Editor’s note: Senior writer Matt McLaughlin is off this week to celebrate a milestone birthday. Which one? We’ll let him tell it when he returns if he so chooses. In the meantime, please enjoy one of his classic columns from the past, the first of a two-part series paying tribute to Tim Richmond.
It’s been over two decades now since Tim Richmond last competed in a Winston Cup race. There’s little mention of him in NASCAR’s official literature, and if you’re a new race fan, sadly, you may never even have heard of his name aside from ESPN‘s 30 for 30 documentary a few years back. But for those of us privileged enough to have watched Richmond drive a racecar, during that all too ephemeral time that marked the peak of his career, there is no forgetting the magic.
The tragic circumstances of a young man’s passing, and the way NASCAR officialdom dealt with it, is the subject for another article. Instead, my purpose here is not to mourn his passing, occurring 30 years ago (Aug. 13, 1989), but to celebrate his life and talent. For if there ever was a “natural” at driving a race car, it was Tim Richmond.
Lap after lap, fans watched in wonder as he hit the same mark time after time – but when it came time to get around another driver, it was like the laws of physics themselves stepped aside a few moments, content to be suspended and watch in wide-eyed wonder at what Richmond could do in a racecar, driving the line everyone else thought was impossible. And it was impossible, for everyone else.
Richmond began driving racecars at a relatively advanced age by the standards of today. He was 21-years old when a friend who owned a sprint car invited him to take some laps in the car at the Lakeville Speedway in Ohio. Tim was so ill-prepared for his debut at the wheel of a racecar, he showed up wearing cowboy boots and had to borrow a driver’s uniform and a helmet just to be able to run a few laps on what was supposed to be a lark. Instead, he hopped in the car, and within a very short period of time was turning lap times better then the car’s regular driver who had been racing for years. Again, if there ever was a natural born racecar driver, it was Tim Richmond.
More importantly that day, Richmond discovered his niche in life, the one thing that he enjoyed doing as much as his late night partying with friends. That evening, hr decided he was going to be a racecar driver, and with that goal set, he pursued it with the same tenacity and determination he did everything else he set his mind to do.
In 1977, Richmond started driving a Super modfied car he co-owned with his father at Sandusky Speedway, which bills itself as “the fastest half-mile oval in Ohio.” Success was almost immediate, and that year he won not only “Rookie of the Year” honors, but the track championship in his class as well.
Like most kids growing up in the Midwest at that point of time, Richmond’s goal was not stock car racing but IndyCar racing, and towards that end, he competed in the Mini IndyCar Series in Phoenix, Arizona – again winning the title the first time out.
From the Mini IndyCar league, Richmond moved to the USAC Sprint Car Series, and in 1979 he won the coveted “Rookie Of the Year” honors there as well. Many drivers spends years driving in the Sprint Car Series waiting for a chance to drive in IndyCar, but Richmond’s goal laid beyond the sprints, and he made his own chance happen rather then waiting. Al Richmond, Tim’s father, was certainly wealthy enough to buy his son an Indy Car, and there is a lingering mis-impression among some people that was the case, but in fact, Tim aggressively courted sponsors on his own, and got backing from a business in his hometown of Ashland, Ohio – Robert Schultz and Associates. With financing in place, Tim, with help from Roger Penske, was able to set up a deal to buy a car, and planned to make his IndyCar debut at Michigan International Speedway.
The debut did not go well – the car developed mechanical problems, but Richmond’s driving abilities raised some eyebrows. Mark Stainbrook, crew chief for a team owned by Pat Santello, asked if Richmond would be interested in driving for that team. When Tim expressed interest, an agreement was reached that if he could qualify the car at the next race, he would be given the ride. Fortunately, the test took place at the Willow Spring road course in California. Already an accomplished oval course racer, Richmond had attended a Jim Russell driving school at that same track and set thequickest lap time by any student ever. Needless to say, he got the ride with Santello’s team. Once again, the ugly rumor that his dad had bought him the seat dogged Richmond, as a disgruntled friend of the team’s former driver printed a story in the Indianapolis Star to that effect. Though the story was later retracted, it left a taint.
During the 1980 season, a difficult year as CART took over control of the IndyCar Series from USAC, Richmond made five starts in the IndyCar Series. But a difficult pattern was set; it was one where Richmond would qualify and run well, only to be sidelined by mechanical problems with his outdated equipment.
1980 was Richmond’s biggest year in the IndyCar circuit, and his proudest moments were during those weeks in May leading up to the Indianapolis 500. Though a rookie, Tim set the fastest time in practice, and was considered a favorite for a front row starting spot. Unfortunately, a crash on Pole Day eliminated that possibility. Still, Richmond was able to make the field in a backup car and compete in the Indy 500.
