Banned for life by NASCAR, Shane Hmiel is winning races again

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Former NASCAR driver Shane Hmiel, who was banned for life from NASCAR in 2006 after failing a third drug test, has taken hard, careful and serious steps to revive his career.

They've landed him back in a race car. Last Saturday night, Hmiel won a USAC Western Sprint Car Series race on a quarter-mile paved track in Roseville, Calif. It was the first time he had driven a Sprint Car. But there's never been any doubt that Hmiel has talent. His trouble has stemmed from illegal use of drugs.

Hmiel fully believes those days are behind him, as do others who are providing him support. Their efforts put him into that race in Roseville, but Hmiel made the most important step himself.

"I went into a drug treatment facility in July [2007] for three and a half months," Hmiel said. "I needed to get my life back on track before I worried about getting my career back on track."

The Talbott Recovery Campus in Atlanta monitors its patients with outpatient treatment.

"When I went to graduate from there, you have three choices to do after you leave," Hmiel explained. "I decided to do drug testing every week just to keep me honest, to prove to people that I am sober."

Drug use had shattered Hmiel's promising future in NASCAR. He tested positive in September 200, for marijuana, in June 2005 for marijuana and cocaine, and early in 2006 for marijuana. NASCAR suspended and reinstated him twice, then threw the book at him for the third failed test, ending his career at age 25. He had notched one victory in 29 Craftsman Truck Series races, started 83 Nationwide races and seven Sprint Cup races.

He could still find places to race, local tracks in his home state of North Carolina that don't have substance abuse policies and would welcome a NASCAR race winner to sell tickets. Hmiel says he drove in 15 late model races on dirt tracks over the next year and a half.

"I wasn't trying to race," Hmiel said. "I wasn't in the best place at that time. I was kind of embarrassed and didn't feel like racing."

Hmiel had been seeing psychiatrists since he was five. "My parents spent tons of money," he said. "I've seen 10, maybe more. I saw three or four [after the lifetime suspension]. I'm not an idiot. I knew something was wrong.

"In June '06, I was diagnosed as bipolar. My whole life, I was misdiagnosed and was always taking the wrong medications. I couldn't ever get right. I was out of control."

Bipolar disorder is complex and goes beyond wild mood swings, from mania to depressive. It also leads to poor judgment and abnormal behavior, which sometimes manifests itself in substance abuse.

"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 said. "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. "When I went through treatment, they got me on the right medication. I'm a normal human being now. I don't have ten dollars in my pocket and I'm overwhelmed with bills and am trying to pay everything and I'm happier than I've ever been. I was so angry and disappointed with where I was in my life. I knew there was something wrong and it feels good when you actually fix what's wrong with you."

After leaving Talbott, Hmiel's motivation to resume driving returned. But who would give him a chance?

Hmiel's father, Steve, is Director of Competition at Chip Ganassi Racing and a former Sprint Cup chief mechanic. Lorin Ranier is Director of Driver Development at Ganassi. Their offices are next to each other.

"I've known Steve a long time and followed Shane's career through the ups and downs," Ranier said. "I didn't know Shane, but I wanted to help Steve get Shane's career going again. I was doing it out of friendship."

Shane Hmiel and Ranier met at a diner in Mooresville, N.C., in January.

"He's made mistakes in his life, no question," Ranier said. "But he's way too talented and young not to be racing somewhere. We just went to lunch one day and decided to make a good plan for him."

Bryan Clauson is a Ganassi development driver who is racing in the Nationwide Series this year. His dad, Tim, runs a USAC Midget team on the national level and has a driver development program.

Rainier contacted Tim Clauson, who made arrangements to put Hmiel into a Midget race in the Bay Cities Racing Association with a team owned by Marc DeBeaumont.

"It was back to the basics, grass roots racing," Clauson said. "I was a little apprehensive. I didn't know how he'd react coming from NASCAR. We went to Shasta [Calif.] for the first race and there were 300 people in the stands and 20 cars. As good a race car driver as he is, he's a great kid. He was so excited to race and he was gracious."

Hmiel won at Shasta and in a second BCRA Midget race at Madera, Calif. They were the initial two open-wheel races he had driven.

Clauson figured Hmiel was ready for the USAC Sprints and made arrangements to put him in a car owned by Ken Kaplan. The first order of business was getting Hmiel a USAC license.

USAC has a substance abuse policy. "We tested him prior to Roseville and he passed," USAC VP/Western Operations Tommy Hunt said. "He'll probably get tested regularly."

Hmiel was the fast qualifier, which meant he had to start eighth.

"I was excited to drive a Sprint car," Hmiel said. "The Sprint car was more like the stuff I've driven. It was the first time I ever had to invert. I just took my time getting up there. It felt good to win."

Kaplan was impressed with Hmiel the driver and Hmiel the person. "You could see the experience and talent as he was passing people," Kaplan said. "We have good equipment and we won that race last year, but you still have to drive the car and, boy, can he drive the car.

"I think everybody deserves a second chance and he was a joy. We'd put him back in the car again when we have an opportunity. It was a great experience for us. What a nice kid."

Clauson says Hmiel is ready for the USAC national level and would like to find something for him. Hmiel said he'd jump at the chance.

"USAC is something you can make a living at," Hmiel said. "My choice right now would be to be living in Indiana, forget about my past and drive there two or three nights a week. Any division in the top five is always hard and the competition is deeper in the Midwest, but I'm up for the challenge. I just want to race, whatever it is, where ever it is. If it were up to me, I'd race 100 times a year."

Hmiel, who works for Billy Ballew Motorsports' Craftsman Truck team, doesn't believe NASCAR needs to change its drug testing policies.

"I think they do a fine job now," Hmiel said. "Everything they test, they bust. Reasonable suspicion works fine. Several guys have done it and several guys got busted. NASCAR is doing a fine job. Every time they test someone, they come back positive. They know what they're looking for."

Aaron Fike was the latest NASCAR driver suspended for violation of the substance abuse policy, admitting last week that he used heroin before he drove his final race last year.

"I think Aaron was in a bad place, too, and he's in a good place now," Hmiel said. "He's been honest. He's living proof we all make mistakes."

Kevin Harvick had charged last weekend that Hmiel had also driven under the influence. "I can almost guarantee you [Hmiel] was in a race car while he was under the influence and that pisses me off," Harvick said.

Hmiel has always denied that and did again this week.

"[Harvick's statement] is totally wrong," Hmiel said. "I've never gotten into a race car under the influence."

Hmiel admits he'd like to have NASCAR lift its lifetime ban against him, but he's not counting on it.

"If it happens, great, because it's the best competition in the world," Hmiel said. "But it's not my focus. I've been driving since I was nine-years-old and I'm back and winning races. I just like driving race cars."

Hmiel knows there will always be doubters. That's why he gets drug tested every week. His career depends upon them coming back clean.