASCAR's zero-tolerance substance-abuse policy is strictly reactive, allowing the league to administer tests to its nonunionized drivers or crew members based on "reasonable suspicion." (The league refuses to reveal the number of tests it administers, but the last reported figure was 40-45 for the 2003 and 2004 seasons.) The theory is simple: In the tight-knit NASCAR community—whose members travel, race, eat and sleep together—any change in behavior should be easy to spot. Should be. But Fike had fooled them since his Nationwide series debut in 2004, first on painkillers, then on heroin.

"No system is perfect," says NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter. "Our current policy has served us extremely well. We do have discussions from time to time regarding possible alternatives, so I wouldn't rule those out. But I think what our policy has allowed us to do up to this certain point in time, it has served us well."

Since 2000, seven drivers have been suspended; none was older than 27, and only one had reached the Cup series. (Shane Hmiel, who made seven Cup starts, failed three tests between 2003 and 2006.) The league points to this list as proof that the policy works, but not everyone on the payroll agrees with that assessment. "The garage has always mirrored American society," says one senior NASCAR official. "Families, other sports, even the government are all struggling to get a handle on drug use, and we're no different. It's a constantly moving target. But we could be more aggressive in eradicating it, not reacting to it, and that's what has a lot of us concerned."

Kevin Harvick, who employed Fike for three Busch races in 2006, has a more direct take on the informant policy. "NASCAR still hasn't caught him," he says. "The police did."

And the folks NASCAR depends on to be its eyes and ears don't always know the signs. "What are you looking for?" asks 16-year vet Jeff Burton. "A guy who looks tired? That could mean he has a cold or had too much beer the night before. And you might hear rumors, but rumors are a dime a dozen in the garage. Until there is a real, chemical test, I don't see how you can know for certain if the guy racing next to you is clean."

Fike knows all too well the shortcomings of self-policing. "I think it was easier to do it that way a long time ago," he says, sitting up straight to make his point. "But I was able to race with heroin in my system, so the policy didn't work with me. And I don't think it worked with Tyler."

On May 18, 2007, Trucks racer Tyler Walker was suspended indefinitely after failing targeted tests for cocaine and marijuana, administered because suspicions had been raised. The good news is that he was caught. The bad news is that no one knows for sure how long Walker, who was 27 at the time, had been racing while using. Only one week earlier, he'd been given a talking-to by teammate and 1995 Trucks champ Mike Skinner, a man who definitely could recognize the signs. In 2000, Skinner's 22-year-old son, Jamie, had been arrested for possessing and trafficking heroin, after using the frame of his ARCA stock car as a mule.

"My son got caught up in the wrong crowd, and he's still paying for it," Skinner says, adding that Jamie is now a crew chief at a Carolina short track. "I sat down with Tyler and his dad and told them that if Tyler basically married that race car for a few years, really dedicated himself to the job, he'd have the world by the butt. One week later, he was gone."

Since NASCAR's "Young Gun" craze caught hold this decade, a sport once dominated by life-tested fortysomething fathers has been replenished by college-age kids—the same age group whose abuse of prescription painkillers has risen so sharply nationwide that it inspired last month's "Generation Rx" congressional hearings. "You rarely, if ever, see a thirtysomething or fortysomething adult suddenly start using recreational drugs," says Dr. Charles Yesalis, Penn State professor emeritus and a Capitol Hill go-to expert on drugs in sports. "If an older athlete is doing that, it's a safe bet he started when he was much younger."

That means the true danger for NASCAR lies down the road. Consider baseball. When big money began rolling into the big leagues in the late 1970s, it wasn't the clubhouse veterans who generally turned to drugs; it was younger players. Eventually, young guys become old guys, the ones who dictate the tone of the locker room—or, in NASCAR's case, the motor-coach lot. Then one day you wake up to find yourself in the Mets' clubhouse circa 1987.

And like baseball beat writers a quarter-century ago, the NASCAR media are wrestling with the growing pains of controversy. The infield press corps, the people who travel with the circuit every week and rely on NASCAR for access, paid attention to the Fike story for about a week, then quickly moved on to racing-related matters. "Every sports league—baseball, NFL, NCAA, golf, the Olympics—has stood at the crossroads where NASCAR is right now," Yesalis says. "They say, 'Well, it may be a problem in other sports, but not in ours.' But you have to be proactive on this. You can't take the same approach that you did with safety innovations, when they made changes only after Dale Earnhardt was killed. You can't wait until someone goes out there high and does something goofy and we have a tragedy."

