Commentary

More than Tim Richmond died in 1989

Updated: August 17, 2009, 10:46 AM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

Tim Richmond died 20 years ago Thursday. Aug. 13, 1989, was the end of the party in NASCAR.

Dr. Jerry Punch, the young ESPN reporter and de facto family physician in the garage area, sent more than 90 people from the traveling show for AIDS testing that summer.

And an era that was, shall we say, wide-open, stopped.

[+] EnlargeTim Richmond
Bill Frakes/Time Life Pictures/Getty ImagesTim Richmond wasn't just a winning driver -- he was the life of the party.

You could almost see and hear them standing around the haulers, calculating: "Now she was with Richmond, I know … and then she was with [fill in the blank]. And then he was with [fill in another blank.] And then she was with me -- uh -- Hey, Doc! I need to ask you about something."

You may have heard that the Cole Trickle character in the film "Days of Thunder" was based on Richmond. Truly, Trickle was a wimp and a wallflower compared to Richmond.

Dale Earnhardt used to rent an entire bar, drinks on him, all night, at Coca-Cola 600 time at Charlotte. Richmond didn't last 10 minutes in there before he started a fight. He wasn't the only guy who ever left there with a fat lip, but he got it in record time.

Can you imagine Jeff Gordon doing something like that?

Rich-kid Richmond and Earnhardt's mill-town homeboys never did mix well, even though the two drivers themselves -- one the son of a wealthy Ohio construction-equipment inventor, the other the son of a North Carolina dirt-tracker -- became best buddies soon after Richmond gravitated from Indy cars to NASCAR in 1980.

Out at the Charlotte track, in front of a race-day crowd, Richmond once staggered across the stage during driver introductions. He carried a large plastic drinking cup, half full. His uniform was unzipped down to his belly button and thrown back at the shoulders, and drivers didn't wear fireproof underwear in those days.

Drivers had been told to introduce themselves. Richmond, who'd qualified outside pole, brought himself to a wobbly halt in front of the microphone and scanned the crowd through sunglasses. He raised the cup, saluted the crowd, took a long chugalug, wiped his mouth, wobbled some more.

"I'm T-i-i-m R-r-richmond," he slurred. "Just havin' a great time, sittin' here on the front r-o-w-w-w." He chugged again, and staggered away.

Can you imagine Jimmie Johnson doing something like that?

[+] EnlargeTim Richmond
RacingOne/Getty ImagesSeeing Tim Richmond out front was common in 1986 -- a season in which he won seven times -- including this day at Daytona in the Firecracker 400. He won the July Fourth extravaganza despite having his windshield held in place by tape.

A hundred thousand people wondered whether Richmond really was drunk. Knowing him, they wouldn't put it past him. But he was a showman, too. And this turned out to be an act.

It wasn't an act when he closed a bar the night before a race with me and a couple of colleagues. This was at North Wilkesboro, N.C. The topic of the wee-hours debate -- make that argument -- was why the media had to cover the things we did. Like his escapades.

He'd recently raised a general alarm of security guards at the newspaper where I worked at the time, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. A colleague was interviewing him in a glassed-in room just off the sports department on the eighth floor when security surrounded the little room.

A guard tapped on the door and beckoned the writer, wanting to know what the story was with this guy.

Tim Richmond, the NASCAR driver, the guard was told. Why?

Well, Richmond had just been down in the lobby talking about bringing a bomb into the place and saying nasty things about a writer at the paper.

Turned out Richmond, on a local media tour for the Atlanta track, had rambled through the lobby and onto the elevators so easily that he bellowed (probably after he'd had a few at lunch), "Look! There's no security in this place! I could bring a bomb in here."

Can you imagine Carl Edwards doing something like that?

Richmond had mumbled something about a celebrity gossip columnist who had reported on Richmond out on the town in Atlanta on a previous occasion. Richmond had been spotted cruising in a limo, buying $150 bottles of Dom Perignon by the half-dozen at various nightspots, then awakened alone in the backseat in broad daylight, still cruising, his Rolex and his wallet missing, only a pair of panties left as a calling card by that particular lady.

But she might have gotten a calling card from Richmond -- AIDS. Various published accounts since his death have claimed he infected several women -- as many as a dozen, according to one Miami Herald report. Some were purported to be race queens and models.

