Road to Recovery: Shane Hmiel Adjusting to Life in a Wheelchair

Hmiel was never boring when behind the wheel.
Hmiel was never boring when behind the wheel.Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Brian PolkingContributor IIMarch 12, 2011

At age 21, Shane Hmiel was on the fast track to NASCAR stardom. At age 30, he is a wheelchair-bound quadriplegic.

Hmiel’s rise and subsequent fall can be either depressing or uplifting, depending on how you look at it.

He was a brash, checkers or wreckers driver on the track. He won a Truck race and was leading laps in the Cup Series seemingly overnight. Hmiel would do whatever it took to win, and he even wrecked former Cup champion Dale Jarrett and flipped him the bird after doing so.

Unfortunately, he lived life off the track in the fast lane as well. He began smoking marijuana at age 12, and he graduated to cocaine by the time he began his NASCAR career.

Three failed drug tests forced NASCAR to make Hmiel the first driver in the sport’s history to be banned for life. The sure-fire star had become a washout.

Hitting rock bottom turned out to be the best thing to happen to Hmiel. A four-month stint in a rehabilitation clinic cleaned him up and allowed him to resume a racing car. He began winning dirt track races and had a ride set up in the Indy Racing Series minor leagues. His goal of winning the Indianapolis 500 seemed within reach.

A fateful day in Indiana changed his career path yet again. A horrible wreck during a qualifying session left Hmiel in critical condition. He was rushed to the hospital with injuries to his head and neck, and he would flat-line four separate times before being stabilized.

Hmiel survived the ordeal, but his racing days are likely over. He suffered minor brain damage and will have to undergo countless hours of rehab to overcome his current quadriplegic condition. Doctors are optimistic he will one day walk on his own and drive a car around town, but racing isn’t in the equation anymore.

Despite all the setbacks he has experienced, both self-inflicted and out of his control, Hmiel still has big plans. He may not be able to win an Indianapolis 500 from behind the wheel, but he hopes to own a race team that can win the prestigious event.

It would be easy to look at Hmiel’s life story as one of wasted talent and missed opportunities, but it can also serve as a lesson in giving second chances. For all his vices, Hmiel became a better person through the adversity. If he can use his experiences to help others, then his life will have been far from wasted.

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