Kyle Larson a no-name no longer
Kyle Larson could call Tony Stewart. Jeff Gordon, too. Both have been effusive enough in their praise of the 20-year-old Nationwide Series prodigy that it would make sense for them to answer a question or two. But Larson, though grateful for the praise from drivers with a combined seven Sprint Cup titles, seems reticent to ask.
He doesn't want to "pester" them, he said.
"I can always call and ask, but I don't like to call them. I know they're really busy," he told ESPN.com. "I've never really been the type to go out and ask for advice. I will always accept it if they are willing to come to me and bring it up. But I'm not the type to call up and say, 'Hey, what do you think about this? What should I do here?' "
Luckily for Larson, an unexpected source of information came right up to him a few years ago at the Milwaukee Mile.
"Shane Hmiel kind of took a liking to me and has helped me a lot," Larson said. "He'll text before each practice and he's got a lot of experience in stock cars and stuff and so he'll tell me what kind of feel I want to be faster for the race. Shane has been a big help."
Larson was able to improve on what he believed were horrific practices at Bristol Motor Speedway last weekend, finishing a rousing and highly publicized second to Kyle Busch, admittedly to his surprise.
"I see some of myself in him," Hmiel told ESPN.com. "Honestly, he's better than me. I don't know what to tell him to do, but I can tell him what not to do. There are races and tracks where I have been where I have knocked the fender in and tore the day up. I just try to point out the things that has caused me trouble and caused everybody else trouble.
"That boy's going to be a Jimmie Johnson or a Jeff Gordon. He's not just going to be a Saturday racer or someone like me who just won a Truck race. That boy is going to be a full-fledged Sunday racer. If I can spread a little knowledge about some mistakes I made or maybe little, small fast places on the track that I found, if I can tell him, that kid is so smart he will run through it and figure it out."
Hmiel understands that a friendship, much less a collaboration between one of NASCAR's breathlessly anticipated prospects and a past prospect who admittedly squandered his NASCAR career because of substance abuse, might breed unease. Larson, in the polite manner that seems to underscore his personality, refers to Hmiel's past and subsequent NASCAR lifetime ban -- since partially relaxed -- simply as "the problem." Hmiel and Larson live near each other, and the friends dine whenever Larson's increasingly busy schedule allows.
"I don't want to be the guy standing over his shoulder acting like I'm talking to him," Hmiel said. "I don't want people to think, 'Well, maybe that Larson boy ain't so good, he's got that Hmiel kid around him.' Hopefully, people will understand I've got my thoughts in order and stuff like that."
Hmiel said Larson doesn't need lessons in how not to repeat the mistakes of the legion of young and fast drivers before him who couldn't adapt to a lifestyle where money and fame, and the diversions they provide, change everything.
"He knows. He's got the drive," said Hmiel, 32. "He's got an older sister that does a lot for him, I'm sure, as far as keeping him in line. He knows, with me talking to him and spending time, he knows what my beliefs are. He knows I don't believe in going and getting wild and crazy anymore and all it is is about racing anymore."
The roots of the collaboration and friendship were set when Hmiel began racing in the USAC series as a path to a hopeful open-wheel career. Larson was a teenager who was quickly earning a reputation in the series as a budding star, and Hmiel was renovating his image as both a successful driver and sober citizen. They never actually met until after Hmiel was paralyzed in a 2010 crash during a Silver Crown qualifying session in Terre Haute, however.
"Right after I got out of hospital we went to Milwaukee," Hmiel said of the 2011 encounter. "He was at the Milwaukee Mile in a Silver Crown car, faster than anybody. I went and introduced myself to him. I was like, 'Man, you don't understand, people don't come do that. Nobody comes and runs [128.503] miles per hour on a mile, first time out and be the quickest.' "
Hmiel, who has regained the use of his right hand and recently drove a specially modified race car at Rockingham Speedway, likes being back in the game. Larson likes the help. It works.
"I enjoy being a part of his team," Hmiel said. "I tell him, 'Kyle, if I'm bugging you, you tell me.' He says, 'No, I like your advice.' That makes me feel good. I feel like I was a pretty good racer that didn't complete what I should because I had my head up my a--, but that kid is smart and I just try to help him with what I know.
"It's good. But it's not going to be long. He's going to be winning a lot of races and he's not going to need me anymore."