Throughout the event, Richmond showed skill and speed that belied his inexperience, and he actually led the race before running out of gas in the waning laps. Race winner Johnny Rutherford was kind enough to let Richmond hitch a ride to Victory Lane riding on the sidepod of the winning car. Legend has it, as Richmond hopped off, Rutherford quietly told him one day Richmond would be visiting that hallowed ground on his own. For his remarkable achievements that month, Richmond was awarded “Rookie of the Race” honors.
Among the quarter million spectators on hand that day was Dr. Joseph Mattioli, founder and president of Pocono Raceway. He had been impressed by Richmond’s style and asked if he might be interested in driving a NASCAR stock car race there that July. (Recall, Pocono also hosted IndyCar races at one time).
Richmond was the type of driver who would compete in anything on wheels, and quickly agreed. Dr. Mattioli was able to line up a Chevy owned by D.K. Ulrich for Richmond to drive. While he qualified a disappointing 23rd, Richmond was able to finish 12th in his very first Winston Cup race.
Despite the venture starting out as a lark, Richmond fell in love with racing stock cars. He would later describe the difference between IndyCar and stock cars as being that you “drove” an Indy Car, but “raced” a stock car…and Tim Richmond had a racer’s heart.
He would compete in four more Winston Cup races that year: Dover, Martinsville, Charlotte and Atlanta. Mechanical problems relegated him to disappointing finishes at Dover and Atlanta, but managed to finish 12th at both Charlotte and Martinsville (in his very first Winston Cup short track run).
Richmond was never forced to decide between NASCAR and CART. A series of wrecks and financial problems with the team he was with ended his open wheel driving days, and in 1981, Richmond began driving the Winston Cup circuit full time. His arrival made quite a splash in the normally staid world of NASCAR. While most drivers of the era had “Opie Taylor” style haircuts, Richmond wore his hair shoulder length and admitted to using a hair stylist rather than a barber. His Ohio accent also sounded a bit different then the good ol’ boys. Also, Richmond arrived upon a Harley Davidson, not in a car, in an era long before Milwaukee’s Finest was near standard issue for every Cup driver. Richmond had a sort of confidence some mistook for arrogance, and more then a few guys in the garage area weren’t very impressed with him. Of course, more then a few women were.
That was the first year of the “downsized car,” and even a lot of the top teams were struggling to figure those cars out. It was as true then, as it is today, Winston Cup racing is the most competitive series on earth, and Richmond struggled a bit driving the D.K. Ulrich Buick Regal the early part of that season, including a disappointing 30th in the Daytona 500. His first Winston Cup top 10 came at Bristol on March 29, 1981, when Richmond finished 10th. The best finish Richmond had with D.K. Ulrich, and in fact, that season was a sixth at Talladega in May.
After a disappointing result at Riverside in June, on a road course where Richmond had been expected to run well (he crashed out on lap 12), Richmond and Ulrich parted ways. He signed on with Kennie Childers to drive his Oldsmobile after the separation. The best finishes Richmond earned while with Childers was a ninth at Pocono and an eighth at Bristol. Once again, things went downhill, and in September, Richmond moved over to Bob Rogers’ team, debuting at Dover and finishing ninth, his last top 10 of the season. In 29 starts during the 1981 season, Richmond had six top-10 finishes and wound up 16th in points.
Tim Richmond found himself without a Winston Cup ride for the 1982 season. He did not make his first start that year until Rockingham in March, driving the Fast Company Limited Ford to a dismal 31st-place finish after losing an engine. But his fortunes were about to change… both for the better and the worse.
Richmond was finally able to land a well-funded ride after Rockingham, which was the good news. The bad news was that he would be driving for mercurial millionaire and con artist JD Stacy. Stacy’s financial house of cards was the object of considerable conjecture, but he did indeed pour a lot of money into his team when the mood and means suited him. Joe Ruttman had a falling out with Stacy, and Richmond was given the seat as primary driver for one of two teams Stacy owned. (He also sponsored five others).
In their very first race together, Richmond managed to finish a career-best fifth at Darlington. After a couple of races for the team to gel together, Richmond and the Stacy team began putting together a solid string of top-10 finishes. At Pocono that year, Richmond showed the sort of driver he really was and engaged in a dog fight for top honors with Bobby Allison. Richmond might have won that race, as Allison had run out of fuel trying to stretch his gas mileage under a caution flag thrown for rain, fearing if he pitted, the race would end under caution. Dave Marcis was kind enough to push Allison back to the pits, and in fact, Allison did go on to win by 3.1 seconds over Richmond. (As a side note, Marcis also carried sponsorship from JD Stacy and lost the sponsorship for helping Allison out).
But even that second-place finish had put the other drivers on notice that Richmond was a contender and would win a race soon. Very soon, as it turned out.
The next event was the Budweiser 400 at Riverside, a road course. Terry Labonte had the dominant car after several early favorites fell out with mechanical problems. Richmond remained running with the front pack, and on lap 89 of the 95-lap event, he used his considerable road racing skills to outbrake Labonte and take the lead. From there, it was smooth sailing to Richmond’s first Winston Cup win.