When and by whom Richmond himself was infected remains as much a mystery as how many he infected. Lore has long had it that he contracted AIDS at the end of his best season, 1986, in which he won seven races for Hendrick Motorsports. He won the finale at Riverside, Calif., and stayed over for weeks to party with the Hollywood crowd.

By 1987, he missed the Daytona 500 with what we in the media were told was "double pneumonia." He quit Hendrick, and the AIDS rumors quickly followed in the garage-area gossip: "I don't want what he's got," Darrell Waltrip said cryptically, and wryly.

Later that spring, when Richmond returned, one person in NASCAR would know that Richmond had AIDS. He confided in Punch.

Punch would tell me years later that he had feared Richmond might, while running a race wide-open, unbuckle his safety harness and slam into some third-turn wall, "go out in a blaze of glory," as Punch put it. But instead Richmond roared to back-to-back wins that June, at Pocono and Riverside.

Then he was gone again.

In '88 came the uproar that, to this day, keeps me from rushing to judgment on Jeremy Mayfield in the current substance-abuse mess. Intentionally or unintentionally, NASCAR "besmirched" Richmond, his attorney claimed, for substance abuse, widely suspected to involve cocaine. NASCAR never proved the charges, at least not publicly.

NASCAR very likely knew Richmond had AIDS. Any bleeding injuries he might sustain on the track might put at risk their safety workers, who didn't wear protective gloves at the time. And ordering the workers to take such precautions might spread a panic.

When Richmond tried to enter the Busch Clash (now the Bud Shootout) of 1988 independently from Hendrick, making a deal to drive a mediocre car owned by Ken Ragan, father of current driver David Ragan, NASCAR came up with its first substance-abuse policy.

Richmond submitted to the test, and the sample was then sent off to the nation's leading substance-abuse authority of the time, Dr. Forest Tennant of Los Angeles. NASCAR came out with a statement that it had found controlled substances in the sample, and then days later had to come out and admit that what Tennant in fact had found were over-the-counter medications.

Richmond sued NASCAR for defamation of character, bringing in renowned New York lawyer Barry Slotnick. The case never came to trial, and the settlement was sealed by the courts.

The last time I talked with Richmond was in March 1988. It was on the phone. He was in South Florida, in seclusion, and I was in Atlanta. He lied to me when I asked about AIDS.

"Thank God it wasn't anything like that," he said. "What I had was bad enough."

Mythmakers, by the way, have turned Richmond into a far better driver in death than he was in life. He was an excellent driver, but his performances were spotty, erratic as his personality.

NASCAR was an out-of-sight, out-of-mind society then -- whether you were dead, comatose, gravely ill, whatever -- and as Richmond lay dying, his memory was suppressed. The AIDS talk remained but quieted, and the traveling show rationalized that maybe Richmond was bisexual, maybe he used needle-injected drugs, whatever. They wouldn't accept AIDS as a heterosexually transmitted disease, lest it spoil the ongoing party.

Then when he died there was no more denial. A few weeks later his family held a news conference acknowledging that he died of complications from AIDS, and that he had contracted it heterosexually.

The party stopped, not just sexually but on myriad fronts. Based on the lessons of Richmond, NASCAR drivers became far less media-friendly, more reclusive, more buttoned-down, much more guarded in their words and deeds. They wouldn't drink with the media out in the bars anymore. All you got to know of them was what their PR people instructed them to be.

Mythmakers, by the way, have turned Richmond into a far better driver in death than he was in life. He was an excellent driver, but his performances were spotty, erratic as his personality. He died at 34, with but 13 wins in 185 starts over eight seasons. Johnson, 33, in his eighth season, has won 43 times with three straight championships.

Richmond was "another Earnhardt," as some claimed, only on the wild-driving side, often laughing after crashes. They wrecked each other, their cars once landing "on top of each other," as they used to brag.

It was Richmond the character, more than Richmond the driver, who founded the legend.

But the characters and the color have since drained out of the sport, like the baby thrown out with the bathwater.

Richmond was by no means the only hell-raiser in NASCAR, nor even the last one. He was just the one it caught up with, the one who paid the price. After he died, his contemporaries stopped.

The robotic pitchmen arose as the driver class, and they prevail today.

So, you want to talk about the "end of an era"? That was Aug. 13, 1989.

***

Tim Richmond will be featured in an upcoming "30 for 30" documentary titled "Racing the Devil: The Tim Richmond Story," directed by Al Syzmanski.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.