Editor’s Note: Wednesday, August 13th marked the 19-year anniversary of a tragic death of one of NASCAR’s greatest drivers – and most controversial figures. Matt McLaughlin takes a look at Tim Richmond‘s long and storied career in a special two-part story for Frontstretch this week. Read part one here.
Tim Richmond was back with the Blue Max team for 1985, though there had been some friction within the team. A lot of people in the know were saying Tim was a better driver than the equipment he had allowed him to show, while others were beginning to question his commitment and asking if his hard-charging lifestyle off the track was detracting from his ability to drive the car. Still the 1985 season began with high hopes, though almost from the drop of the first green flag those hopes were dashed. No one had anything for Bill Elliott that year at the Daytona 500, and Tim crashed out of the event early, winding up 35th. It was just that sort of year. The cars were usually not competitive and Tim either crashed or blew them up trying to wrestle his way to the front. He had only three lead-lap finishes to his credit going into the 18th race of that season at Bristol.
That race seemed to belong to Dale Earnhardt, but for once that year the engine held together and Tim was able to keep out of the numerous wrecks that marred the event. A pit miscue on Earnhardt’s team’s part dropped Dale to second, and Richmond was in the lead with 54 laps to go. Off the track Dale and Tim were good friends and spent a lot of time together, but on the track they were often fierce competitors. Dale looked for a way around Tim for a while and when he couldn’t find one he used the simple approach, he just laid a bumper into the rear of Richmond’s car and pushed him out of the way. Tim held on to finish second, and had no harsh words for his friend after the event. He simply shrugged and told reporters that was how short-track racing got done, and Earnhardt was the master of it.
Ironically the same pair of drivers were involved in the next race Richmond had a shot at winning, at Martinsville. That day Tim turned the tables and had the dominant car all day. Dale finally managed to reel Tim in and once again the two put on a fierce battle racing fender to fender and occasionally fender into fender as they worked their way around the traffic-packed bullring. The crowd was loving it, but while Earnhardt may love close-quarter racing, he liked winning better, and once again he finally resorted to using a front bumper to shove Tim out of the way. Tim showed Earnhardt he didn’t like being pushed around and as Dale tried to pass him Tim cut the wheel hard left and gave him a solid shot. The pair seemed ready to bang and crash their way right to the finish or the garage area whichever came first, but a spin ahead of the paint-swapping duo forced Tim to get out of the gas and allowed Earnhardt to scoot off into the sunset. To add insult to injury, a stripped wheel stud on the final stop dropped Tim back to seventh place. After the race he was not quite as philosophical or diplomatic as he was after Bristol, telling reporters, “As far as I’m concerned we ain’t even. I still owe him one.” That was moments after he got out of the car. Later that evening Tim and Dale were spotted chatting and laughing, their friendship intact.
As the year had begun with frustration, it ended with more of the same. At Riverside, a track Richmond was always considered a favorite at, Tim crashed out on the 46th lap and wound up 37th. For the year he had no wins, only three top fives and 13 top 10s, earning Richmond 11th place in the Winston Cup rundown. But despite all the disappointments, Tim had caught the eye of a team owner who has proven over and over again since that he had an eye for diamonds in the rough. Rick Hendrick saw Tim’s abundant talent, and guessed correctly that given competitive cars that were around at the end of a race and a little coaching, Richmond could be a superstar.
Richmond was assigned driving duties for the No. 25 car out of Hendrick’s stables carrying Proctor and Gamble’s Folgers coffee sponsorship. (Supposedly he overslept the day of the big announcement, showed up looking spent from partying all night, and turned the disaster into a public relations coup by telling the assembled press that if a couple cups of Folgers could get him going at that hour in the morning it could do the same for anyone.) His crew chief would be a NASCAR legend, the late Harry Hyde, who had an incredible talent himself, for bringing out the best in new drivers trying to work their way to the top tier of the sport. It seemed at least on paper NASCAR’s version of the Odd Couple. Hyde was a grizzled veteran born of the old school of stock car racing and its Southeastern roots. Tim was the brash newcomer, the future of the sport and from a wealthy family out of Ohio. But the two men shared one trait in common; a deep and abiding respect for the other’s doubtless talent. There were no overnight miracles.
