If you didn't know anything about Shane Hmiel before 2008, you might think that he was the ideal candidate for a future IZOD IndyCar Series ride.
He comes from racing stock. His father, Steve, is a well-recognized name in NASCAR circles and currently manages Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing in the Sprint Cup Series. Shane himself is a NASCAR race winner and at one point was the protege of Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Now he competes on all three top-level USAC tours, and later this month he will be making his Firestone Indy Lights Series debut at Chicagoland Speedway.
Sounds great, right? So why aren't more IndyCar fans excited to see him advance?
It's because Hmiel is a recovering drug addict and suffers from bipolar disorder. It's because in 2006 Hmiel was banned for life from NASCAR after a third drug-related suspension in three years.
It has the fans asking: Should the road to redemption be taken at high speeds and in traffic?
For Shane Hmiel, the future was wide open and bright. He was an up-and-coming talent who clearly had the skills to be considered one of those future stars. His pedigree was stellar, but he was able to back it up on the track - that was the main thing. In NASCAR, after all, a name could get you a ride, but what you did with it after that would make or break you. It seemed that Hmiel was one of those who would end up making it.
But as time wore on, people around him began to notice some unpleasant facets to Hmiel's personality. Whereas most racing veterans were used to "young guns" lacking a certain deference to experience and authority, Hmiel was downright hostile to it. He also displayed an arrogance and easily-piqued temper that was, to phrase it mildly, off-putting. Many wrote his attitude off as the logical product of a young man's excesses... a young man rich and famous before he was mature enough to handle it.
That thinking seemed validated in 2003 when, as he was campaigning in the NASCAR Busch Grand National Series, Hmiel failed a random drug test conducted by the sanction. The test revealed traces of marijuana and it basically told Hmiel's critics what they suspected all along: Hmiel believed himself to be a racing rock star and was living the lifestyle to prove it.
Prior to 2001 - and in the still-raw aftermath of the Tim Richmond fiasco - a positive drug test would likely spell the end of a NASCAR racer's career. NASCAR founder "Big" Bill France was the sort to give someone one chance and one chance only before the towering mogul would go for a pistol or crowbar to back his policies up. His son, Bill Jr., was far more benign - at least on the surface - but his public largesse belied his behind-the-scenes firmness. You did not get second chances - especially if your sin had the potential to embarrass the league.
But in the post-Dale Earnhardt world, NASCAR had been dragged kicking and screaming under the microscope of public scrutiny. The phrases "transparency" and "public accountability" - in previous regimes, not only unfamiliar but downright pejorative - were being added reluctantly to the sanction's lexicon. A result of that was that Hmiel's high-profile situation could not be dealt with quickly and cleanly out of the public eye.
So Hmiel got another shot. He served a four-month suspension and was reinstated after meeting NASCAR's demands to clean himself up. But the damage to his image was done. Now the reckless edge that had marked his racing style was being attributed to more than his caustic garage area personality. Other drivers, most notably and publicly Kevin Harvick, started wondering whether Hmiel might not be under the influence while he was racing.
Again, Hmiel supplied the ammunition for this thinking by engaging in a public confrontation during a Busch Series race with veteran Dale Jarrett. Hmiel's profanity-laced tirade at Jarrett, punctuated by several gestures of his middle finger, was captured clearly by in-car cameras and broadcast to a titillated and scandalized NASCAR nation. Docked points and a hefty sum, Hmiel still showed no signs of humility outside of a clearly-scripted apology. The mutterings about him grew louder.
And then, later in the season, Hmiel was busted again - this time with a mix of marijuana and cocaine in his system. NASCAR suspended him again - this time "indefinitely" - but even that did not seem to stop Hmiel. Barely a year into his second suspension, he failed his third drug test. At this point, NASCAR, having given Hmiel the full three-strike count, finally called him "out" - issuing Hmiel a lifetime ban from NASCAR.
At the time, most NASCAR fans were incredulous. How stupid do you have to be, they wondered, to destroy your career so publicly and after so much unaccustomed leniency from NASCAR? This was not a situation where Hmiel was a sanction scapegoat or an example made of to warn his fellow racers. His pedigree and NASCAR's changing public face gave him an exceptionally long rope... but in the end, he still hanged himself with it.
No, most fans - not to mention his fellow NASCAR drivers - were not that upset to see Hmiel gone. They saw an arrogant, cocky kid full of his own self-importance and at the mercy of his own ego and appetites, and they figured that NASCAR was better off without him.
Unbeknownst to them - or, indeed, to Hmiel himself - the young racer was suffering from bipolar disorder. Hmiel's "attitude" - and, arguably, his drug addiction - was a clinical manifestation of a manic-depressive syndrome that drove him to behavioral extremes. Hmiel was finally diagnosed as bipolar in June of 2006, and for the young man who had been seeing psychiatrists since age five it was a revelation. "I don't want to blame everything on a disease, but my brain was never wired properly until I got on the right medication," Hmiel told Sports Illustrated's Tim Tuttle two years later.
