Tim Richmond came into NASCAR reminiscent of the way so many do today. He got his start in open-wheel racing by testing a sprint car for a friend and wound up turning laps faster than the regular driver. At the age of 21, that brief test had him hooked and soon after he won the USAC Rookie of the Year in 1978. Two years later he moved to big-time open-wheel racing, competing in the Indianapolis 500 in 1980 and finishing ninth after running out of fuel. Driving for car owner DK Ulrich, he would make his NASCAR debut at Pocono later that year – a track where some of his most memorable, yet heartbreaking memories would be made.
Richmond’s first taste of stock car success came in 1982, driving for notorious (and unscrupulous) car owner JD Stacy. He went to victory lane twice that season in the No. 2 car, with both wins coming at one of the original Cup Series road courses, Riverside Raceway in California. That same year, Richmond drove one of the most famous cars in NASCAR history – Clyde Turkle’s Chicken Pit Special at Charlotte. The car served as Burt Reynolds’s racecar in the 1983 blockbuster Stroker Ace, earning Richmond a cameo in the movie.
In 1983, Richmond teamed with owner Raymond Beadle, driving the No. 27 Old Milwaukee Grand Prix to one victory that season – a win from the pole at Pocono. The following year produced another victory, this time at North Wilkesboro, along with runner-up finishes at Dover, in the Southern 500 at Darlington and at the season finale at Riverside. Richmond struggled a bit in 1985, going winless and narrowly missing out on a spot in the top 10 at season’s end.
1986 proved to be the defining year of Richmond’s career and his young life. He left the Raymond Beadle team to drive for his friend; an up and coming car dealer from Charlotte named Rick Hendrick. Hendrick paired Richmond with Harry Hyde, a name that has become synonymous with the sport’s heritage. This was quite a savvy move for the new car owner; who better to reign in the driver than an experienced, veteran crew chief?
One of their first meetings was a bizarre one; Richmond and Hyde went out to lunch in a borrowed IROC-Z28 Camaro from Hendrick’s dealership. In an attempt to either display his abilities behind the wheel, engender trust or scare the bejesus out of his new crew chief; Richmond abruptly yanked the emergency brake, spinning the car sideways through a median and up over the curb before heading the opposite way on the other side of the road.
In their first season together, the unlikely couple amassed a pile of wins and fans, and bore birth to a legend in the process. In a span of 10 races from Pocono to Richmond International Raceway, Richmond won six races, and finished second on two occasions, placing 15th and six in the other two events.
Perhaps the most impressive of those wins was the one that kicked off the streak; the race at Pocono in July. In one of the closest finishes in NASCAR history at the time, Richmond battled back from an accident involving Richard Petty to move from seventh to the lead in the final five laps, beating Ricky Rudd and teammate Geoff Bodine to the line in a three-wide photo finish. After winning a total of seven races that season, the new powerhouse combination of Richmond and Hendrick finished third in the standings.
If there was any one guy who absolutely loved life and loved being a racecar driver, it was Tim Richmond. He was known for living life in the fast lane as well as driving in it. He was Kid Rock, Motley Crue and Led Zeppelin rolled into one and stuffed in a firesuit. He hung out with actors and musicians, bikers and strippers. Success brought money, fame, partying, women… you name it.
After beginning a relationship with actress Mary Frann, co-star of the CBS comedy Newhart, Richmond began feeling ill. What at first was thought to be exhaustion, the flu or pneumonia turned out to be something so much worse. Richmond’s lifestyle had finally caught up with him.
In the mid 1980s, little was know about the Human Immune Deficiency Virus, better known as HIV and the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, AIDS. The public perceived that the only way a person could contract these deadly viruses was through homosexual intercourse or sharing intravenous needles with an infected individual. When Richmond was diagnosed with the disease, he kept his condition a secret.
Richmond was admitted to an Ohio clinic at the end of the 1986 season. During preparations for his return in 1987, he was so weak he couldn’t even participate fully in short test sessions. He was able to resume racing midway through the season at Pocono and held off Bill Elliott to win by a little more than a second. The win was memorable not only because of Richmond’s emaciated appearance, but for the tears that streamed down his drawn, gaunt face in victory lane. He was speechless and overcome with emotion.
He knew he was living on borrowed time.
Richmond led the field to the checkered flag again in the very next event, registering yet another road-course win at Riverside. Dedicating the race to his father, this was the last victory of Richmond’s career. He would enter six more events, each week becoming frailer until he was just a shell of his former bigger-than-life self. NASCAR finally barred him from competing following the August event at Michigan.
What happened next is one of the darker chapters in NASCAR’s history. After resigning his seat to Ken Schrader in the Hendrick Monte Carlo, Richmond attempted to compete in the 1988 Busch Clash – earning the right to race by winning the pole at Pocono in July the year earlier. NASCAR had Richmond submit to a drug test and announced shortly thereafter that he had tested positive for “banned substances.” Richmond protested loud enough to be given another test, which he passed. It was then revealed that what he tested positive for were over-the-counter cold remedies.
NASCAR rescinded his suspension, but prevented Richmond from competing until he produced his medical records. Not wanting to disclose his illness to the public, Richmond refused to do so and filed a $20 million suit against NASCAR claiming defamation of character. NASCAR demanded a thorough review of his finances and medical records. NASCAR, not only the sanctioning body but many of those involved in the sport, turned their back on him, ostracizing him from the series that embraced him just months earlier. Instead of going public with his plight, Richmond withdrew into seclusion, spending his final days with his parents in West Palm Beach, Fla.
In a final message to his fans, Richmond hired a plane to circle Daytona International Speedway during Speedweeks towing a banner that read, “Fans, I Miss You – Tim Richmond.” Last year at Watkins Glen, fans remembered his stirring victory at the track 20 years earlier with a banner that read, “Tim Richmond – We Miss You – Your Fans.”
The argument is often raised, if Dale Earnhardt had not been killed in the 2001 Daytona 500, would he have won an eighth championship? Had Ray Evernham not departed as Jeff Gordon‘s crew chief, would Jeff have won a fifth or even sixth title by now? I have always maintained that both points are moot: Had Richmond not left this world when he did, neither driver would have had the championships they ended up with. Once asked if he missed racing against Richmond, the late Earnhardt was markedly blunt with his reply: “I miss him, period. He was a friend.”
Tim Richmond – We Miss You – Your Fans.