I’ve never been much of a gambler; get rich quick schemes always seem to drive a soul broke. Atlantic City is about ninety minutes out of here, a place I think I’ve been about three times in the past decade. Raking in the dough, those casinos wouldn’t have built all those tacky neon lit sand castles on the beach if gamblers tended to walk out of them ahead of the game. As I see it, the mere act of taking a car, much less a motorcycle, out onto public roadways with texting teens, sloshed soccer moms trying to get home in time for Oprah, and recently divorced middle aged men in 500 horsepower Corvettes and Porsches is gambling enough for my blood.
Another reason I don’t gamble is I’m no damned good at it. I’d have bet the farm that a film like Tim Richmond – To the Limit was never going to be produced. Some have referred to Tim Richmond as NASCAR’s forgotten legend. For years, Richmond wasn’t forgotten; he was shunned by the powers that be. Discussion of Tim or his ultimate fate was verboten in the garage area. People I’d asked for comments on Tim Richmond back in 2001 tended to develop sudden amnesia as if they couldn’t quite place the name or walk away as if they hadn’t heard the question. Why? Some newer fans might ask. I’ll get to that. But over the years, Tim’s diehard fans have remained. I’ll still see the occasional Folgers Racing decal (normally now faded almost to translucence on a car’s rear window). Back in 2001, Tim Richmond was, in fact, recognized as one of the sport’s 50 greatest drivers ever.
I’m told Richmond’s inclusion caused Bill France, Jr. a great deal of irritation.
It’s why ESPN was the only network that could have put together a film like Tuesday night’s triumph (as part of their critically acclaimed 30 for 30 anniversary series). As it so happened, Richmond’s arrival on the Cup scene coincided almost exactly with the upstart cable sports network’s gamble to broadcast stock car races live flag to flag and see if anyone watched.
One of the highlights of the film was ancient interviews and racing footage from ESPN’s early years, a kinder and gentler era in Cup racing history. There were no busy scrolls at the top and bottom of the screen distracting viewers back then lest they not know an NFL score. There was a lap counter in the upper right hand corner of the screen you had to squint to read. Broadcasters tended to focus on the action on track and not announce what other programming was coming up on the network later that week. The paint schemes were by and large simpler in Richmond’s era and they actually looked like “stock” cars. See, that one there’s a Pontiac, that’s a Buick, that’s a Chevy, and that one there is a Ford. Maybe if you strained your eyes real hard, you might be able to make out a Toyota parked in the very far corner of the parking lot, but it probably belonged to a Porta-Johnnie attendant. Back then, NASCAR drivers raced what we drove and we drove what they raced. You never saw a No. 3 decal in the back of a Thunderbird, at least not after 1983.
The race footage was used sparingly, as it had to be given the amount of story to be told and the time allotted (I have a feeling that To The Limit would have made an even better two-hour film), but it was refreshing to see. I have expended a novel’s length of words trying to convince fans who never saw him race that Tim Richmond was one of the best, if not the very best, when it came to car control. Watching him set a driver like Earnhardt up for a pass, getting under his opponent’s car, getting his own car completely sideways at the same time, and still making the pass was possible back then. Improbable and thrilling, but possible back in the era of bias ply tires when legends like Richmond and Dale Earnhardt still roamed the earth.
Watching Tim Richmond drive a road course was like watching da Vinci sketch out the Mona Lisa. At times even the broadcasters were reduced to silence just watching him, particularly during Richmond’s final career win at Riverside. I’m told that day several drivers and crew members of cars that had fallen out of the race ran to prime viewing spots on the hill overlooking the course just to watch the magic.
No, Tim Richmond wasn’t like the other drivers. He was too polished, too well off, and sported a hundred dollar haircut. As shown in the film, he was the first of the drivers to arrive in the garage area aboard a Harley Davidson, a now de rigueur fashion accessory for most drivers. He wore flame retardant balaclava and a full face helmet back before anyone else. In light of how he passed, Tim’s insistence on wearing what he needed to protect his safety on track is sadly ironic to those of us who know how he died.
