Monday, October 11, 2010

Hmiel Faces Another Tough Battle

Shane Hmiel has faced more than his share of battles in the last 30 years. Now, he faces his toughest challenge yet.

Hmiel was critically injured Saturday night in a savage crash during qualifying for the USAC Silver Crown “Sumar Classic” at the Terre Haute Action Track. Hmiel’s car bicycled onto its right side and slammed the concrete retaining wall cage-first, collapsing much of the roll cage and causing critical injuries to his neck and back. He was unresponsive when airlifted to Indianapolis Methodist Hospital, where he is listed in critical but stable condition in the hospital’s Intensive Care Unit.

Hmiel's father, Steve, is Director of Competition at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, and flew directly from Auto Club Speedway to his son’s bedside in Indianapolis. His mother, Lisa, flew there from the family’s home in Pleasant Garden, NC, and has provided periodic updates from his bedside at Methodist Hospital.

He underwent surgery to repair two severe compression fractures in his neck early Sunday evening and Lisa Hmiel called the procedure “very successful.” While doctors say Hmiel suffered a spinal cord injury in the crash, he has displayed movement in his upper extremities. Monday, Lisa Hmiel wrote, “He looks better this morning, his color is better. (He) opened his eyes at Steve’s voice. No head trauma.” She cautioned that her son faces major surgery on his broken back later this afternoon, adding that he remains under heavy sedation and is resting well.

Saturday’s crash is the latest in a series of setbacks for Hmiel, who was once thought to be on the fast track to a big time NASCAR career. He raced seven times in what is now the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, and made 83 career Nationwide and 29 Truck Series starts. Sadly, he also struggled mightily with addictions to marijuana and cocaine, and was suspended no less than three times for violations of NASCAR’s substance abuse policy. The third suspension led to a lifetime ban from the sport.

“I blew it,” said Hmiel of the loss of his NASCAR career. “But it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I know it sounds crazy, but being banned from NASCAR has made me a better person. No doubt it made me a better racer.”

The suspension served as a much-needed wakeup call, forcing Hmiel to face his addictions and deal with them for the first time. A stint in rehab allowed him to alter his lifestyle and shed his demons, highlighting a previously undiagnosed bipolar disorder that contributed significantly to his struggles with substance abuse. In time, he even found a way to return to the sport he loved, turning his attention to the Open Wheel ranks.

"When Shane started running Silver Crown cars and midgets I was like, 'Oh man, this could be interesting,'” said longtime friend Tony Stewart. “He had never driven those types of cars, (but) he was never scared of it. He never backed down and said, 'I have to learn this.' He's given 110-percent ever since Day One, and he's really turned into a great open-wheel driver."

Hmiel won six races in USAC’s three national series this season, including four in the headline Sprint Car ranks. In August, he signed a deal to race part-time in the Firestone Indy Lights Series, and while physical problems prevented him from making his planned debut at Chicagoland Speedway later that month, Hmiel finally appeared to be pointed in the right direction once again.

“There was a time when I never thought I would be able to race again, much less (be) on TV,” said Hmiel recently. “Right now, I really am living a dream. I’m hardly making any money, driving everywhere I go and sleeping on couches. But I’m loving every minute of it.”

That all changed Saturday night, in the aftermath of a crash that leaves his career – if not his survival – in doubt.

“(That kind of accident) doesn't happen a lot in open-wheel racing,” said Stewart, who mentioned Hmiel in Victory Lane at Auto Club Speedway Sunday. “It was just a freak accident that happened; the way that he crashed, the way he hit the concrete wall. Not too many guys hit like that. But it was a devastating hit, and obviously his injuries reflect that.

"But to hear how well he made it through the night, and to hear the optimistic thoughts from the doctors made us all, I think, breathe a sigh of relief today. Knowing that he made it through that first night, that's a big step.”

Late Sunday, Steve Hmiel thanked the many fans and friends who have offered their prayers in the last 36 hours, saying his son has a "long road to recovery.'' More prayers will surely be needed for a young man who now faces the toughest battle of his life.

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