A suspension for a positive...
A suspension for a positive drug test nearly cost Shane Hmiel his careerin NASCAR.
During 2003, in the middle of the most productive season of his youngBusch Series career, NASCAR suspended Shane Hmiel indefinitely forfailing a drug test. In a sponsor-driven culture where a squeaky cleanimage is a requirement, drug suspension is paramount to a death sentencefor most drivers.
Hmiel, however, isn't just any driver. Encouraged by his friends,members of the racing community, and his family--including his father,longtime NASCAR crew chief and team manager Steve Hmiel--Shane Hmielfought his way back to a clean lifestyle and a regular seat in the No.15 Billy Ballew Motorsports NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series entry thisseason.
To his credit, Hmiel hasn't ducked the media or tried to put a 'spin' onthe events surrounding his suspension from the sport. He candidlydiscusses his career ups and downs in this SCR interview. We think youwill find his a story of perseverance, self-belief and an inner drivethat transcends the racetrack.
Date of birth: May 15, 1980
Hometown: Pleasant Garden, North Carolina
Family: Single; parents Steve and Lisa; brother Tyler
Racing Involvement: Driver in NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series,2004; Busch Series competitor for 2002 and 2003 seasons; won twice, had13 top 10s, finished fifth in points and earned Rookie of the Year inNASCAR Goody's Dash Series, 2001; had successful run in Late Models onshort tracks in North Carolina.
Hmiel and crew chief Ritchie...
Hmiel and crew chief Ritchie Wauters have maintained a top 15 TruckSeries standing for much of the season.
SCR: At Indianapolis Raceway Park in August, 2003, you won thepole, led the most laps and staged an epic NASCAR Busch Series battlewith Brian Vickers. He went on to win and you finished fourth. What doyou remember about that race?
HMIEL: I remember every lap like it was just yesterday. It wastwo young guys who grew up racing on the short tracks together. Thatrace was a really good race for my team. We weren't an established team;we weren't a Hendrick Motorsports or anything like that. We were racingout of George deBidart's pocket and to race with a team like Brian'sthat had $6 or $7 million to spend just showed how good of a team wewere right then. There are still people who come to me and say that wasthe greatest race they've ever seen.
SCR: Vickers went on to win the Busch title and get a Cup ride atHendrick Motorsports after that win at IRP. Meanwhile, the wheels cameoff for you about a month later when you were suspended indefinitely fora violation of NASCAR's Drug Policy. How were you notified?
HMIEL: I got a phone call saying there was some stuff in mysystem that shouldn't be there. They came to me after the Richmond raceand told me they wanted to test me. They were randomly testing peoplethen and when they asked, I said, 'sure, no problem.' I was surprised asanyone that they wanted to test me.
SCR: Your dad, Steve Hmiel, has been a well-respected member ofthe NASCAR community for a long time. How instrumental was it to havehim in your corner?
HMIEL: All I can say is that if it wasn't for my parents and myfriends, I would have never tried to make a comeback. They stuck behindme. Both my mom and dad were behind me to get this fixed. Somebodyelse's parents could have been so pissed for screwing up something theyhad worked on for 12 years. They were pissed, but they were man andwoman enough to tell me that I screwed up and I had to go fix it. Theyput that in my head and I decided to do something about it.
SCR: When you got the call and NASCAR said you were out, did youthink your career was over?
HMIEL: Yeah, I thought I had my chance and I screwed up. I toldmy dad that I had a little money saved up and that I was going to startmy own business. He told me that's not what I was put on this earth todo. He said I wasn't the best racecar driver and I wasn't the worstracecar driver in the world, but I was put on this earth to do somethingin racing and, in his opinion, that was to drive. I let that go throughmy head for a month or so and then I started doing the kinds of things Ineeded to do to get back. I set up my counseling and handled all theother stuff like taking random drug tests a couple of times a week forNASCAR. I've got to tell you my hat's off to NASCAR because they gave mea second opportunity and they fixed me as a person. I'm just happy thatthey gave me that chance because right now racing is more important andfun for me than it ever has been. It's even better than when I was a kidwinning go-kart races or later when I was winning Late Model races.Nothing feels as good to me right now than when I strap on that truckfor Billy Ballew Motorsports each weekend.
