|Hmiel was suspended in 2003|
“AJ is in a deep hole of sadness, embarrassment and emotional upheaval,” said Hmiel, who was suspended three times by NASCAR for failed substance abuse tests nearly a decade ago, before returning to racing and being paralyzed in a Sprint Car crash in October of 2010.
“When I failed my drug test, I knew (I was guilty). When they took my sample, I knew there was a good chance it wasn’t going to come back pretty. AJ says he hasn’t used drugs, so it’s got to be way worse for him. He was driving for “The Captain,” Roger Penske; one of the biggest, most successful car owners of all time, replacing a former Sprint Cup champion. I feel terrible for him. He’s a good racer, he’s won in everything he’s ever raced in, and he was getting close to a NASCAR win, if you ask me.
Hmiel recalled that when NASCAR first suspended him from competition, he felt like his world had come to an end.
“I started racing when I was nine years old,” he said. “Every weekend from then until the day I was suspended -- September 23rd, 2003 – racing was all I knew. I’ve been sitting in this wheelchair for a long time, but I still remember that day. It was the first time anyone had failed a drug test and been suspended from NASCAR since Tim Richmond, and I knew (how serious) it was.
“I knew I was guilty the minute I got popped,” Hmiel said. “But if AJ believes in his mind and his heart (that he is innocent), it has to be a terrible thing. It’s got to be nerve-wracking going through what he’s going through. I feel terrible for him.
|Hmiel returned to win in Sprint Cars|
“I don’t really know AJ,” said Hmiel. “I’ve only met him once. But you can tell that he’s a driven person. I hope he keeps his head down and gets through this. I’m happy to see he’s agreed to go through NASCAR’s Road To Recovery (program).”
Perhaps surprisingly, Hmiel said he harbors no bitterness toward NASCAR for his past suspensions. In fact, he said the sanctioning body, “got me to where I am today, alive.
“If NASCAR had not said, `No more racing for you,’ I don’t think I’d be alive today. When that happened, I finally realized that I had to get my life fixed. I did what I had to do, and eventually got back to racing. Ten years ago, I was a bad guy, but I’m not such a bad guy anymore.
Hmiel said NASCAR is no different than any other cross-section of society when it comes to individuals battling substance abuse.
“There are thousands of people who run through this sport every year,” he said. “It’s an international sport… and you’re going to have times of trouble. It’s just part of it, the way the world works. There are going to be people who have problems (with drugs).”
Hmiel also said he believes NASCAR – and society as a whole -- have learned from examples like his, and softened their stance. “I know it sounds weird, but society is not looking down on things like that as much as they used to. So much has happened, and people are more forgiving that they were a decade ago. I think society has accepted that, `Hey, this stuff happens.’ They’ve seen people come back from (drugs). There are all sorts of NFL players who have failed drug tests, then come back and made millions of dollars. They’ve turned their lives around.
“We have a great sport, but these things just happen sometimes,” said Hmiel. “I read the other day where Jeff Hammond said he hopes AJ can get things turned around and save his career. There weren’t a lot of people saying that about me, so I hope (the attitudes) have changed. It’s not about supporting drugs, it’s about supporting someone trying to get better.
Hmiel said NASCAR’s Road To Recovery provided him with valuable insight into his personality and addictions, even though he resisted the effort at first.
“I was the first one through the system in 2003, and they did what they had to do. They blackened my eyes (figuratively) and did what they had to do to me. I was a real tough guy, I didn’t listen, and I didn’t care what anybody said. I was going to do what I wanted to do.
“Dr. (David) Black (Administrator of NASCAR’s Substance Abuse program) is a great man. I yelled at him, swore at him, lied to him, but I never fooled him once. He knows exactly what’s happening, and he doesn’t put up with any crap. I hated him at first, but now I realize that he saved my life. He’s a great man.”
Hmiel said his defensive attitude also manifested itself on the race track.
“I was a pain to race with,” he said. “Nobody wanted to run next to me. Yeah, I was fast, but I’d run into you to finish seventh if that’s what it took. I don’t know if that (attitude) was due to the drugs, or if it was just my mindset.
|Hmiel (L) remains involved|
“Back then, I thought I could smoke pot during the week without having it affect me on race weekends. But looking back, I see a lot of things I should have done differently. As a driver, you never want to admit that you’ve made a mistake, but 10 years later, I know I did things that I should not have done. I know now that (drugs) surely slowed me up, but I didn’t know it then.
“Once I got cleaned up and started running USAC, I wasn’t like that anymore,” he said. “Yeah, I got hurt in a race car, but it wasn’t from running over somebody. I never had anyone angry at me, or coming over wanting to fight (like I did in NASCAR).
Hmiel said he has every confidence that Allmendinger can put his suspension behind him and eventually return to the sport.
“AJ is one of the fastest racers in the world,” he said. “He did well in Champ Cars, and he came over and did well in stock cars. I honestly believe that he will have another opportunity with a good team. I think AJ is going to be a strong guy. He’s going to stand up and fight his way through this. That’s what I hope and pray for.
“This is not about AJ Allmendinger fighting NASCAR to clear his name,” insisted Hmiel. “It’s about getting back to the point where his (system) is clean and he can do whatever he wants in the sport. If I could talk to him, I’d say, `AJ, this sport’s arms are wide open for you, bud. All you have to do is pee clean in the cup.’
“Judging from his racing, I think he’s that kind of person. Anyone with a haircut like that,” he laughed, “has got to be good.”
Photo Credits; NASCAR.com, Jerry Markland/Getty Images, Joe Orth Photos