It took a while for the patience and strategy Hyde was preaching to reach Tim, whose style was more to charge to the front at the drop of the flag and battle with all comers. Through the first 10 events of the year, Tim managed only one top-five finish at Darlington, where he came home fifth after leading the race briefly. The pundits were beginning to question Hendrick’s wisdom not only in hiring Tim, but in running a two-car team, which most people saw as a distinct disadvantage in those days. The fact Richmond’s teammate Geoff Bodine was having a good season, including winning the Daytona 500 and the spring Dover race, seemed evidence the two-car concept could indeed work, but it called into doubt Tim’s abilities as he was driving the same equipment to lackluster finishes. Throughout the disappointment of the early-season travails, Tim and Harry both went on record as having 100% confidence in the other’s ability. As it turns out the duo was about to silence their critics in dramatic fashion.
It started at that years World 600. Late in the event it seemed Elliott had taken control of the race, but brilliant pit strategy on Hyde’s part kept Tim out on the track when Elliott had to dive into the pits for a splash and go. Earnhardt’s crew had made a similar call, and Tim’s old Lake Norman neighbor took the victory, while Tim had to settle for second, two seconds off the pace. At the next race at Riverside Tim and Harry were out to prove the second place in Charlotte had been no fluke and did so in convincing fashion. Tim led much of that event, and was poised to take his first win of the year when Terry Labonte crashed heavily with two laps to go. Both Richmond and second-place Darrell Waltrip knew it was a race back to the line as the event would end under caution. They put on one of the best duels in the history of NASCAR road racing, running side by side rubbing fenders like they were at Martinsville. During the race to the caution, Tim got caught behind slower traffic, allowing Waltrip to open an advantage. Richmond came charging back, giving it his all, but fell inches short at the start-finish line as the yellow and white flags flew simultaneously. Though he wound up second again, Richmond had put everyone on notice he and Hyde were finally hitting on all eight cylinders and he meant to be a contender.
The Winston Cup circuit’s next stop was at Pocono, a track Richmond always said was his favorite because it was so tough to drive. The day was dark and stormy and the red flag had to be thrown for a severe thunderstorm at the midpoint of the race. When the racing resumed Tim stormed his way to the front, thundering his way around the damp track at lightning speed. Making the event that much more memorable for him was the chance to duel with his buddy and Winston Cup points leader Earnhardt for the win. A heavy wreck with four laps to go bought out another race to the yellow flag, but that weekend Tim managed to hang on for the victory. Notice had been served. What was to follow was one of the most incredible streaks in the history of Winston Cup racing.
The Richmond Express got a little off track at Michigan, with Tim coming home a disappointing 15th after having started on the pole. But the engine was back on track at the Firecracker 400. Buddy Baker was leading late in the race, but Tim had put himself in position to win and was charging right along in Baker’s wake. A lapped car ahead spun and Baker hit the wall trying to avoid it, while Tim in a nifty piece of driving managed to dive low and avoid the wreck without lifting. He held off the determined charge of Sterling Marlin at the end to take his second win in three events. The smile on Richmond’s face in the hallowed ground of Daytona’s Victory Lane probably had something to do with the fact the next stop was an encore at Pocono. The weather was a bit more cooperative the second time around at Long Pond, but Tim was still driving up a storm. Rick Hendrick had to be putting his hands over his eyes as his two drivers, Richmond and Bodine, fought tooth and nail for the victory and made heavy contact more than once. Bodine had the advantage with one to go, but Tim muscled by him down Pocono’s long backstretch. His cause was greatly aided when Bodine got involved in a battle over second with a hard charging Ricky Rudd. Rudd was able to bypass Bodine, and was along side Tim when the checkers flew, but was .05 seconds to the wrong of grabbing the trophy.
