When it came to competition during the 1986 NASCAR Winston Cup season, there was no question it was highlighted by the rise of a driver many recognized as stock car racing’s future superstar. Tim Richmond from Ashland, Ohio, aspired to compete in IndyCar racing. He ran several races in Indy cars and was the Rookie of the Race in the 1980 Indianapolis 500.
But he was also involved in many accidents, some of them very frightening. It was enough to worry his mother Evelyn — his staunchest ally — enough that she begged him to compete in another, perhaps safer, form of motorsports.
So, he chose NASCAR.
His first full season came in 1981, driving for independent owner/driver D.K. Ulrich. Richmond won his first race in 1982 with J.D. Stacy and crew chief Dale Inman and followed that with two more victories while driving for Raymond Beadle from 1983-85.
One might assume that a driver who won three races in five years might be considered little more than merely successful.
Not so with Richmond. He was a media magnet. He had already appeared on the covers of many motorsports publications. He was immensely popular with fans, especially younger ones.
There were several reasons for this. NASCAR had never seen a competitor like Richmond. He was dashingly handsome, flamboyant and blessed with a sense of humor. For him, life was a party. He wanted everyone to have a good time and he wanted to be liked. If he heard a single boo during race introductions, he worried over what he had done wrong.
With his movie-star looks (indeed, Richmond aspired to a career in Hollywood) he was afforded plenty of female attention. Let’s just say he basked in it.
“I think Tim is the guy who will carry NASCAR forward because he’s gonna be the one who is the lure for that 18-30 market it always wants,” said Kyle Petty.
Richmond joined owner Rick Hendrick and the irascible crew chief Harry Hyde for the 1986 season. Hyde became Richmond’s mentor. He taught his driver many lessons that would improve his performance.
And it paid off. Richmond was a naturally talented driver, which was good, certainly, but he had to learn the methods and nuances of racing stock cars. Hyde made certain he did.
It all came to a head in the second half of the 1986 season. Richmond plodded through the first half with little more than a pole position at Martinsville to show for it.
But things changed dramatically. Richmond won the 13th race of the year, at Pocono, and went on a tear afterward. In the final 16 races of the year, Richmond won seven times and earned six pole positions. He finished third in the final Winston Cup point standings behind champion Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip.
Richmond turned the NASCAR world on its ear. He was constantly in the headlines and swarmed by fans. By the end of 1986, his achievements had raised his status to that of superstar. And he relished all of it.
But there was a problem. As the 1986 season progressed, Richmond’s health grew worse. It was nothing serious at first — conjectured as little more than a recurring cold or flu — but even as he took antibiotics, which helped, Richmond couldn’t shake what ailed him.
There were rumors. Some said Richmond was either on drugs or drinking heavily. While Richmond did imbibe, drugs were out of the question if for no other reason than he hated needles.
It was said he had pneumonia or any one of a dozen other lung-related diseases, such as tuberculosis.
After the season, Richmond went to more than one clinic and after several tests, the cause of his illness was not identified.
However, three days after the Dec. 5 NASCAR Awards Banquet in New York ¯ which a pale and sweating Richmond suffered through — the truth was revealed. He had AIDS.
Richmond kept it quiet, primarily not to alarm his parents. He said he had double pneumonia and had been at the Cleveland Clinic to be treated.
For the 1987 season, an obviously unfit Richmond was replaced at Hendrick by Benny Parsons. Richmond swore he would return to competition. He did on June 14 at Pocono. And in Hollywood fashion, of which he surely approved, he won. Then, remarkably, he won again the following week at Michigan. But that would mark the end of his career. At the second Michigan race, a somewhat disoriented Richmond qualified 29th and finished 29th.
He then walked away from competition and the attention he craved.
His saga wasn’t over, however. Richmond tried to get his license back from NASCAR, but the sanctioning body was having none of it. Long suspicious of Richmond’s condition, NASCAR said it would do nothing until it received his records from the Cleveland Clinic. Of course, that never happened.
Eventually Richmond filed a lawsuit against NASCAR which was settled out of court. It was obvious that as time moved on, Richmond’s condition worsened.
Richmond died at 5:12 a.m. on Aug, 13, 1989. His death certificate listed the causes of death as cardiopulmonary arrest, gastrointestinal hemorrhaging and AIDS.
As much as rumors had swirled around Richmond and his illness, they intensified when it came to the cause of his AIDS. At that time, little was known about the disease. At first it was thought to be a malady among homosexual men. Later it was learned the disease could be transmitted to any one through an exchange of fluids. In Richmond’s case, it was concluded he caught the illness through heterosexual sex. Which, given his attraction to, and fondness for, women, seems only logical.
But in the end, the cause of death doesn’t really matter. What seemed to be NASCAR’s next great superstar simply flashed across the sky like a meteor. One minute he was there, and the next he wasn’t.
To this day many say that if Richmond had lived, things would have changed, as would the names of champions, those in the record book — and, perhaps, of those in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
“Drivers who dominated out sport in the 1980s and 90s would not have done so if Tim had lived,” said Petty. “I really believe that. He was amazing.
“I think he had more talent in his little finger than most of us ever had. Not to mention the outsized personality he had.”
About the author
Steve Waid has been in journalism since 1972, when he began his newspaper career at the Martinsville (Va.) Bulletin. He has spent over 40 years in motorsports journalism, first with the Roanoke Times-World News and later as publisher and vice president for NASCAR Scene and NASCAR Illustrated.
Steve has won numerous state sports writing awards and several more from the National Motorsports Press Association for his motorsports coverage, feature and column writing. For several years, Steve was a regular on “NASCAR This Morning” on FOX Sports Net and he is the co-author, with Tom Higgins, of the biography “Junior Johnson: Brave In Life.”
In January 2014, Steve was inducted into the NMPA Hall of Fame. And in 2019 he was presented the Squier-Hall Award by the NASCAR Hall of Fame for lifetime excellence in motorsports journalism. In addition to writing for Frontstretch, Steve is also the co-host of The Scene Vault Podcast.