During 2003, in the middle of the most productive season of his young Busch Series career, NASCAR suspended Shane Hmiel indefinitely for failing a drug test. In a sponsor-driven culture where a squeaky-clean image is a requirement, drug suspension is paramount to a death sentence for most drivers.
Hmiel, however, isn't just any driver. Encouraged by his friends, members of the racing community, and his family-including his father, long-time NASCAR crewchief and team manager Steve Hmiel-Shane Hmiel fought his way back to a clean lifestyle and a regular seat in the No. 15 Billy Ballew Motorsports NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series entry this season.
To his credit, Hmiel hasn't ducked the media or tried to put a spin on the events surrounding his suspension from the sport. He candidly discusses his career ups and downs in this Stock Car Racing interview.
SCR: At Indianapolis Raceway Park in August 2003, you won the pole, led the most laps, and staged an epic NASCAR Busch Series battle with Brian Vickers. He went on to win and you finished Fourth. What do you remember about that race?HMIEL: I remember every lap like it was yesterday. It was two young guys who grew up racing on the short tracks together. That 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 racing out of George deBidart's pocket, and to race with a team like Brian's that had $6 or $7 million to spend just showed how good of a team we were. There are still people who come to me and say that was the greatest race they've ever seen.
SCR: Vickers went on to win the Busch title and get a Cup ride at Hendrick Motorsports after that win at IRP. Meanwhile, the wheels came off for you about a month later when you were suspended indefinitely for a violation of NASCAR's drug policy. How were you notified?HMIEL: I got a phone call saying there was some stuff in my system that shouldn't be there. They came to me after the Richmond race and told me they wanted to test me. They were randomly testing people then, and when they asked, I said, "Sure, no problem." I was as surprised as anyone that they wanted to test me.
SCR: When you got the call and NASCAR said you were out, did you think your career was over?HMIEL: Yeah, I thought I had my chance and I screwed up. I told my dad that I had a little money saved up and that I was going to start my own business. He told me that's not what I was put on this earth to do. He said I wasn't the best race car driver and I wasn't the worst race car driver in the world, but I was put on this earth to do something in racing, and in his opinion, that was to drive. I let that go through my head for a month or so, and then I started doing the kinds of things I needed to do to get back. I set up my counseling and handled all the other stuff like taking random drug tests a couple of times a week for NASCAR. I've got to tell you my hat's off to NASCAR because they gave me a second opportunity and they fixed me as a person. I'm just happy they gave me that chance, because right now racing is more important and fun for me than it ever has been. It's even better than when I was a kid winning go-kart races, or later when I was winning Late Model races. Nothing feels as good to me right now as when I strap on that truck for Billy Ballew Motorsports each weekend.
SCR: Your dad, Steve Hmiel, has been a well-respected member of the NASCAR community for a long time. How instrumental was it to have him in your corner?HMIEL: All I can say is that if it weren't for my parents and friends, I would have never tried to make a comeback. They stuck behind me. Both my mom and dad were behind me to get this fixed. Somebody else's parents could have been so pissed for screwing up something they had worked on for 12 years. They were pissed, but they were man and woman enough to tell me that I screwed up and I had to go fix it. They put that in my head, and I decided to do something about it.
SCR: Let's talk a little more about your dad. What was it like growing up with him being so successful in racing?HMIEL: I was always hearing stuff like "Shane's got this or that because of his dad." That motivated 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 he could take me financially. Helping me mentally and introducing me to the right people helped take me to where I am right now. In one way, I guess I want to be better than most people because of all the crap I had to take about my dad from the time I was 10 years old.
SCR: How about your early racing career?HMIEL: I got my first real race car, a Late Model, in 1999. I had taken a couple of years off from racing because my dad told me I wasn't serious enough about racing to spend that kind of money. Once he saw I was serious again, he got me a car and said, "Build it yourself." He also got me a dually and an open trailer. I wanted an enclosed trailer so bad. I thought I needed all this stuff. Looking back now, I know I didn't need it. All I needed was a good race car.