SCR: Let's talk a little more about your dad. What was it likegrowing up with him being so successful in racing?
Hmiel's return caught the...
Hmiel's return caught the attention of Cup team owner Bill Davis, whoput the young driver in his No. 23 ride for five races in 2004.
HMIEL: I was always hearing stuff like 'Shane's got this or thatbecause of his dad.' I turned that into something for me to work harder.People would say, 'he's got more money to race because of his dad.'Well, my dad's not a millionaire. He works on race cars for a living.Yes, he makes a good living, but Late Model racing was as far as hecould take me financially. Helping me mentally and introducing me to theright people helped take me to where I am right now. In one way, I guessI want to be better than most people because of all the crap I had totake about my dad from the time I was 10 years old.
SCR: How about your early racing career?
HMIEL: I got my first real racecar, a Late Model, in 1999. I hadtaken a couple of years off from racing because my dad told me I wasn'tserious enough about racing to spend that kind of money. Once he saw Iwas serious again, he got me a car and said build it yourself. He alsogot me a dually and an open trailer. I wanted an enclosed trailer sobad. I thought I needed all this stuff. Looking back now, I didn't needall that stuff. All I needed was a good racecar.
SCR: What kind of success did you have?
Hmiel says the support of...
Hmiel says the support of his father, DEI employee Steve Hmiel, was abig factor in his return to NASCAR.
HMIEL: My dad wanted me to travel to different tracks, so weraced at places like Caraway and Concord speedways in North Carolina. Atthe start, I think I crashed every week because I didn't know anybetter. I built the car myself. While I could call my dad and ask himsome questions, I didn't know a lot and there was only so much I couldask. Heck, I raced my whole first season with my rear brake calipersupside down and wondered why I couldn't bleed them. By the second year,I had learned a lot more just from racing a year and completelyrebuilding the car over the winter. We were as good as anybody and wewon six or seven features in 2000.
SCR: Given you success in your second year in Late Models, isthat when you started to believe you could have a career as a driver?
HMIEL: Yeah, I think so. I won five races in a row at Concord anda guy came up to me and asked if I wanted to drive his NASCAR Goody'sDash car. He told me that to do it, I'd have to miss the next couple ofraces at Concord and I was about to set a record there for the most winsin a row. I talked to my mom and dad about it and we decided to do theDash deal. It was definitely the right decision for me and that's when Ireally started to think about racing more as a career. In racing, if youstay one place for a while, it's almost like you are screwing up. You'vegot to be ready to make the next move. It's like chess to an extent. Youdon't want to get stomped on and you don't want to miss anything forsure.
Truck Series team owner Billy...
Truck Series team owner Billy Ballew gave Shane Hmiel a chanceto return to NASCAR last season.
SCR: What was it like coming into the Busch Series with the'Young Guns' tag?
HMIEL: My first year in Busch in 2002, I was the second or thirdyoungest guy. The Young Guns thing was cool, but at the end of the day,I didn't race as well as I thought I needed to. I went from a Goody'sDash car to a 35-race, unsponsored, under-funded Busch team. We had notesting, so I'd show up at a place like Darlington without testing. Ijumped in and that was it. It was like 'what do I do? Am I good? Wheream I getting beat? Am I not giving good feedback? What's the deal?' Itwas tough. I wish it had been a 15- or 20-race schedule instead of thefull season deal. I was completely lost. I needed to sit back and watch,evaluate and figure out what was going on. Still, I have to thank GeorgedeBidart for giving me that opportunity because without it, I wouldn'tbe here today.
SCR: When you started shopping yourself around for this year, wasit an open or closed door with car owners?
HMIEL: The team owners and crew people were more open to myreturn than the sponsors were. I didn't get reinstated until the weekbefore Daytona, so it wasn't like everyone knew I would be coming back.I've actually tried to use what happened to me as a positive by speakingat events like D.A.R.E. graduations. I'm just hoping that the sponsorswill come around. It's going to take some to win them back, but theowners and people inside NASCAR have been great.