When NASCAR did address track safety, the results were industry-changing. From soft walls to restraint systems to the cars themselves, the advances are allowing drivers to walk away from crashes that likely would have killed them six years ago. Now the league has reached another turning point—and this one doesn't require tens of millions of dollars to navigate. "We're not talking about designer steroids here," Yesalis says. "Street drugs are easy to test for; it costs about $15 a pop. If they randomly tested a few guys every morning before the race, I think you'd be shocked at what an effective deterrent it would be."

Fike believes you'd be shocked for another reason. "I've always said that if they tested 80% of the people on Pit Road, they'd find that half of them were doing something," he says. "That might be an exaggeration, but it might not. No one knows, and we won't until the testing gets better."

Nobody is implying that the paddock is full of heroin addicts. It's not. But in a sport where an 18-hour day is the norm and one extra 10th of a second on a pit stop can mean defeat, mere caffeination isn't always enough. NASCAR knows this and regularly expands its list of banned substances. In 2003, it banned ephedra-based energy supplements, which also effectively ended two team sponsorships.

As Fike talks over breakfast, he is visibly worried about how NASCAR might react to what he has to say. His is the tired, distressed look of a man in recovery and a racer in limbo. He knows that other suspended drivers have done him no favors by literally pissing away second chances. He knows that in his early discussions with NASCAR's independent substance-abuse professional, Dr. David Black, the CEO of Aegis Labs, he denied using on race day. But that was months ago, at a different stage of his recovery. Now Fike needs to say his piece, and not out of anger or bitterness. He says it in the hope of saving some young driver and everyone else that kid puts at risk, because he knows that his former supplier back in Charlotte still hits up the racing community. "You picture the drug dealer standing outside the high school going after teenagers," Fike says. "This is no different. There are guys out there going after young, rich athletes. I was 24 years old with all this money and all this time on my hands between races. I was bored, and he knew that."

Fike smiles a little when told that team owners are tightening their in-house programs. DeLoach says his new standard driver contract allows him to "draw blood, urine, pull hair, whatever I need to do." USAC has stiffened its policy and is testing Fike at the track each week. (He has finished ninth and 17th in his first two sprint-car events.) The Indy Racing League has also bolstered what was already considered the toughest policy in motorsports, randomly testing everyone from racers to owners to pit crews to PR reps. While politely refusing to name Fike as the cause, an IRL spokesperson admits the new approach came about "in light of recent events."

As the racing world changes around him, Fike goes about his business in Galesburg. He has a 9-to-5 job for the first time in his life. Each month, he goes through a checklist of check-ins: his counselor, his rehab aftercare class, his probation officer in Ohio, the shop that builds his USAC cars, NASCAR … and Casi, who is back home in Indianapolis in the midst of her own rehab program. For now the conditions of their probations don't allow the two to live in the same town, but Fike hopes she can move to Galesburg soon.

He has met with Illinois state drug officials to get help designing OnTheWinningTrack.com, the drug-education website he'll launch this month. He's also planning to visit schools this spring, and he wants to start a tent-and-talk program he can take to the track, although the current terms of his NASCAR suspension won't allow him on the grounds.

Aaron Fike's dream, where the boy from Illinois grows up to race in the Daytona 500, is not lost. But it's hardly guaranteed. He's been educated on NASCAR's arduous reinstatement process, which varies according to the offense, from cheating to fighting to drug use. The first step was picking up the phone and talking to league executives. Among the last will be to win back the trust of a garage that has tried to forget him. He hopes to earn that respect through his education program, but deep down he knows he may have to settle for making his mark on the sport in a different way than he ever imagined.

"Will that be enough?" Fike asks. "I don't know. It certainly wasn't my goal when I started racing. But if the problems I've had can end up saving some lives and opening the eyes of the people who run racing, then that's not all bad.

"There's nothing wrong with being the guy who helped make drugs in the sport go away."