TALLADEGA, Ala. If Shane Hmiel follows NASCAR's strict guidelines and remains drug-free, he should be able to return to racing by the start of the 2004 season, his former car owner said.
While most feel the 23-year-old driver should be able to rehabilitate his life following last week's suspension for violating NASCAR's substance abuse policy, they also wonder if he can ever rehabilitate his racing career. Stock car racing, spawned by moonshiners and hoodlums more than 70 years ago, has become a product of Corporate America, and nothing drives big business like image.
Sponsorships that run more than $10 million a year can tolerate an occasional tantrum barely but a drug rap is a hard sell.
''He's dead,'' said a representative from one of racing's major sponsors. ''It will take a lot of time for this to heal, if ever. A sponsor will have to take a chance, a big chance, on him. And if that happens, he will have to be squeaky clean. Sponsors are so imagine-driven in this business, it's going to be difficult for him to overcome this.''
NASCAR has the right to demand a drug test from anyone carrying one of its licenses if they display erratic behavior, inattentiveness, slurred speech and noticeable mood swings.
Hmiel flunked one of those tests and now is banned from any NASCAR-sanctioned area, including the garage during a private test session.
Part of his recovery will include counseling and further testing, NASCAR said, but that will have little effect on his reputation with a company that plans to make him a spokesman.
John Paul Jr., a sports car champion who won the 24 Hours of Daytona and 24 Hours of LeMans twice in his career, was convicted of helping his father operate a multimillion-dollar drug smuggling ring.
Although he had 22 sports car wins, as well as victories on the CART and IRL circuits, he still has trouble finding full-time work more than 10 years after being released from prison.
In 2001 Jamie Skinner, son of current driver Mike Skinner, had a contract to drive on the ARCA Re/Max Series when he was arrested for possession of drugs. He hasn't driven since.
Sponsors have become even more demanding in the last couple years.
''A company builds part of its advertising program around a driver,'' said another corporate representative who asked that he and his company not be identified. ''It's hard to put that much money, that much effort, into somebody who has that kind of past. It's not impossible, I guess, but it's going to be real, real difficult.''
George deBidart, Hmiel's former car owner, fired the driver as a result of NASCAR's actions.
He said Hmiel should regain his NASCAR license by next February, but a spot in one of his Chevrolets probably won't be an option.
''We certainly do not condone this type of behavior, and we fully support NASCAR in its decision,'' deBidart said.
According to his friends in the garage area, Hmiel will have a lot of support during his rehabilitation in the next few months.
After that, he might have to fend for himself.
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