NASCAR Race Weekend Central

That’s History Profile: Tim Richmond

Date of Birth: June 7, 1955
Hometown: Ashland, Ohio
Died: August 13, 1989
Starts: 185
Wins: 13
Top Fives: 42
Top 10s: 78
Poles: 14
Winnings: $2,310,693

The story of Tim Richmond as a racecar driver and personality is best suited for the big screen. It is so full of triumph, betrayal and tragedy as to capture the interest of not only avid followers of stock car racing, but those that have never followed the sport. In fact, it led to a Tim Richmond-inspired movie titled Days of Thunder – though there were some parallels between Richmond and the movie’s lead character, Cole Trickle, played by actor Tom Cruise, the writers elected to follow a largely fictitious story line. The real Tim Richmond story is one that has yet to be made, and if it is, will be so much more captivating than the 1990 Hollywood blockbuster.

To racing fans, Richmond’s emergence onto the NASCAR scene in 1981 required many to readjust their images of the typical stock car driver. Richmond did not fall into the familiar stereotypical gritty, rags-to-riches rural Southern driver that dominated the Winston Cup scene of that era. Far from it, Richmond grew up a child of privilege in a wealthy Ohio family. He did not grow up fixing up jalopies or racing along the dirt roads of the Southeast honing his driving skills and dreaming of one day following in the footsteps of boyhood heroes such as Tim Flock, Junior Johnson or Fireball Roberts. In fact, Richmond did not even become interested in auto racing until he was 21 years old, when he took a “joy ride” in a friend’s sprint car and became hooked on the adrenaline rush. Driving a racecar provided the dare-seeking Richmond with the thrill that he had sought in other risk-taking sports such as motorcycles, speedboats and airplanes.

By 1978, the dapper-dressing driver had won the USAC Sprint Car Rookie of the Year and had become committed to being a professional racecar driver. Two years later, his open-wheel racing career culminated in a ninth-place finish in the 1980 Indianapolis 500. Though he ran out of gas in the event, he still earned Indy 500 Rookie of the Year honors. During the 500, Richmond caught the eye of Dr. Joseph Mattioli, founder and former President of Pocono Raceway, who invited the fast-living open-wheeler to race at his Pennsylvania track against America’s best stock car drivers. Tim accepted the invitation and finished 12th that July to mark his NASCAR debut in a DK Ulrich Chevrolet. Richmond would go on to win four Winston Cup races at Pocono, including three in a row between 1986 and 1987.

The following year saw the now stock car-struck Richmond finishing 16th in Winston Cup points as he split time between three different teams. After beginning the 1982 season without a ride, he eventually signed with JD Stacey and scored his first win at Riverside and then again won at the now-defunct California facility to end the season with two wins, seven top fives and 12 top 10s in 26 races. The NASCAR community was taking notice of the free-spirited newcomer.

Richmond relished in the attention that his driving prowess had provided. Soon stories appeared depicting him as a very different person than the NASCAR fan base of the ’80s had seen before. Richmond hobnobbed with actors and actresses and was seen out-and-about late at night with a striking woman – or two – arm and arm. He was a new breed of NASCAR driver, and fans quickly drew sides as to whether they liked this new guy or not.

Former Atlanta Speedway executive vice-president Ed Clark perhaps described the feelings of fans at the time towards Richmond best; “The WRFX rock-n-roll crowd loved him. Girls loved him. Cool guys loved him. I don’t know if the blue-collar guy that worked at Cannon Mills, if that guy ever fell in love with him, but that guy’s girlfriend did.”

1983 through 1985, Richmond, by now known for his hard-driving and hard living, drove a Pontiac for Raymond Beadles’s Blue Max team and captured two more wins, along with 19 top-five and 39 top-10 finishes. 1983 also saw Richmond finish 10th in driver points for the first time. Richmond’s talents behind the wheel caught the eye of team owner Rick Hendrick, who signed him for the 1986 season.

And what a season it turned out to be for the now 29-year old Richmond! Driving the No. 25 Folgers Coffee Chevrolet, he won seven times that year and collected 13 top fives and 17 top 10s, as well. Except for a string of mechanical failures in the latter part of the season, Richmond could have won the Winston Cup championship. Dale Earnhardt won that year’s championship, with Richmond finishing third, a mere six points behind Darrell Waltrip. Already, the on-track battles for position between Earnhardt and Richmond were becoming legendary, and it was assumed that there would be plenty more side-by-side battles between the two as the years went on.

But there were to be no more years of racing. During the winter of 1986, Richmond was diagnosed with HIV and became so sick that he was not able to run a full race again until June of 1987, at Pocono, the very track where his NASCAR career started. He won that race in emotional fashion, crossing the finish line in tears and unable to speak in victory lane. And then he won again the following week, in what was to be his last Cup win, ironically at the same track where he had recorded his first win, Riverside. By August of that year NASCAR, not knowing the nature of Richmond’s illness, a sickness that was sapping his health, concluded that he “was in no shape to drive a car.” He then resigned from Hendrick Motorsports.

Richmond chose to keep his medical information private. His absence during the first part of 1987 was explained away as being due to a battle with double pneumonia. Following his return that year, it was clear to most that something was wrong with the flamboyant driver. His energy level was low; he had lost weight and at times needed assistance exiting his racecar. Rumor spread throughout the garage area and grandstands that Richmond had a drug problem. In February of 1988 at Daytona, Richmond was hoping to race in the then-Busch Clash. NASCAR required Tim to submit to a drug test under its newly designed drug policy, a policy that many to this day believe was instituted to remove Richmond from the sport.

The somewhat stronger driver had anticipated that he might be asked to prove that he was not taking drugs and quit taking his HIV treatments in advance to assure that they would not be detected. However, NASCAR announced that he had failed the drug test and he was suspended. Five days later, the sanctioning body announced that Tim’s first test showed nothing but over-the-counter cold medicines, and a second test, insisted on by Richmond, was clean. However, NASCAR would not allow him to race again unless they were given his complete medical file. A lawsuit for $20 million was brought against NASCAR, but later dropped.

Disappointed in not being allowed to race at the Busch Clash, Richmond hired a plane to fly a banner over Daytona International Speedway that read, “Fans – I miss you – Tim Richmond.” Those close to him said that Richmond contemplated much nastier messages, but in the end decided on the more sensitive message to his race fans – a message that will always be remembered by those in attendance that winter day in Florida.

Sadly, Richmond, who wished to protect his privacy in not divulging the nature of his illness during a time when little was known about AIDS and wrong conclusions were routinely reached by the largely uninformed public, never did race again. But even before he hoped to return at Daytona, many in the garage had pulled away from Richmond, and he was by-and-large treated as an outcast by other competitors.

Present-day Sprint Cup driver Kyle Petty, reflecting on the lack of support Richmond received said, “It all boils down to AIDS. I don’t care what anybody tells you. Nobody knows how to handle AIDS – especially in a sport as backward-thinking on so many things as this sport is.”

Tim Richmond passed away in August of 1989 in West Palm Beach, Fla., at 34-years of age. His mother and father stayed near his side until the very end. Few from the NASCAR community contacted or visited with him during his last remaining months.

Voted one of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers, Tim Richmond was an original and his tragic and sad death was without a question an immeasurable loss to NASCAR and its fans.

One day his movie should be made. Maybe they are just waiting until they find a movie star with the charm and charisma to play his part.

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