ESPN and Tim Richmond owed each other a lot. They made him a household name with their weekly broadcasts. He was one of the sport’s brightest stars that kept people tuning in week after week, even if they didn’t particularly like the man. You didn’t have to like his hairstyle, his accent, or his demeanor, but if you knew crap about racing you knew to keep an eye on him late in the race. He was likely going to be a factor, if he wasn’t already leading or hadn’t wrecked out. Tim was one of the great ones, and no less an authority than Saint Dale said so. It’s ironic that Earnhardt and Richmond were such good friends carousing out on Lake Norman together whenever time allowed while fans of the two drivers, the blue collar Southern icon and the rich Yankee out of Ohio, tended to hate each other.
ESPN and Tim Richmond were a match made in Heaven. They needed action, and he provided plenty of it. Off the track Richmond was articulate, occasionally achingly funny, and unlike some other drivers ESPN didn’t need subtitles to translate interviews for Yankees. The cameras were drawn to Richmond like the pretty young ladies, and he reveled in the attention of both.
The film goes on to document the 1986 season, the best of Richmond’s career. ESPN was along for the ride that summer when Tim became all but unbeatable. Wisely paired by team owner Rick Hendrick with crafty old crew chief Harry Hyde, Tim finally lived up to his full potential. Richmond and Hyde, two polar opposites, didn’t get along at first. The change of heart came at a test session, as noted in the film. Hyde let Richmond run fifty laps the way he wanted, then Tim agreed to drive fifty laps the way Hyde coached him to. Faced with the evidence of a stopwatch, Richmond had no choice but to agree Harry knew better.
That’s the point of the film where I almost turned it off. After all, I knew the end of the story. There was Tim Richmond, the hottest driver in the sport, finally having reached his potential. His fans were certain 1987 would yield even better results, more race wins and the long anticipated title fight between Earnhardt and Richmond. If I were a gambler even back then, I’d have put my money on Richmond. But at the end of the season, fans were stunned to learn the challenger was taking a leave of absence from racing and he’d be out the first part of the 1987 season. The initial diagnosis was double pneumonia, as hinted at by Tim’s coughing during several interviews shown in the film.
We know now, of course, that Tim Richmond had AIDS. And if the ’80s were a kinder and gentler time in stock car racing, it was a meaner and frightening time for those diagnosed with AIDS. While the medical community knew how the virus was spread, the general population was still ignorant on the topic of what was still widely referred to as the “gay plague.” If a fellow had AIDS, most people assumed he either had to be gay or an intravenous drug user. Such a man would almost certainly lose his job, be evicted from his condo or apartment, and would be shunned by his neighbors and most of his friends. In their ignorance, some people feared that AIDS was like the flu and could be transmitted by casual contact or even being in the same room with someone infected with HIV. In retrospect, had Tim chosen to come forward to announce he was, in fact, HIV positive and had contracted the disease through heterosexual acts, it might have spared thousands of lives. In the reality of that era, such an admission would have cost him his home and the chance to ever drive a stock car again. Look what happened once NASCAR got hold of the rumor.
For me, at least the hardest part of the film to watch, and the one scene that made my eyes water was right at the opening of the film. Richmond was in a condo overlooking Charlotte as the field took their pace laps. To get closer to the sound of the start of the race, Richmond opened the door as the field came to the green, telling the unseen cameraman, “That’s what I used to do. That’s what I’m going to do again.” But if you’ve heard as many Tim Richmond interviews as I have, there was something unsettling about the tone of Tim’s voice and the look in his eyes. That wasn’t the determined and confident driver I recall. That was someone else, someone who sounded wistful and even unsure.
Once NASCAR had an inkling Tim was HIV positive, they were determined not to let him race. Richmond lined up a ride for the ’88 Busch Clash and knew when he arrived at the track he’d be subject to NASCAR’s new drug testing policy. He’d stopped taking his AIDS medications a month before to preserve his privacy. Still, NASCAR announced Richmond had failed the drug test. His career was effectively over, as only months later would NASCAR admit the “substance” found in Richmond’s blood was an over the counter cold medication. Richmond sued NASCAR, but a friendly judge agreed with NASCAR’s request for Tim to turn over his complete medical records for the trial to begin. An out of court settlement was reached, the amount never disclosed, and Richmond began slipping away into obscurity.
