ROCKINGHAM, N.C. -- The racer hadn't raced in more than two years, not since the paralyzing accident pulled the emergency brake on the speed that defined him. Speed made the racer feel normal -- empowered, even -- when nothing else could. The racer yearned to feel the rush again to harness the unbridled fury like a thoroughbred leaving the stable.
After the accident, the racer had been rebuilt to race at the behest of his father, also a racer. His back was destroyed when his helmet hit the bare concrete wall, but doctors implanted a pair of 18-inch metal rods vertically along his spine to allow him to sit up straight in the cockpit. Not that there was much chance for that, they said. His doctors said he wouldn't. Couldn't. Ever again.
Most agreed. Most figured Shane Hmiel would never drive another race car after the accident he suffered Oct. 9, 2010, during a qualifying lap at the Terre Haute Action Track in Indiana. He was paralyzed from the neck down. He would flatline three times that night. He would lie motionless in a coma for 32 days. He was told he would live on a ventilator for the rest of his life. He was told he would never feed himself. He was told he would never walk again.
He was told he would never hiccup again.
"There were 10 things they told me I'd never do -- and I did all 10 before I got here this morning," Hmiel said on a frigid late January day. "I figured what the hell -- why not add another one?"
So here he is, seated in his bulky black wheelchair on pit road at Rockingham Speedway, itself clawing its way back into the sport and making for the perfect backdrop. Hmiel stares into the motor compartment of a race car. It won't crank. The air is tense. Hmiel barks instructions about how to fix it and hollers for his father, Steve, to come over. Dad would fix it. It's what he does.
The car is raised on a jack, and Steve Hmiel takes a brief peek underneath. He suggests something, and the car fires right up.
Shane just grins.
The car is blue and yellow with faded yellow rims. Its Goodyear tires remind onlookers to support U.S. troops. Its driver-side door is removed, and the roll cage behind it swings open 90 degrees. When pulled, a long, black lever underneath the left side of the driver's seat enables it to slide backward and pivot 90 degrees to allow easier exit for its guest.
Today, Hmiel joins Wounded Warriors Jessie Fletcher, scout sniper USMC (retired), and Cody Evans, lance corporal USMC (retired), at The Rock to drive this specially adapted race car, which was prepared by Accessible Racing, a company that provides individuals with physical disabilities the opportunity go out onto the racetrack and open one up -- and shut down reality, if only for a moment.
Through its partnership with Racing4Vets -- a nonprofit organization founded last year to help injured and disabled U.S. military veterans get involved in motorsports -- Accessible Racing offers a distraction from the daily travails that guys like Fletcher and Evans must endure.
The ultimate hope is to place veterans in motorsports-industry jobs, to develop a personnel pipeline that takes the tactical expertise taught in the military and put it to practical use in professional racing. It is a worthy initiative, one that Hmiel hopes to spearhead and become the face of.
Fletcher and Evans arrived from Walter Reed Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. Both lost their legs to IEDs. Fletcher has a notable sense of humor, which is displayed on his T-shirt. After his lap, he exits the race car and pulls down the top portion of his driving suit to reveal a gray T-shirt with black writing that reads: "YOU keep staring. They may grow back."
Hmiel is a kindred spirit. After he runs the car so hard its engine begins to smoke, he exits -- grinning from ear to ear -- to his wheelchair. His best friend, Adam Colborne, wants to arrange a photo with Hmiel and the Marines and tells Hmiel to stay in his chair and don't move.
"Well, it's not like I can go anywhere," Hmiel quips.
As he sits, waiting, he decompresses from the ride he just took. When it was his turn to drive, Hmiel wheeled his chair over by the car. His brother, Tyler, grabbed him around the torso, and Colborne grabbed him around the legs. The first helmet Hmiel ever wore, at age 19, rests on top of the car. It is black and orange and open-faced. The Superman "S" is painted on the back, just above his surname. He had been wearing it around the house for two days.
Hmiel is gingerly placed in the driver's seat, and a pretty lady arranges him at a proper distance from the steering wheel. As the woman buckles him in and fiddles with the lap belt, Hmiel's girlfriend Lindsay Cromer wonders, "What's she doing down there?"
"Not that he'd tell me anyway," she says with a grin.
Hmiel places his hands at the 10-and-2 positions on the steering wheel.
"I'm ready to fire it up," he says.
He made several laps to get a feel for the car -- most of which were on the bottom line all the way around the track -- before re-entering pit road to debrief with the organizers. Upon returning to the track, he eased up a lane. And then another, until he was a car width or so from the outside wall. He inched toward the racer's line.
The speed was exhilarating -- and exhausting. The car runs quite a bit faster than Hmiel anticipated, and after a handful of laps he surrenders to fatigue. The motor smokes like the Marlboro Man. He took all it had to give. And it, in turn, gave him all he could handle.
He demands to know if he was slower than Fletcher or Evans. (He wasn't.)
Hmiel had been awake since 4 a.m., unable to sleep with keen anticipation of proving so many doubters wrong.
The nerves are gone. And the statement was made: Dear paralysis, doubters, obstacles, questions, pain -- you do not belong here.
"It felt so great to be back," he said. "The conceited side of me loves this. It proves to people: do not quit. You can always do more. Believe in that. It'll get you so far."
And on this day, so fast.