Richmond led at the next race at Talladega but that in itself was no great accomplishment. 26 drivers in the field of 40 took a turn at the front that day. the difference was in the waning laps Tim was still right up there battling for the win, while many of the others had fallen by the wayside. A multi-car last-lap accident scrambled up the running order, but the final rundown had Tim finishing second, a couple car lengths behind surprise winner Bobby Hillin Jr. The Winston Cup circuit made their first return to Watkins Glen since 1965 the next weekend and road-race impresario Richmond was among the heavy favorites for the return trip. He took pole position that weekend, while many other drivers seemed to be struggling to find their way around the torturous course. As it had been at Riverside, Tim and Darrell were the front runners and put on another epic battle for the fans. With 12 laps to go Tim used a whole lot of guts and very little brakes going into a tight corner to muscle his way past Waltrip. DW tried gamely to repass Tim, but Richmond was running like he was on rails and streaked on to victory.
Just as the road courses favored Tim, Michigan seemed a private playground constructed for Elliott, who had won three consecutive times at the track going into that event. It seemed Tim’s hot summer streak was doomed when he was caught in the pits when a caution flag flew and wound up a lap down as the rest of the field pitted under the yellow. Hyde calmly coached his driver to keep digging but drive smart.
A caution with 16 laps to go allowed Tim to make up his lap, but he was still in 14th in the running order. Hyde must have told Tim it was time to go, because he began passing the rest of the field liked they’d stopped to admire his driving prowess. The effort came up one position short as Elliott edged out Richmond for his fourth win in a row at Michigan. All streaks have to end, and Tim’s return to earth came at Bristol. He did manage to win the pole, and led early but an ill-handling car running hot dropped him to sixth at the conclusion of the race, two laps off the pace. It was only the second time in 10 events that Tim had not won or been runner up. And he wasn’t quite done with his miraculous charge up the points standings either.
The Southern 500 is arguably the toughest race in the circuit, and there could be no argument that Tim was definitely the hottest driver at that point of the season. Tim claimed a white jacket on pole day setting the pace for the field. The Labor Day classic was marred by rainy weather that caused a long red-flag delay, and there was a lot of question as to whether darkness would cause NASCAR to have to flag the event early. During the rain delay, Tim fell asleep in the garage area. Late in the race Elliott seemed to have the advantage, but Tim was making his trademark charge to keep Bill honest. With six laps to go, Elliott’s Thunderbird got away from him on the rain-slick track and he sideswiped the wall. The miscue allowed Richmond to take the lead, and he held off Bobby Allison by two seconds at the checkers. Years later Harry Hyde would recall that that Southern 500 weekend was the first time he noticed his young protege looked little under the weather. It was thought the pressure of keeping the streak alive, sponsor commitments and Tim’s late-night partying, combined with a summer cold had taxed him to the limit, and Harry suggested Tim might want to try to take it easy a while.
Tim certainly didn’t take his mentor’s advice at Richmond. Perhaps it’s fitting Richmond finally won at the track that shared his name (and launched the media scribes into an unforgivable series of bad puns I will not repeat), but once again he did it the hard way, going a lap down early in the going and, aided by Hyde’s seasoned coaching on the radio, scrapping his way back to the front. Sometimes you’re lucky to be good, and sometimes it’s good to be lucky. Tim relied on the latter that day. On a restart after a caution flag for an oil down, the two dominant cars of the later parts of the event, Rudd and Rusty Wallace, got swept up in a wreck when they hit a slick portion of the track. Their travails allowed Tim to assume the lead, and he held on to beat a hard-charging Earnhardt by a couple car lengths. The victory left Tim, who had once been hopelessly down in the points battle, in second position, within striking distance of Earnhardt.
September brings the fall, and that year it marked the fall of Tim Richmond from title contention and the end of his unbelievable streak of that summer. Whether it was his failing health, the team turning the wick up a little too high trying to make a run at Dale and the No. 3 bunch or the inevitable bad luck that must play a part of every driver’s season, the fall race at Dover began a streak of five consecutive races marred by mechanical problems for Tim and the team, that saw him post only one top 10 and a disastrous 27th at Charlotte when he lost an engine. Thus ended Tim’s hopes for that year’s title. At Atlanta in the fall he regained some of his form, leading the event twice before slipping to fourth in the final rundown on a day when his buddy Earnhardt clinched the title with an impressive win. The final race of the year was at one of Tim’s favorite stomping grounds, Riverside, and he ended the year on a high note. After taking the pole, Tim led early and stayed in contention all day before reassuming the lead with 12 to go and holding off the best efforts of teammate Bodine and Earnhardt. Tim finished the year with seven wins, more than any other driver, 13 total top fives and 17 top 10s in 29 events.
