Hmiel faces the challenge of his life

Shane Hmiel spent four years sorting out his life and the mistakes he had made with it – the issues with drugs, the squandered opportunities, the lifetime ban from NASCAR. This last year had been spent putting his life back in order – a different order, but one that had made him a better man, both personally and professionally.

Now, the 30-year-old faces the task of his life in recovering from a devastating crash in a USAC Silver Crown car in Terre Haute, Ind. Already having undergone surgeries to repair injuries to his neck and back, Hmiel will have a procedure on Friday at Methodist Hospital of Indianapolis to address a torn artery that resulted from the heavy impact into the concrete barrier at the dirt track.

A posting on a Facebook page set up by the family said Shane “has been resting peaceful and having moments of wide awake and aware.”

Shane Hmiel made seven career Cup starts before receiving a lifetime ban from NASCAR in 2006.

Wide awake and aware. It could be the mantra for not only a racing comeback, but a life comeback.

For years Hmiel had gamed the system. He was a rising star with extreme talent behind the wheel of a race car. But while he was racing his way up the ranks, he was also doing drugs. He’d hide it by getting clean just before tests, flushing his system with special potions, cleansing his hair with shampoos designed to mask his abuse of marijuana and cocaine.

Eventually he got caught, first in 2003. By 2006, after he failed two more dugs tests, Hmiel, son of Earnhardt Ganassi Racing competition director Steve Hmiel, was banned for life by NASCAR.

Now, four years later, Hmiel says he’s clean, insisting he hasn’t taken an illegal drug for three years since completing a rehabilitation program.

Under medical care for the bipolar disorder diagnosed months after his release from Talbott Recovery Campus in Atlanta in July 2007, he felt strong enough personally to move from his home in the Charlotte area to a small town of about a thousand residents in Indiana and start his racing career anew in the United States Auto Club’s Silver Crown, Sprint car and Midget series.

“At first I was nervous about letting him go, letting him out of sight, out of mind,” Steve Hmiel said. “He has to go through the suffering all recovering people go through. But he had to go walk his own path.”

It was working, so much so that that an Izod IndyCar Series team hoped to put him in an Indy Lights car for his first open-wheel race in late August in Chicago. But those plans were scuttled when IICS doctors discovered a pre-existing back injury Hmiel had left untreated since crashing in a USAC race in 2009, Steve Hmiel said. So Shane returned to USAC competition to finish out the year and prepare for an offseason of medical rehab and eventual testing with Alliance Motorsports in hopes of finally making his open-wheel debut in 2011.

All that waits now. Open-wheel drivers, including Ryan Briscoe, Kenny Brack and Davey Hamilton, have returned from major skeletal injuries to race again. But Hmiel faces yet another chicane in a life seemingly determined to be lived the hard way. He understood that long before the Terre Haute crash, as he stated in an interview conducted on Aug. 16 preceding his first planned activities in an Indy Lights car.

“It’s hard. From where I come from, it’s really hard,” Hmiel said of his struggle for credibility after moving to Indiana. “You come to Indiana, and they think you’re an idiot. They’re just like, ‘Oh here’s a stock car guy. He don’t know nothin’.’ And now a year later, they’re like, ‘Man, maybe this guy isn’t such a bad driver. Maybe he’s not such a bad human being,’ and that’s pretty neat. I feel more welcome, almost like I’m at home racing in Indiana now.”

Shane Hmiel never expected to end up renting a small home without a couch for $200 a month, sleeping on an inflatable bed in a speck-on-the-map town between Indianapolis and Ft. Wayne. The son of a respected and successful NASCAR executive, he came up racing in the stock car pipeline in North Carolina and made his debut in the Nationwide Series in 2002 at age 22.

He raced parts of four seasons in that series, made seven Sprint Cup starts and won a truck race for Ballew Motorsports in 2004. But drugs would soon hold him back.

After testing positive for marijuana in 2003, he was required to attend classes and suspended for the final eight races of the Nationwide season. He was suspended indefinitely in 2005 after testing positive for marijuana and cocaine, then banned permanently after testing positive again.

“I did drugs from the time I was 12 years old,” Hmiel explained, taking great care to not blame his use on a celebrity lifestyle earned too fast and too young. “I didn’t get money. I didn’t get famous. I didn’t drink until I was 21 years old. Never did that. Didn’t like drinking. I smoked pot. That’s what I did. It had nothing to do with my lifestyle, it was what I did from the time I was a kid. I didn’t get rich and famous and decide I needed to do some drugs just to be cool and hang out with the wrong people. I was the leader. I was the one wanting to do wrong. It was what I did.”

Steve Hmiel admits that his son’s travails were difficult on the entire family, especially considering that they intersected both his personal and professional lives.

“As a professional you have to make sure distractions don’t get in way, but it was a huge distraction,” Steve Hmiel said. “It broke my heart for my son. I just made sure he always knew he could call me. His mother was the same way. Auto racing, for me, that’s my job. We have a very recognizable name, a lot of people would holler from grandstands when I spotted for [Dale Earnhardt] Jr.

“You go through about 25 different scenarios of it all, trying to explain it. You want to kill him. You go through denial. You want to know why he makes decisions he does. You think maybe he’s just an idiot. You go through that and there was a little bit of a relief to find the bipolar.

“I will go to my grave making sure Shane is doing OK. And he will do the same way. Every day you put behind you is a day in your pocket.”

In August, Shane Hmiel said that he has changed drastically over the last five years. Once unable or unwilling to help himself, he’s surprisingly candid in sharing personal issues as a way of reaching others. He took a job as a reporter on the Three Wide Life television show, finding an outlet for his love of racing and a way to exorcise his past.