One part of that weekend in Daytona not shown in the film that would have been welcome was Tim’s response to being banned from the race. Originally, Tim planned to have one of those sign towing planes circle the speedway with a rude message directed at NASCAR. His close friend Linda Vaughan (Miss Hurst) convinced him to alter the plan. Instead, the banner the plane towed over the track read, “To my fans, I miss you, Tim Richmond.” I think his favorite part of the film would have been an interview with four of his friends sitting at a bar all these years after Richmond passed, still recounting his prowess on the track, recalling him fondly and raising a toast to his memory.
It hasn’t always been easy being a Tim Richmond fan. Some people have gotten in my face and told me NASCAR was justified in what they did because had he been hurt in a wreck and bleeding freely, the ambulance crews attending to him would have been put at risk. You know what? If someone was badly hurt in the grandstands or infield that weekend and bleeding freely, those same ambulance crews would have been called. Those well-intended medics would have no idea if their patient practiced safe sex or shot up. By that point, most medics responding to traffic accidents knew to glove up and wear a mask.
Then there’s the old bug-a-boo briefly mentioned in “To the Limit.” After all, “Tim kilt all them ladies.” 60 Minutes said so, so it had to be true. Regrettably, nay tragically, Tim did in fact infect some of his partners just as one of his partners infected Tim. To say Tim “did this to them” is Neanderthal, hearkening back to the notion that men want sex, but women have no interest in it. Thus men ply women with booze and baubles to “get them to let them.”
If you accept a more modern notion that sex is an act two partners perform with each other, not one a man does to a woman, then both partners share a responsibility towards preventing an unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS. Dealing with a partner they don’t know well, not having had “the talk,” and not knowing who he might have slept with in the past, a woman has the right, actually the responsibility borne of the self-preservation instinct, to insist, “no admittance without proper attire” to put it politely. Some still insist that Tim Richmond knowingly infected women with AIDS even after he was aware he had AIDS.
With both her parents now gone, I hope Tim’s sister will forgive me for letting folks in on a little secret she shared with me over a decade ago. One of the side effects of AZT, the drug used to treat AIDS, is impotence. Draw your own conclusions. Once Tim was diagnosed, Sandy and their mother Evelyn traveled with Tim constantly. Neither of them even met Richmond’s chief accuser, the “virgin” who Tim tricked into sex by proposing marriage. The family, as noted in the film, was holding out hope a miracle drug would be developed and Tim would be cured. Even Tim was in denial he was a dying man.
Sadly, decades later we are still waiting for that miracle drug. In the meantime, Tim Richmond’s parents lost their son, Sandy her beloved brother, and Tim’s millions of fans, their hero. No matter who was at fault, that’s the sad ending to the story. If not for that one encounter Richmond had with some unnamed woman, he would probably have retired by now, a multi-time champion and a fan favorite. We’d be still be heralding his victories and accomplishments, not mourning his passing.
Can some good come of tragedy? Maybe this film can make it so. I’d suggest to parents with teenage children interested in racing, but have no idea who Tim Richmond was, that they watch this film with their age-appropriate children. Use the sad ending to the story to open a discussion about AIDS. Here’s someone who had it all: the talent, the money, the women, the fame and success, but in the end what did in a six foot tall man in excellent shape was a tiny little virus you’d need a microscope to see. AIDS is no longer front page news. More recently the Ebola virus, then the H1N1 flu were going to become pandemics and wipe out the human race.
But AIDS is still out there. According to the Center for Disease Control, 1 in 22 blacks will contract AIDS during their lifetimes. 1 in 178 white people in America will contract AIDS during their lifetime. How many people live in your neighborhood? How many people were in the club you hung out at last weekend? How many students attend your child’s school? Yeah, I guess it’s easier to hope your kids aren’t going to have sex until they’re in their 20s, and they’ll pick up the info they need on AIDS in the classroom. Oddly enough, his or her teachers won’t be paying for the funeral or crying in the front row.
To the Limit was a fine little film given its time constraints and the constraints of the time it depicts. That ESPN would choose Tim Richmond to be one of just thirty athletes honored in their 30 for 30 series speaks volumes about his place in the sport’s history. And to those four guys in the bar, forward me the bill through this website. The next round is on me. And add in a champagne chaser. This is, after all, Tim Richmond we’re toasting.
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