Sadly, it would be another year before things got bad enough to force him to turn his life around. In July of 2007, Hmiel got into a bar fight while under the influence. He woke up the next morning to find his sparring partner's teeth embedded in his hand and facing the very real possibility that his hand might have to be amputated. He checked into rehab soon afterward.
That was three years ago. Now Hmiel gets himself drug tested every week as an incentive to stay clean. He is managing his bipolar disorder with medication, and he is back to racing in the USAC series. A 30-year-old rookie, he is a long way removed from the money and fame he was accruing in NASCAR just over half a decade ago. For Hmiel, six years seems like a lifetime ago.
However, for racing fans - who famously have long memories and hold onto grudges tenaciously - even a lifetime may not be long enough.
Never mind the accolades he has piled up since returning to racing in USAC: "Most Improved Driver" in his rookie season, Rookie of the Year at the 2009 Chili Bowl Nationals, breaking the USAC Sprint Car speed record at Iowa Speedway, winning races in Midgets and Silver Crown. Never mind that Hmiel's recklessness is a thing of the past and that his fellow racers trust his racecraft as well as admire his speed.
For many fans, no New Age bromides regarding the ability to change or Biblical admonitions for forgiveness will change their opinions. Three strikes and you're out - how simple could it be? If NASCAR finally washed their hands of Shane Hmiel, why on earth should IndyCar want to have anything to do with stock car racing's discarded rubbish? And, really, how safe is a driver who - medicated or not - suffers from bipolar disorder?
Such was some of the fan response to Alliance Motorsports' press release announcing that Shane Hmiel would pilot the #24 Firestone Indy Lights machine at Chicagoland Speedway in late August.
For their part, the IndyCar Series is approaching Hmiel's advent into the ladder program with a mixture of magnanimity and due diligence. "We believe in second chances and fully support Shane as he enters into Indy Lights," the league said in an official statement. "He has worked very hard over the past few years to turn his life around, maintain sobriety and find success with sprint cars and midgets. We have worked with Shane to set up a testing and screening program on a regular basis that will maintain the integrity of the sport while providing him the opportunity to compete."
In fact, the official IndyCar drug policy is quite clear about how they address this situation:
By this policy, [IndyCar] is striving to maintain the integrity of the League and its Events and is concerned that the use of illegal drugs at any time, or the use of alcohol during an event, and even the proper use of certain medications during an event, may endanger the internal and external perception of the League. The policy provides for scheduled and/or random screening and testing and applies to drivers, mechanics and crew members as well as to league officials. It can be applied to other participants that the league deems appropriate...
While [IndyCar] recognizes that there are many prescription and over-the-counter medications that serve essential or beneficial purposes for the health and well-being of competitors and officials, the league regulates proper and improper use of prescription and over-the-counter medications/substances. Misuse and the illegal use, acquisition or distribution of a prescription or over-the-counter medication or any mind-altering or addictive substance by an individual is prohibited. Provisions prohibiting and/or restricting the consumption of alcohol are also in place.
If [IndyCar] determines that a competitor, official, or participant that is subject to the policy has violated any part of the policy, the League may take whatever action within its rules as it deems appropriate including a ban from competition and participation in [League] activities and Events.
In short, while IndyCar would like to appear accommodating and reasonable in Hmiel's case, there is no question that behind the public goodwill is a very, very short leash.
Still, it's a chance - something that Shane Hmiel perhaps believed would never come again during the darkest days of his rehabilitation. No matter how slim the lifeline, Hmiel is eager to grab it.
"There are going to be people who will say, 'He doesn't need to be racing and this and that and he had too many chances,'" Hmiel told The Sporting News' Bob Pockrass. "Who's to say that a 30-year-old can't fix himself? I was a 25-year-old with a mind of a 15-year-old with millions of dollars. Not making up an excuse but I had a problem. It's something that took time to fix. Time and medication."
If nothing else, Hmiel should be commended for coming this far in turning his life around. Other drivers in his place have not been so lucky. One of Hmiel's contemporaries, Kevin Grubb, had a promising racing career similarly derailed by drugs and a subsequent NASCAR suspension. At the crossroads of fatalism and recovery, Grubb chose the former and in May 2009 killed himself in a Virginia hotel room.
Shane Hmiel knows that his battle to restore his good name will be the hardest of his life. But at least he is getting a chance to fight it. And it's no coincidence that the oval outside of Chicago is within spitting distance of another one in downtown Indianapolis. Who knows - maybe a few years down the road, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway could be the site of the Greatest Spectacle in Redemption for a former star driver trying to make a fresh start.