“I’m a lot different,” he said, noting that he hasn’t failed a drug test since the one that got him banned from NASCAR. “I understand things more. I respect other people more than I did. And my brain works better, and that’s due to good doctors figuring out that I had a problem, and not just a drug problem. I used drugs to cope. It was something that I did. I tried to self-medicate. I didn’t wake up one day and say, ‘You know, I wanna be a damned drug addict.’ There was something wrong in my brain and it took three and a half months in a treatment facility for them to learn what was wrong with my brain. They get you on the right medication, you feel better and three years later we’re doing good.”

With life finally getting good, racing had become a priority again. Hmiel had dabbled in late models after being banned from NASCAR, but wasn’t inspired. Then Lorin Rainier, a co-worker of his father, proposed a complete change of direction into open-wheel racing. It was exactly the kind of change Hmiel needed if he ever hoped to race in a major national series again.

As part of his lifetime ban, Hmiel isn’t allowed to even enter a NASCAR-sanctioned facility.

Shane Hmiel won the Hoosier Hundred on June 2.
Dave Merritt/Pit Pass photos

“History is history. No more NASCAR for Shane,” he said. “It’s just how it is. It’s part of life. I’m not going to beg them. They don’t want me. I’ve done the wrong thing, therefore it’s my bed and I lay in it.

“I’ve got a bunch of good buddies that race in [national touring] divisions and I’m just a little nervous to go to those tracks. I don’t want someone saying, ‘I saw Shane Hmiel in the pits.’ I just don’t need that. Trouble was five years ago for me. I don’t want any more trouble. It’s just better if I stay away.”

Hmiel has clearly divested himself of NASCAR and re-invested in a sport he said captured his motorsports imagination as child. He already has strong opinions on how to restore open-wheel racing to its place of prominence. He is confident enough in his ability to see his place in the process.

“The only way we – IndyCar – can get that back is having good enough drivers, and I mean good oval drivers, not really good road racers. Really good oval drivers, like your Mearses and all those guys in the late 80s and early 90s,” he said. “I get tired of watching those races and you get out and see two women fighting or a 4-foot-11 woman walks all the way down the pits to cuss out another man or grab them. That’s bull (expletive). That’s just my opinion. If you want to fight about things, do it. Argue. Run into each other. Do whatever it takes to get back to real racing, not a bunch of prima donnas standing around, not even carrying their own helmet. That’s bull (expletive). You should carry your own helmet if you’re a race-car driver.”

Hmiel used a nudge and some help from Rainier to enjoy instant USAC success and eventually land with RW Motorsports, which fielded cars for him in all three USAC divisions in 2009. Hmiel claimed his first USAC National Sprint Car Series win at Iowa Speedway, was named the series’ “Most Improved Driver,” and claimed the “Rookie of the Year” honors at the Chili Bowl Midget Nationals.

This season he had a feature win and three top-5s in Silver Crown, four feature wins in being named USAC 2010 Sprint Pavement Champion and a feature win in Midgets, all of which gave him burgeoning credibility as an open-wheel driver heading into the Indy Lights deal.

Hmiel, who worried at the time about perception issues, said that proving himself to be clean and focused was at times much harder than proving he could drive a new type of car.

“Other than the people who dislike me as a human being, I don’t think there’s many people who felt like I couldn’t drive,” he said. “Not trying to be cocky or conceited, but I’ve been competitive in every series I’ve ever raced in. It’s all about just getting it through to the people that, when my brain is correct, I can be correct.

“I’m loving it. The history deal, it was yesterday. We’re moving forward. I like talking about it. I like telling people the best I can, but it’s been really neat.”

There is the possibility that Hmiel’s comeback attempt, especially given his previous injury, will be viewed as a reckless redemption tale gone off the rails. Though Shane clearly loves to race, yearns to find the validation of a career he admittedly frittered away once, he insists a better place in life has created a healthy perspective, one that should help him avoid some of the same mistakes. Or at least want to avoid them. There are clearly many hoping he succeeds.

The night of his crash, a mass outpouring of support and concern spread virally on Twitter. Several NASCAR drivers, including Jamie McMurray and Tony Stewart, spoke of him during television interviews during the Sprint Cup race at Fontana, Calif.

Hmiel has always known his family support system was there. It would be there in the grandstands, staring back at him, making sure he was all right on a Saturday night. Not as a racer, but as a son.

“My dad loves my racing. My dad loves watching me race,” he said. “It’s something he never got to do when I was younger. He never got to watch because he was making a name for himself. It’s really neat to have somebody that knows so much about racing to be in your corner. He drove six hours the one night to watch me win at Salem [Ind.]. He drove six hours one way and turned around and drove six hours back. There’s a lot of dads that wouldn’t do that.”

But Steve Hmiel is vigilant. And he has been pleased to see the image of his son soften with the miles.

“People saw the real Shane come out. The devil horns have kind of come off a little bit,” Steve Hmiel said in August. “In our society, people are a little quick to tear people down, but they will also help build you build you back up. But it’s really got more to do now with Shane getting his self in order to do what he could do. It’s not so much about the racing, but that he can race.

“He’s helped himself to do a lot of things to become a better citizen. It’s more about how he changed how he looked at the world and [how] he was to himself and other people. It’s really cool, terrific, but this is a byproduct. It’s not about the racing, the maturation of a personality.”

That personality will be tested brutally in the next phase of Shane Hmiel’s life. It’s not fair. But it’s his lot. His thoughts this August on embarking on the next phase – when he thought it would be in the cockpit of an Indy car – still might serve him as his newest daily affirmation.

“You just can’t give up,” he said. “If you want it, you just don’t give up.”

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Updated Thursday, Oct 14, 2010