News & Media

Hmiels each show own brand of inner strength

January 24, 2011, David Caraviello,

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- While Shane continues recovery, Steve focused on rejuvenated EGR team

Steve Hmiel looks for the little things as signs of progress: a wiggle of the toes, a flex of the leg, a movement of the hip. His son Shane still has a very long way to go before he's recovered from critical injuries suffered in a racing accident three months ago. But these days, the small physical actions that most everyone else take for granted are rightfully celebrated as giant leaps.

"He's moving everything," Steve, the competition director at Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing, said Monday during the opening session of NASCAR's preseason media tour. "He can't write his name, he can't get up and walk or tap dance or anything, but he does have neurons firing all over his body, and they seem to think that with the right amount of physical therapy, he should be OK. And the doctor who did the surgery said from day one, he thought he would be all right. But everything remains to be seen. A spinal cord injury, as I've learned over the past 10 weeks, is a pretty tough thing to predict. But he's doing more than they thought."

"He's happy with himself, and he's upbeat. I think regardless of what happens, he'll still be Shane."


The same could be said for his father, who plays a key role on an Earnhardt-Ganassi team that won four Sprint Cup events last year -- the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 among them -- and is expected to field Chase-contending cars for both Jamie McMurray and Juan Montoya in 2011. The Hmiels are very much a racing family, Steve a stalwart on the NASCAR tour for decades, Shane a competitor since he was 6. But the telephone call Steve received last Oct. 9 would test any family in any line of work. He was in Fontana, Calif., preparing the EGR cars for that week's race when he learned that Shane had crashed violently in a U.S. Auto Club event in Terre Haute, Ind.

Shane, who made 119 starts across all three of NASCAR's national series and won a Truck race in 2004, was banned from NASCAR in 2006 after failing a third drug test. But the 30-year-old cleaned himself up and found a second chance in USAC, where he had won six times over the past two years. But in a silver crown race at Terre Haute, he crashed into the wall and rolled violently across the track, and the accident landed him at an Indianapolis hospital fighting for his life.

"It was a really ugly situation when I first arrived there from California," Steve said. "We were fortunate to make it through the first 48 to 72 hours. His lungs were really bad. He aspirated terribly when he had the accident, and he had a one-in-10 chance of surviving that for a couple of days. And then he coded four times, which meant he quit breathing, his heart stopped pumping. So it was kind of a long road when we were in Indiana. And when we went on to the therapy, and the therapy has been slower than I'd like to see. But he's certainly made an awful lot of headway. He's happy with himself, and he's upbeat. I think regardless of what happens, he'll still be Shane. But he is on their list of people who they believe will have a full recovery."

It's an arduous road. Shane had a six-inch plate put in his neck the night after the accident, and two eight-inch rods inserted into his back the next day. There was an aneurysm in his carotid artery, a hole in one of the veins that brings blood to the brain, and the constant fear of stroke. Initially paralyzed, Shane gradually began to regain movement, and is presently undergoing rehabilitation at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta. It may be a year from the time of the accident before he can walk, aided by crutches or a walker, once again. The rehab is from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week. His mother Lisa has been by his side the whole time, and posts regular updates about Shane's recovery on a Facebook page that has 25,000 followers.

Steve, meanwhile, has somehow been able to deal with his son's recovery while never letting his focus drift very far from the race shop. During January, perhaps the busiest month of the year for NASCAR teams as they build full throttle toward the Daytona 500, he's been at work every weekday, visiting Shane on weekends. Had Steve asked for time off, everybody would have understood. Instead he did what all racers do when facing adversity, and dug a little bit harder.

"I don't know how the hell he does it. He's amazing," team co-owner Chip Ganassi said. "... He's always been there. I don't know how he does it. I give him a lot of credit. I remember when he called me and said he had to go to Indiana. That's all I remember about that situation. We knock on wood that Shane is where he is today."

While Shane underwent the initial stages of recovery in Indianapolis, Steve used the video conferencing setup at Ganassi's IndyCar shop in the same city to keep in touch with the NASCAR operation down in Concord, N.C. The IndyCar team's private jet allowed Steve to fly into a race on Sunday and out the same day. No question, being able to focus on work likely helps ease some of the emotional burden. But his co-workers see all he's dealing with, and are amazed at how he handles it all.

"He's been there every day," said Earnhardt-Ganassi president Steve Lauletta. "Obviously, when the accident first happened, everybody rushed there to be by [Shane's] side. But since he's been transferred ... to Atlanta, Steve is in the office. He hasn't missed a beat. He was doing conference calls from Indianapolis. I think knowing the racer that he is, it was certainly a nice diversion for him to work as much as he could. He was there, all the time. But when anybody is going through that from a personal perspective, to stay as focused as he's been on the job has been incredible. You just sort of shake your head in amazement sometimes that he's able to do that."

When asked if it's ever been difficult to focus on work through all this, Steve is matter-of-fact. Shane's medical costs, he said, have now eclipsed $2 million. "The reason we could afford to cover him like that, the reason my wife could afford to be down there with him like that, is because auto racing has blessed us like that," he said. "We're fortunate that we have the ability to pay for things, and take time off as necessary. ... Racing has been our whole lives, and if somebody gets hurt doing it, that's just part of it. But it's never kept me from wanting to race, or being able to focus on the job at hand, which is winning races."

Such are the codas that racing families live by. Shane, who didn't suffer any permanent brain damage, passed his last cognitive test last week and is already thinking about racing again one day. When the rods were inserted into his back, they were done in such a way that he'd be able to sit in a race car. "I didn't get drunk at a high school party and jump into the shallow end of the pool," Shane once told his father. "I hurt myself racing. Dad, you taught me how to race. That's how you make a living, that's how I make a living. We were just racing and got hurt."

According to Steve, Shane sees all this as a challenge. He overcame personal demons at one point in his life, and now hopes to triumph over physical ones and become an inspiration to others. Steve, balancing a family crisis and a race team at the same time, raves about how tough his son is, about how he's never once cried or complained, about the courage he's shown. It's very easy to see where Shane gets it from.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.