For former NASCAR driver Shane Hmiel, life is good. Maybe the best it's ever been. He's driving racecars for a living and winning races. His personality is stable, his mind focused. And he's drug free.
"I've got my life back," Hmiel said. "I've got my racing career back."
Hmiel is in his third season racing in the United States Auto Club's open-wheel, Silver Crown, Sprint Car and Midget divisions. He won his second USAC national race and his first in Midgets last week at Hickory (N.C.) Motor Speedway. Hmiel's first national victory was a Sprint Car race at Iowa Speedway last summer.
But Hmiel wasn't always an IndyCar driver. His first home was NASCAR, where he was banned for life as a result of failed drug tests. It's unlikely he'll ever be invited back. As a result, he's set his sights on the Izod IndyCar Series, where he'll first have to drive in Firestone Indy Lights, its primary development series, to gain the rear-engine experience he needs.
"I'm really thinking about IndyCar," Hmiel said. "I don't think there's an open door for me at NASCAR. If they'd give me another shot, I'd take it. I love it and it's home."
Four years ago, Hmiel was one of NASCAR's most promising drivers. He won a Camping World Truck Series race and made 83 Nationwide and seven Sprint Cup starts at age 25. But he failed three drug tests, one in 2003, one in 2005 and another in 2006, and NASCAR permanently banished him.
For the next 16 months, he wandered. He drove in 15 late model races, but his heart was not in it. Then, a breakthrough: Hmiel was diagnosed as bipolar. He'd been seeing doctors since he was five and they'd misdiagnosed him for 20 years. That also meant the medications the doctors prescribed were wrong, too.
"I don't want to blame everything on a disease, but my brain was never wired properly until I got on the right medication," Hmiel told SI.com in 2008. "I know I messed up and self medicated myself to try to wire my brain right and that's not the way to do it."
Hmiel went into the Talbott Recover Campus in Atlanta in July 2007, spending three and a half months at the drug treatment facility. He's been drug tested regularly since then, first by Talbott, then by USAC.
With the assistance of Lorin Rainier, who worked with Hmiel's father, Steve, at Chip Ganassi Racing in early 2008, Hmiel began driving in Midgets and Sprints. He drove in the Bay Cities Racing Association, winning two Midget races, and made his USAC debut with a win in a Western Sprint Car race. In order to get his license, he had to pass a drug test and the USAC has continued to test him.
Hmiel's goal two years ago was to move to Indiana, race two or three times a week and break into USAC's three national divisions. He's living in Summitville, Ind., a village of 1,000 people, northeast of Indianapolis. He's driving for RW Motorsports in Silver Crown and is half of a two-man team with crew chief Larry Austin that maintains his Midget and Sprint Car.
He's also added another skill to his resume. Hmiel is a television reporter for 3 Wide Life, a television show syndicated into 60 million homes nationally.
"I enjoy it [television]," Hmiel said. "I enjoy the business. They [3 Wide Life] gave me an opportunity to open up a lot of things. I'm grateful for the opportunity to drive and to do the show. People can see I'm a real human being, not a guy living underneath a bridge, and maybe I'm not so bad."
3 Wide Life co-founder Ryan Kurek followed Hmiel's career from the start while managing a sponsorship program in NASCAR in the late 1990s.
"I saw him the first time he qualified at Rockingham," Kurek said. "He blistered the track record in qualifying on the first lap and stuffed it into the outside wall on the second. He was aggressive. That was one hell of an impressive lap for a guy we've never heard of and he was in average equipment, racing for a second tier team.
"Dale Earnhardt Jr. was in the series and I knew he had what it takes and I knew Shane was on the same level. He's what we call a racer, not a driver."
Hmiel began with 3 Wide Life as its NASCAR expert, answering emails from viewers. As time went on, his role expanded and 3 Wide Life is one of the primary sponsors on Hmiel's Midget and Sprint Cars.
"From there, Shane was give a couple of chances as a reporter," Kurek said. "We started backing him as a sponsor. We incorporated him into the show because he's got a story to tell, but we're not supporting his career because of his talking. He's resurrected his career by what he's done on the track."
Hmiel's future at age 25 looked bleak, on and off the racetrack. At 29, his promise has been revived.