While his trouble getting things rolling in the early stages of the season had buried him in the points hunt, he had managed to finish out the year in third place, a mere six points behind Waltrip, who finished second to Dale. Based on the late-season charge it would have been hard to find anyone who would bet against the Tim Richmond/Harry Hyde duo to take the championship in 1987. The loud creaking sound in California that day was people jumping on the Tim Richmond bandwagon. But as there had been on the stormy days of so many of his wins, there were dark clouds on the horizon for Tim at the end of the season. Though he put on an impressive run at Riverside, it was obvious Tim was not well.
He had been scheduled to meet with a group of Hollywood types (legend has it, as a part of the upcoming production of Days of Thunder, a movie loosely based on his life, and perhaps even to take a screen test that might have seen him win the starring role later given to Tom Cruise) but Tim canceled the meetings and flew home to try to rest his bones and recuperate. Shortly after the awards banquet in New York, Richmond was admitted to the hospital with what was diagnosed as pneumonia. His health problems were severe enough that Richmond had to contact Rick Hendrick to let him know he would be unable to drive the early part of the 1987 season, a decision that must have crushed Tim. According to friends, Tim was clearly shaken he wasn’t getting better, and somewhere during that long lay off he learned the terrible truth. Tim had contracted HIV and was a dying man, though no one could say how much time he had.
Tim’s first return to the seat of a racecar came at the Winston in Charlotte in May of 1987. Since it was a shorter event than the points-paying race, it gave him a chance to see if he was strong enough to return to racing. He managed to go the distance and finish third, helping to clear his way to a return to racing on the Cup tour.
Tim’s return to racing came at Pocono that June, and the outcome read like a Hollywood script, a far better one than Days of Thunder at that. While clearly not well, once he was strapped into that racecar and the engine was fired, the old Tim Richmond was back. After remaining in contention all day during an event many supposed would have him call for a relief driver, Tim asserted himself for the last quarter of the race, streaking into the lead and holding off Elliott by a second to take the checkers. Tim admitted to reporters he never even saw the checkers with all the tears in his eyes. In victory lane the normally verbose Richmond was reduced to speechlessness for one of the few times on his life, as he celebrated the emotional victory with Hyde and the crew. But even with the tears falling he stood there a bit longer than most drivers, waving to the crowd and acknowledging their enthusiastic cheering. Little did any of us in the stands know what Tim knew. He was a dying man.
Every great Hollywood script deserves a sequel and Tim authored another emotional chapter in his comeback at the next race at Riverside. Once again Harry Hyde coached Tim to be patient, and then set him loose late in the race. With 10 to go Tim took the lead for good and fought off Rudd’s challenge to take the checkers. Tim dedicated the Father’s Day victory to his dad, Al Richmond, and once again the crowd celebrated the highly emotional win with a fan favorite. Sadly it was to be Tim Richmond’s last trip to victory lane. But for those of whose watched that race, it is not what has happened since, but the way he drove, that is why we remember.
AFTERMATH: Tim’s health deteriorated from that point onward, and eventually he was forced to once again retire. A rising superstar who had thrived in the limelight withered away in the shade of obscurity, before passing away August 13th, 1989. There was the ugly incident when Tim tried to stage yet another comeback at the Busch Clash in 1988, driving a Marvin Ragan-owned Ford. Fingers can be pointed, accusations made and excuses offered as to the botched drug test, and why Tim Richmond’s memory has been largely ignored since his tragic passing. I don’t suppose it really matters, because it can not change the fact Tim is no longer with us. If there has ever been a case of a candle burning at both ends, it is the life story of Tim Richmond, and the light was gone far too soon. But for those of us privileged enough to have reveled in and wondered at it, the memory is an eternal flame. After NASCAR banned him from competing at the Clash, Tim was ready to hire an airplane to drag a banner with a pointed and succinctly worded banner aimed at NASCAR officialdom over the Daytona International Speedway during the 500. Long time friend Linda Vaughn talked him out of it, and instead Tim selected a banner that read, “Fans, I Miss You, Tim Richmond.”
Tim, we miss you too.