Commentary

Tim Richmond took it to the limit

Updated: October 19, 2010, 12:44 AM ET
By Ryan McGee | ESPN The Magazine

Four race fans sat around a Coleman stove in the infield of the Charlotte Motor Speedway late Thursday night. It was getting cold but no one seemed to care.

"If you write about this, you gotta promise not to call us old," said a man who called himself Duke. Or maybe it was Dude. It was too loud to be sure as NASCAR Sprint Cup cars hammered by. He stirred a pot of beans with his right hand and stroked his white beard with his left, then pointed into the high banks of Turn 3, which towered up ahead.

[+] EnlargeTim Richmond
Racing Photo Archives/Getty ImagesNo one knows for sure when Tim Richmond contracted HIV. He died Aug. 13, 1989, at age 34.

"Let me tell you about Tim Richmond," he said, shifting his point to the dark red and gold Folgers Coffee Racing sticker in the back window of his school bus-turned-RV, the very decal that had caused me to throw my truck into park and join their circle when I was supposed to be driving out of the track for the night. "I watched that S.O.B. give Dale Earnhardt all he wanted right there in that turn. And he did it lap after lap after lap."

This is not the first time I have heard this story. It was a Busch (now Nationwide) Series event in the mid-1980s when the pair battled hammer and tong for 10 laps or more until Richmond's much more underfunded ride finally crumbled under the strain. It was reportedly after that clash that The Intimidator issued his famous decree to Richmond's team: "That man can drive."

"Just imagine if Tim Richmond had lived," Duke or Dude said, to harrumphs of agreement from his buds. "Earnhardt wouldn't have seven championships, I can promise you that. And Jeff Gordon might not have four."

Then he shook his head in disgust.

"But the five of us sitting here right now are about the only people in this infield tonight who know that," he said. "People today don't even know that Tim Richmond existed."

I tell him that he's not the only one who feels that way, that Richmond's family has felt that way for years. I also tell him that I think that's about to change.

To the limit

On Tuesday night, the world will be reintroduced to Richmond through the latest installment of ESPN's "30 for 30" documentary series. "Tim Richmond: To The Limit" airs at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN, produced by NASCAR Media Group and directed by Rory Karpf, who codirected the critically acclaimed 2007 film "Dale," the only authorized biography of Dale Earnhardt. (Full disclosure: I wrote the script for "Dale.")

The first frames of the film are striking. Richmond peers down onto the Charlotte Motor Speedway from the condominiums above Turn 1. It is Oct. 10, 1987, the same annual autumn Charlotte race weekend that just finished up, nearly a quarter century ago.

Richmond was in the midst of his second health-forced hiatus of the '87 season. In 1986 he'd achieved superstardom, winning seven races and eight pole positions. He finished third in the Winston Cup point standings and shared Driver of the Year honors with Earnhardt.

But the 32-year-old missed the first 11 races of '87 with what he described as Asian flu. His summertime comeback was straight out of a movie script, winning his first two races. But the champagne-stained images of those Victory Lane celebrations soon faded into ceaseless coughing fits, five consecutive double-digit finishes and a second self-imposed removal from the cockpit.

That's the Tim Richmond we see flicker to life in the opening moments of "To The Limit," the perfect all-at-once portrait of the man who we watch rise and fall over the next hour. On the surface, he seems jovial, hopeful and powered by the magnetism that so many found so irresistible. Then suddenly, he sounds wistful and lost. He opens the condo's main window to let in the sounds of the racing below and declares: "This is what I used to do here ... and I will do it again ... I miss it ..."

What we know now, looking back, is that he never raced again. What we realize now, as we see him speak the words, is that he likely already knew that he would never race again.

He had AIDS, and he was dying. Less than two years later, he was gone.

'To succeed at the fun department'

Tim Richmond was the stock car racer who never fit in. He was an admitted well-to-do wild man from Ashland, Ohio, with long hair, a Tom Selleck mustache and one eye pointed toward becoming a movie star. He learned how to race and how to party with the Indianapolis open-wheel set, then America's big leagues of motorsports. He made two Indianapolis 500 starts and won the 1980 Indy 500 Rookie of the Year award.

After a big crash and pleas from his mother to do something safer, he migrated south to NASCAR. From 1980 through 1985, he earned his way up the stock-car ladder, doing hard time in bad rides and taking his lumps from the establishment in payments of sheet metal. But he swept both races on the road course at Riverside, Calif., in 1982. He won at Pocono in '83 and, of all places, the uber-old-school short track of North Wilkesboro, N.C., in '84.

[+] EnlargeRichmond/Earnhardt
Getty ImagesTim Richmond, left, had some classic duels with Dale Earnhardt, who reportedly said of his foe: "That man can drive."

By 1986 he'd earned a call from still-new team owner Rick Hendrick. Thus began the magical season that longtime race fans still talk about with their mouths hanging open. Inside the garage, they were just as flabbergasted by what he did off the track.

"I'm trying to prove that I was put on this earth to have fun," he says in the film. "To succeed at the fun department."

There was the houseboat in Fort Lauderdale. There was the hydraulically powered RV, which raised a penthouse bedroom high above the mobile bar and dance floor below. There were the models, the actresses and beauty queens, and the trips to Hollywood to schmooze entertainment execs and hit the Sunset Strip. He once booked the Hendrick Motorsports jet for a last-minute trip to Manhattan for what he said was a can't-miss business meeting. Turns out he just needed a haircut.