SCR: You wound up with Billy Ballew Motorsports in the NASCARTruck Series. How did that come about?
HMIEL: I saw Billy at a restaurant and he asked me what I wasdoing. I had never met him before, but I knew who he was. I told him allI was trying to do is to get reinstated. A couple of weeks went by andwhen it looked like that might happen, I told Billy that I would workall winter helping him get his trucks ready for the season and if I wasreinstated, I would drive. If not, we'd put someone else in it. As itturned out, I got reinstated right before Daytona and we wound up doingpretty decent. After that, Billy asked me to drive for him some more andwe've been able to run the full season, thank goodness.
SCR: How about the Truck Series? What are your impressions ofthat series after coming out of the Busch ranks?
HMIEL: After the first 15 races this season, I was 16th in theTruck Series points. Last year, I missed nine races in the Busch Seriesand finished 15th in the standings. You tell me which one you think ismore competitive. If you're not in a DEI, Hendrick, or Ford-backed entryin the Busch Series, you are not going to win. End of story. In theTruck Series, where all the vehicle noses are the same and they make alot of drag and downforce, the driver can make a big difference. Otherthan Cup, the Truck Series is the best thing going.
SCR: You almost won the truck race at Memphis and Bristol, buthave also have had several other top runs produce disappointingfinishes. How frustrating has that been for you?
HMIEL: I would rather lead the race all day and lose it on thelast lap than finish fifth because a bunch of people fell out. All Iwant people to know is that I was there and my truck ran good. That'sall I care about.
SCR: You've been getting some shots in the Busch Series like theNo. 38 car at Indy and are also doing a five-race Cup deal for BillDavis Racing. Do you see yourself headed back to Cup or Busch soon?
HMIEL: I don't know. It depends where everything falls. BillyBallew has given me a great opportunity and he is the first guy to giveme a shot at coming back. That means a lot to me. Billy and I are morethan an owner and a driver. We're good friends. We talk about six timesa day on the telephone. I talk to him more than I talk to my mom andgirlfriend. Billy knows that I have to make a living and we're doing thebest we can finding sponsorship deals. Billy works night and day on thatstuff. I want to stay here, but if Billy got a $5 million sponsor andthey wanted to put another driver in the seat, I'd be mad at Billy if hedidn't do that. No matter what happens, we're going to do what's bestfor each other.
SCR: With NASCAR getting younger every day with guys like KyleBusch and Vickers, do you think you still have a shot at a Cup career?
HMIEL: Sure, I'm only 24. Other guys like Scott Wimmer and JohnnySauter are 26. I don't think it's going anywhere. If you can drive, youcan drive. If I was 35, it might be a different story. Heck, it might bethat way when I'm 30. By that time, they might be putting 14 year oldsin the seat. I don't need to be able to tell my grandkids that I racedin Cup. That's not what I am about. I just want to race and becompetitive each week. As long as I can make a good living doing that,it doesn't matter to me where I do it.
SCR: You've moved on from your past - do you think Cup owners andsponsors will do the same and eventually give you that chance?
HMIEL: Six months ago, no, that wouldn't happen. Today I can saymaybe. Six more months, hopefully. It's all going to take time. I thinkthe sponsors can take what has happened to me and turn it into apositive. If they look at what I have come through, that could be apositive story for a company. I'd like to think that could happen. Itmight not. I think there are ways to use what happened to me to do somegood. We just have to find the right company that believes in that kindof story.
SCR: What's the most important thing you've learned over the pastyear and a half?
HMIEL: My biggest lesson, other than not being an idiot, is tonot give up. I've worked a lot harder to get back than I ever worked toget where I was before this happened. I was 22 years old and I thought Ihad made it. I was a racecar driver, had a lot of money, girls, parties.Now it's two years later, I lost everything I had, and I'm workingharder and I'm happier than I have ever been. You just don't know howgrateful I am to be doing this again. It means everything to me.