The text message from Lisa Hmiel struck like a hammer blow. She had just seen her son Shane at Methodist Hospital in downtown Indianapolis and sent out the quick update to family and friends who desperately awaited word on his condition.
Lisa was at the hospital with her son Tyler. Her husband, Steve, who works as competition director for Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing, was three-fourths of the continent away in Fontana, California for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Auto Club Speedway. More than anything, Lisa wanted her husband there by her side, comforting her at the beginning of her vigil over her son.
Shane Hmiel lay in a hospital bed in a medically-induced coma, alive but gravely injured. He had spent years battling back from drug addiction and bipolar disorder, rebuilding his racing career piece by piece. Now he was fighting for his life.
It was the night of the SUMAR Classic at the half-mile Terre Haute Action Track. The USAC Silver Crown cars were in town to put on a show, and the fans certainly weren't going to be disappointed. The challenging racing surface and the new concrete walls were notorious in the dirt racing community for exacting a heavy toll on drivers who ran afoul of them.
Shane Hmiel, for one, was going to try and tame the beast. Since joining the USAC series, the one thing he brought to every race was speed. He had always been fast but in his earlier career he had been undisciplined - but now, at 30 years of age, his pace was tempered and honed by the precision and control of experience.
As Shane took to the track for his qualifying run, fans in the stands saw immediately that he was, to borrow a classic Indiana racing phrase, "on it." Heading to turn three, Hmiel had speed - maybe enough to win the top spot, some guessed.
Suddenly, the red, white and blue Silver Crown car "bicycled" - in other words, reared up onto its right side wheels. Hmiel corrected quickly, settling the car, but then the car bicycled again. This time there was no recovery. This time, the car rolled perpendicular to the racetrack and slammed into the concrete retaining wall flush on its roll cage.
When the car came to rest, a dreadful silence descended on the grandstands. One fan simply hid her face in her hands, unable to take another look at the mauled race car. Another, having watched the whole incident, could not help but remember seeing a similar accident eleven years ago at Fontana, California that took the life of promising CART racer Greg Moore. Seeing the motionless form of Shane Hmiel, the burning despair he felt then settled again in his stomach.
The rescue crew raced to the car's side. They feared the worst - the car's roll cage had been crushed down to the top of the driver's seat by the impact. Cautiously, they examined Hmiel and found him to be alive but unresponsive.
The fans in the stands watched as the rescue crew carefully extracted Shane Hmiel from his car. Everyone knew it was very serious. Some believed that there was no way that Hmiel could have survived. A couple of them even posted premature condolences on the Internet.
As Shane was transported first to Terre Haute Regional Hospital, then airlifted to Methodist Hospital, the racing community was mobilizing to help his family get to his bedside. Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing's Juan Pablo Montoya provided his private aircraft to Shane's father Steve, who immediately embarked on the five-plus hour flight from the nearby Ontario International Airport to Indianapolis. Meanwhile, EGR ownership partner Felix Sabates was bundling Shane's mother Lisa and his brother Tyler onto his own aircraft.
At Methodist, doctors raced to save Shane's life. Although it was likely that he had multiple injuries, the first priority was to attend to the severe head trauma and reduce the possibility of brain damage. The pressure and swelling of the brain was causing seizures, and any additional injuries would be exacerbated if they continued. Using barbituates, the attending physicians induced a coma and stabilized the injured driver. The drugs and the coma helped to halt the cranial swelling and allowed the doctors to examine Shane more thoroughly.
They discovered compression fractures in his neck and in his back, all severe enough to require immediate surgery. Until the swelling went down, however, all anyone could do was wait.
It was at this point that Lisa Hmiel sent her text messages. Shane's friends struggled to hold onto their hope, praying mightily and waiting for good news. As the clock slowly wound past midnight, very few were able to find a way to sleep.
The good news started to trickle in Sunday morning. A CAT scan indicated that there was no permanent brain damage. Tests showed that Shane was beginning to regain sensation in more and more of his body. He remained heavily sedated and in critical condition, but the all-important first 24 hours were passing and there was improvement - however small.
Saturday night in Terre Haute, the SUMAR Classic went on as scheduled with Levi Jones coming away the winner. On Sunday afternoon, the Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing team took the green flag in Fontana from pole position. At the same time, Shane Hmiel, surrounded by family, finally went into surgery to attend to his devastating neck and back fractures.
Racing giveth, and racing taketh away. Shane Hmiel knows that better than anyone. A former wunderkind, sidelined by drugs and bipolar disorder and a lifetime ban from NASCAR, he defied the odds and pulled himself back from the brink. Slowly and steadily, he set about rebuilding his career in the face of critics and doubters.
Now his road has changed, from one of redemption to one of recovery. Given the severity of his injuries, coming back from drug addiction could seem like child's play in comparison. Steve Hmiel told reporters Sunday morning that Shane faces a "long road to recovery."
But one thing Shane Hmiel has on his side - besides his own significant drive and determination - is the love and support of his family and the greater racing community. Whatever differences or disagreements people in racing might have with one another, when that call goes out they are all forgotten. The bonds between racers and racing families are stronger than religion, and when one is in need, they never lack for support.
The future remains uncertain for Shane Hmiel, but one thing is certain - if nothing else, he is alive, and that is miracle enough for now.