But there were also the door-to-door duels with Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison. There were the legendary shouting matches with crew chief Harry Hyde, a father-son relationship that served as the inspiration for the Tom Cruise-Robert Duvall roles in "Days of Thunder." Then there was the time the Charlotte Motor Speedway arranged the Hayride 500, asking race teams to borrow their 18-wheelers to deliver much-needed hay and feed to drought-stricken farmers in the Northeast. Richmond not only volunteered the wheels, he drove the truck round-trip.

"Here's how different he was," said Tom Higgins, former NASCAR beat writer for The Charlotte Observer. "He won the Cup race at Watkins Glen in 1986. The first thing he wants to do is go to the Seneca Lodge, a watering hole there in the village. Why? Because that's where the Formula One winners had gone when the track hosted the United States Grand Prix."

Those grand European gentlemen were awarded with wreaths when they won the USGP and it became customary for them to celebrate at the Seneca and nail their wreath over the bar. NASCAR winners weren't given wreaths. So Richmond pulled a race tire off the trailer, took it down the road and nailed it to the wall.

"The good old boys personified stock car racing," former Charlotte Motor Speedway president Humpy Wheeler says in the film. "What I thought would be great would be to have someone totally different from that culture to come in and rouse the fans. Here comes a cat that looks like he's straight from 'East of Eden' and New York City, Greenwich Village. I thought, this is perfect!"

There were people who thought he was on drugs. He was not, at least not to the extent that so many insisted. There were people who thought he was gay. He was not. He was simply antiestablishment, and the old-timers despised him for it, led by Richard Petty.

He might as well have been from Mars, and so the down-to-Earthlings in the Winston Cup garage didn't want him around. However, the more Richmond won, the more they were forced to accept him. Just as he converted Earnhardt that day in Charlotte, he knew he could win the rest over one victory at a time.

And he did, but only to a point.

'I can't believe that I have this ...'

No one knows when Tim Richmond contracted HIV. Some have speculated that he'd become infected with it celebrating after the '86 season, but his family says he was clearly already sick by then. Others have suggested that he'd had it in his system for years, lying dormant before it became full-blown. It has been suggested that he was one of the earliest to become infected, dating as far back as the disease's earliest known days in the United States, as the 1970s became the '80s.

[+] EnlargeTim Richmond
Racing Photo Archives/Getty ImagesTim Richmond celebrated in Victory Lane at Daytona after winning the Firecracker 400 on July 4, 1986.

Because of his lifestyle (former Hendrick Motorsports general manager Jimmy Johnson states flatly in Peter Golenbock's 1994 book "American Zoom" that "Tim liked whores," and in the 2004 follow-up "NASCAR Confidential" Johnson quotes Richmond's mother as agreeing with him), as soon as Richmond became sick, the sometimes high school-like gossip machine of the NASCAR community immediately started whispering about AIDS. Throughout 1987 he denied it. The denials continued into Daytona Speedweeks '88, when he arrived in Daytona hoping to secure a ride in the preseason Busch Clash all-star race at Daytona.

In a startling section of "To The Limit," there are two amazing revelations. First, Richmond's friends and family admit concern that he'd wanted to enter the race in order to turn his race car into the wall and commit suicide, ending what was sure to be prolonged misery and embarrassment. Second, now-deceased NASCAR chairman Bill France Jr., in a 2006 interview, addresses the failed drug test that the sanctioning body used to keep Richmond out of the '88 season, stating simply, "the test we did was not a good test ... the test got messed up."

As the film reminds us, this was 1988. It was three years before Magic Johnson, four years before Arthur Ashe and seven years before Greg Louganis, who makes a surprising and inspiring appearance in "To The Limit." Even if Richmond had wanted to become a figurehead for the fight against HIV, it wouldn't have happened. He had been stricken with the disease in an age of paranoia, fear, anger and Ryan White.

"If this gets out, that this is what's wrong with our driver and he has AIDS," says Kyle Petty, trying to reason his way through NASCAR's reasons for running Richmond off, "and we're the first sport that has an [athlete] with AIDS, then what's that going to do to our national ranking as a sport? We're trying to be baseball, football, basketball. So I think for them it was more of a media, PR problem than it was anything else."

Back to teach a lesson

That's when Tim Richmond, the most gravitational "look at me!" star in NASCAR history, vanished, beginning a slow, two-year decline that ended with his death on Aug. 13, 1989.

"To The Limit" paints an achingly vivid picture of his final days and beyond. Other than his parents, the final two people to come to his bedside with any regularity were Dr. Jerry Punch, then still a practicing physician as well as an ESPN NASCAR reporter, and Richmond's sister, Sandy Welsh. Both become the primary voices of the film's final stanza.

His story turned uglier after his death, as former lovers came forward on "60 Minutes" and in People magazine to say that he had infected them with the virus. Eventually any talk of Richmond was reduced down to either "Oh yeah, he was the driver with AIDS" or the occasional campfire bench-racing tale around a Coleman stove.

Now, because of the film, his family hopes that is about to change.

"It talks about who Tim really was," Welsh said after an invitation-only screening at the NASCAR Hall of Fame last week. "It doesn't lie. It doesn't pull punches. And that fits because neither did Tim. For so many years it was like Tim never existed. But now there he is again, laughing, with those blue eyes."

Then she wiped away a tear and smiled.

"And he's back to teach a lesson that he wasn't allowed to teach the first time around."

Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at mcgeespn@yahoo.com.

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