ATLANTA (AP) - Shane Hmiel motors into the room. The left front wheel just misses a chair, the right rear comes slips past a shiny end table without making contact.
Some things, they can't take away.
Hmiel still knows a thing or two about driving. Only now, it's a wheelchair instead of a race car.
He seemed to have to have it all, a star-in-the-making who threw it away in a haze of drugs - the only driver ever banned for life by NASCAR. He cleaned himself up, became a better person and was on the verge of making it back to the big time when a near-fatal crash left him paralyzed.
Some might call it karma, a bit of payback for all the sleepless nights he caused his mom, all the bravado he showed on the NASCAR tracks during his hell-on-wheels days (such as wrecking Dale Jarrett, then flipping off the former Cup champion).
Well, if that's the case, karma really blew it.
Hmiel deserved another shot.
``He set out to do something, and it looked like he was going to accomplish it,'' says his father, Steve Hmiel. ``He had fought off some personal demons, which is really hard to do.''
Hmiel started racing when he was 9. Made it to NASCAR's Nationwide Series at 21. Won a truck race. Got to compete seven times in the big leagues, Sprint Cup. Even led four laps at Fontana. He was on his way.
``He would've been a star,'' says his mom, Lisa. ``He should've been the original Dale Jr. That's who he drove like, Dale Earnhardt.''
Unfortunately for Hmiel, there was life away from the track. Started smoking marijuana when he was 12. Moved on up to the big leagues, cocaine. Failed not one, not two, but three drugs tests, prompting NASCAR to finally wash its hands of him. No one want to race against a drug addict at 190 mph.
``He was way more of an addict than I thought,'' says his father, a former NASCAR crew chief who now serves as competition director of Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing. ``I thought he was just smoking pot, but he was way past that. He was Charlie Sheen.''
Sometimes, his parents wonder if they could've done things different. Maybe if Steve wasn't traveling so much, he'd have noticed the downward spiral. Maybe if Lisa had shown more tough love, her boy could've turned things around sooner.
But it looked as if they were past all that.
Shane kicked drugs during a 114-day rehab stint and began taking medication for a bipolar disorder, which slowed things down and brought his life into focus. He took up sprint racing, which he hoped would lead to Indy cars. Turns out, he was pretty good at the open-wheelers, too. He just had a knack for going fast.
Now, Hmiel can only go as fast as the wheelchair will take him. A terrible crash last October on a dirt track in Terre Haute, Ind., damaged his brain and partially severed his spine, leaving him a quadriplegic - at least for now.
It happened during a qualifying run, of all things.
Hmiel's roadster flew down the backstretch - the engine wide open, the pole position in reach - when something went terribly wrong as he began to slide into turn three. The car wobbled a bit, flew up on two wheels, came down briefly, then flipped again, slamming into outer wall roll-cage first. It plopped back down upright, revealing the horrific result: the top of the machine was totally squashed, like a soda can on the way to the recycling bin.
``Bad luck, bad timing,'' the 30-year-old Hmiel (pronounced ``Meal'') says matter-of-factly. ``It's a bummer. You race your whole life, been in all sorts of crashes, then get in a crash like that - where you get hurt so bad - when you're not even racing anybody else.''
He was rushed to a hospital in Indianapolis with several fractures in his neck and brain damage. He underwent two major operations, then survived pneumonia and a serious lung ailment that doctors gave him just a 1-in-10 chance of living through.
``That kid has come back from the dead four times,'' his father says. ``His mother and I walked in one time when he had just flat-lined. It was horrible.''
Interestingly enough, Shepherd is just seven miles from the rehab center where Hmiel kicked drugs. Since arriving, he's shown so much improvement his stay has been extended through at least April 1. Some feeling has returned to his limbs, and his progress over the last five months has amazed everyone.
Dr. Brock Bowman, the associate medical director, talks hopefully of Hmiel getting back to the point where he can drive a car around town, maybe even walk on his own. But there's little chance he'll ever get behind the wheel of a race car.
Hmiel knows the truth, even lets it slip into the conversation every now and then. He's not giving up, though.
``That's why I'm working all day, every day: to get back,'' he said, pedaling away with help on a stationary bike at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, one of the nation's leading facilities for spinal and brain injuries. ``If I do, I do. If I don't, it is what is. This is how my life has been planned out for me.''
Before the crash, he had lined up a ride in Indy Lights for this season, just a step below the IndyCar series.
Shane Hmiel, Indianapolis 500 winner? That was the goal.
Now, he just wants to get back to the race track as soon as possible. He's trying to put together an Indy Lights team for the upcoming season. Some day, he wants to be part of an effort that returns an American to the winner's circle at the Brickyard.
It may not be him. That's OK.
Hmiel doesn't cry. He doesn't question why. He just keeps pushing forward, as fast as he can go.
``One thing I will say about Shane: His spirit has never been broken,'' his father says proudly. ``I think Shane will survive it all and come out on top. He's been saved for a reason.''
Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)

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