The second half of that season had its share of highs and lows with Richmond getting involved in several crashes not always of his making, mechanical problems, and continuing uncertainty about the status of Stacy’s finances. Richmond did manage a strong second-place finish at Richmond in the fall, again tailing Allison to the checkers, and a fourth at Atlanta in the penultimate race of that season. The 1982 season ended at Riverside. By that point, he had already decided to split with Stacy after the race, citing the team’s uncertain financial future.
Richmond had landed a ride with Raymond Beadle’s new Blue Max team, which was buying out the equipment of M.C. Anderson, who had announced he was quitting racing all together, because his driver, Cale Yarborough, wanted to remain running a partial schedule rather then contend for the Winston Cup. Richmond did leave the Stacy team in style, scoring the second win of his career in a race he flat out dominated. In 26 starts that year, Richmond had the two wins at Riverside, five more top fives, and 12 top 10s overall.
Those statistics were remarkably similar to a driver who had befriended Richmond and taken him under his wing, introducing him around – Dale Earnhardt. Earnhardt had only one win, but like Richmond, he had seven top fives and 12 top 10s – but because he ran the entire schedule, Earnhardt finished 12th in the points while Richmond settled for 26th.
Richmond and Blue Max racing team, running the Old Milwaukee Beer colors, got off to an uneven start in 1983. The team endured more then its fair share of mechanical difficulties and poor finishes, but when the car was running at the end of the race, Richmond was usually in the top 10. Their first strong run of the year came at Martinsville, where Richmond was in contention to win until a pit miscue by crew chief Tim Brewer had the soft compound left side tires put on the right side of the car. NASCAR officials noted the violation and accessed Richmond a five-lap penalty.
A fourth place at Pocono in June and a third at the next race in Michigan seemed to indicate the team was turning the corner. Richmond’s breakthrough oval course win came at his favorite track: Pocono in July. A combination of incredible driving and brilliant pit strategy allowed Richmond to take the lead when then leader Marcis had to pit for a splash-and-go with seven laps remaining. Richmond then held off a last ditch charge by Darrell Waltrip by two seconds to take the win. The victory was a confidence booster for the rookie team and began a long string of top 10, and even top five finishes, whenever the car made it to the end of the race.
At Rockingham in October, fans got a good look at the magic that was Richmond’s style, as he engaged in an epic side-by-side duel with Labonte in the waning laps of the race. Lap after lap, the two ran together with Richmond trying moves on both the high and low side of the track, including several times when he gathered the car up as it got out of shape up in the marbles, where all others feared to tread. Labonte won that race by .7 seconds, but it was one of the best races of that, or any other season.
Back at Riverside, a track that Richmond had mastered, he led the race several times before he and Waltrip made hard contact, and both cars wound up spinning off the track. Richmond recovered well enough to bring the car home fifth. For the season, Richmond had one win, 10 top fives, and 15 top 10s, which earned him a 10th-place finish in the championship standings and a new contract to drive for Blue Max again in 1984.
1984 did not start out well for Richmond and the Blue Max team. Once again, he finished well when the car was still running, but the team had a string of engine-related failures that relegated Richmond to disappointing finishes. A hard crash with Rusty Wallace only increased Richmond’s frustrations.
North Wilkesboro in the spring didn’t look like it was going to be Richmond’s day, either. In fact, the event looked like a benefit put on for Ricky Rudd for much of the race. Richmond patiently paced himself, knowing the team needed a good finish to boost morale, until in the closing laps of the event Rudd started showing signs he was struggling. Once that opportunity presented himself, Richmond threw caution to the wind, and in an awesome display of driving, ran down and passed Rudd.
A great pit stop helped Richmond maintain the lead, and he went on to beat Harry Gant by a tick under four seconds. It was Richmond’s first short track win. After that, the mechanical gremlins began rearing their heads again and the season of frustration continued.
Even in that disappointing season, there were some strong runs. At Dover, Richmond ran in the lead pack all day and finished second to the King of Stock car racing, Richard Petty. It seemed appropriate, as many people felt Richmond had the talent to one day inherit the King’s throne. Richmond was also in serious contention for the win in the June race at Riverside, battling once again with Labonte in the closing laps until the two cars made contact. Labonte was able to continue, but Richmond was forced to the pits for repairs and wound up sixth in the final rundown.
A second at the Southern 500, on a day where he had little chance of catching eventual winner Gant, was the only other highlight of the disappointing year as the series reached Riverside for the season finale. Though Richmond never led that race, he was in contention for most of the way and wound up second to Geoff Bodine. For the year, Richmond wound up with the single win, five other top fives, and a total of 11 top 10s, good enough to earn him 12th in the points standings. For a lot of drivers, that might have been good enough, but Richmond was thoroughly dispirited after what he felt was a lackluster season. Better times were coming – but they were still always down the road.