SCR: What kind of success did you have?HMIEL: My dad wanted me to travel to different tracks, so we raced at places like Caraway and Concord speedways in North Carolina. At the start, I think I crashed every week because I didn't know any better. I built the car myself. While I could call my dad and ask him some questions, I didn't know a lot and there was only so much I could ask. Heck, I raced my whole first season with my rear brake calipers upside-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 completely rebuilding the car over the winter. We were as good as anybody, and we won six or seven features in 2000.
SCR: Given your success in your second year in Late Models, is that 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, and a guy came up to me and asked if I wanted to drive his NASCAR Goody's Dash car. He told me that to do it, I'd have to miss the next couple of races at Concord, and I was about to set a record there for the most wins in a row. I talked to my mom and dad about it, and we decided to do the Dash deal. It was definitely the right decision for me, and that's when I really started to think about racing more as a career. In racing, if you stay at one place for a while, it's almost like you are screwing up. You've got to be ready to make the next move. It's like chess. You don't want to get stomped on and you don't want to miss anything, for sure.
SCR: What was it like coming into the Busch Series with the "Young Guns" tag?HMIEL: In my first year in Busch in 2002, I was the second or third youngest 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's Dash car to a 35-race, unsponsored, under-funded Busch team. We had no testing, so I'd show up at a place like Darlington without testing. I jumped in and that was it. It was like, What do I do? Am I good? Where am I getting beat? Am I not giving good feedback? It was tough. I wish it had been a 15- or 20-race schedule instead of the full-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 George deBidart for giving me that opportunity, because without it, I wouldn't be here today.
SCR: When you started shopping yourself around for this year, was it an open or closed door with car owners?HMIEL: The team owners and crew people were more open to my return than the sponsors were. I didn't get reinstated until the week before 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 speaking at events like D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) graduations. I'm just hoping that the sponsors will come around. It's going to take time to win them back, but the owners and people inside NASCAR have been great.
SCR: You wound up with Billy Ballew Motorsports in the NASCAR Truck Series. How did that come about?HMIEL: I saw Billy at a restaurant and he asked me what I was doing. I had never met him before, but I knew who he was. I told him all I was trying to do was get reinstated. A couple of weeks went by, and when it looked like that might happen, I told Billy that I would work all winter helping him get his trucks ready for the season, and if I were reinstated, I would drive. If not, we'd put someone else in it. As it turned out, I was reinstated right before Daytona, and we wound up doing pretty decent. After that, Billy asked me to drive for him some more, and we've been able to run the full season, thank goodness.
SCR: You almost won the truck races at Memphis and Bristol, but also had several other top runs produce disappointing finishes. How frustrating was that for you?HMIEL: I would rather lead the race all day and lose it on the last lap than finish Fifth because a bunch of people fell out. All I want people to know is that I was there and my truck ran good. That's all I care about.
SCR: You've been getting some shots in the Busch Series such as the No. 38 car at Indy, and you also did a five-race Cup deal for Bill Davis Racing. Do you see yourself headed back to Cup or Busch soon?HMIEL: I don't know. It depends on where everything falls. Billy Ballew has given me a great opportunity, and he is the first guy to give me a shot at coming back. That means a lot to me. Billy and I are more than an owner and a driver. We're good friends. We talk about six times a day on the telephone. I talk to him more than I talk to my mom and girlfriend. Billy knows that I have to make a living, and we're doing the best we can finding sponsorship deals. Billy works night and day on that stuff. I want to stay here, but if Billy got a $5 million sponsor and they wanted to put another driver in the seat, I'd be mad at Billy if he didn't do that. No matter what happens, we're going to do what's best for each other.
SCR: What's the most important thing you've learned over the past year and a half?HMIEL: My biggest lesson, other than to not be an idiot, is to not give up. I've worked a lot harder to get back than I ever worked to get where I was before this happened. I was 22 years old and I thought I had made it. I was a race car driver, had a lot of money, girls, parties. Now it's two years later, I lost everything I had, and I'm working harder and I'm happier than I have ever been. You just don't know how grateful I am to be doing this again. It means everything to me.
Editor's Note: This is an edited transcript. For the complete interview, go to www.stockcarracing.com.