POSTING BY JB MADDAWG
NASCAR recently held its annual Hall of Fame induction that ushers in another season of auto racing as fans ready themselves for the upcoming racing schedule. Legends of the sport are allowed into the hall to be recognized along the pioneers of the league. Names like Petty, Allison and Earnhardt. The men that built an entertainment brand with their bare hands and sheer willpower. Yet, there is one driver that will not be allowed to take his place among the greats, his name will not be spoken at an awards banquet or even at almost any venue on the circuit. In fact, even reading this article is to open the door of NASCAR’s closet full of bones. Those bones belong to driver Tim Richmond.
To be unfamiliar with the name of Tim Richmond is not a surprise, especially to anyone that has been around long enough to know why the man’s name is “he we do not speak of”, although many casual fans may know more about Richmond than they’d think.
“There isn’t anything I can’t do in a race car”
That was one of the biggest tag lines in the 1990 film Days of Thunder, starring Tom Cruise representing almost perfectly the driving style of Richmond, which Cruise’s fictional character of Cole Trickle, was loosely based upon. Richmond had many similarities to Cruise’s role. He was extremely gifted behind the wheel of a stock car, paired with a personality and looks that warranted the nickname, “Hollywood”. To see Richmond live one would think he and his team had figured out some science that gave him the edge on the track, perhaps even cheating the rule book. However, that was Tim Richmond in a nutshell, for there simply wasn’t anything he couldn’t do in a race car short of making it sprout wings and fly. As a man who saw Richmond drive on several occasions I can safely say as far a driving ability goes, Richmond is at the top. Everyone else is a distant second.
Darrell Waltrip’s story of Richmond’s mixture of raw talent and fearless swagger was displayed at Talladega speedway one season. While the driver was on the backstretch up in the 210 mph range and leading the race, his car rattling and shaking from the speed, Waltrip was nervous for his own safety and doing everything he could to control his car. That’s when a flash of red caught his eye. Tim Richmond had just passed Waltrip, easily. In an era where the stock cars were unrestricted and every lap at a super speedway was to defy death, Richmond was thinking forward to where he would drink his next beer.
So why would NASCAR take such an amazing talent and brush off almost any mention of the man? Surprisingly, there is an extremely simple answer to the question. In the mid 1980’s Tim Richmond contracted and ultimately died from complications of the AIDS virus. There will be no statues, moments of silence or “nations” of fans crying over Richmond. NASCAR has proven over time that Richmond should only be discussed if he’s brought up from questioning and even then, the response book on the driver will be completely antiseptic. The NASCAR line on Richmond seems to be one of move on, forget him. Nothing to see here, now go pray to the statue of Dale Earnhardt Sr. in front of Daytona International Speedway and ask forgiveness for even thinking of Richmond.
Investigating NASCAR’s action on Richmond tells the tale of the man and just how the powers that be in the league office tried to manipulate the facts. Richmond’s last full season was in 1986, when he fell ill and returned to the sport during the mid 1987 season. Reports had listed the driver’s absence due from everything from a motorcycle accident to double pneumonia. Richmond was suffering, and NASCAR knew it. In September of 1987 Tim Richmond would resign from Hendrick Motorsports, seeming to retire. Had he stayed home Richmond’s story would more than likely have ended there, a giant question mark hanging over the career of one of the most talented men to ever put on a driver’s suit.
Yet stay at home, Richmond did not. Attempting a comeback in the season of 1988, NASCAR came to grips with the fact Richmond wasn’t going out quietly. That’s when the league flagged Richmond for a failed drug test and was suspended from competition. Richmond would not only appeal the suspension after the drugs indicated in the failed test were Sudafed and Advil, but sue NASCAR for its actions. Richmond would take a second drug test at his urging and passed it cleanly. The league would also settle out of court with Richmond over the ordeal with the results to be sealed. It bears mentioning that no team would hire Richmond as a driver as the whispers in the garage area became more prevalent, one very well-known current NASCAR broadcaster (at that time, driver) mentioning, “I don’t want what he’s got.”
The circus involving Richmond would ultimately cost him a chance at one last Daytona 500, as Richmond would pass away at age 34. There would be no fanfare as Richmond would lose his battle at his Florida home, no moment of silence from the fans on lap 25 indicating Richmond’s number. He was quietly allowed to slip away as NASCAR moved forward with the Earnhardt era. Many in NASCAR’s well guarded media circle will state Richmond was elevated to sound like a better driver in death than he was in life. Just another company line to make those of us that saw Richmond drive, dismiss him.
While it’s true Richmond did not fulfill his potential due to his legendary partying and lifestyle, the driver Tim Richmond will always be downplayed because he was the anti-Dale Earnhardt, never needing to bulldoze through other cars. Richmond could put a stock car anywhere on the race track and make a clean pass. I watched Richmond drive three different lines at Michigan speedway during the late summer race when I was a younger man, always at the front of the pack. He made it look simple, never brushing another competitor.
NASCAR isn’t concerned with that version of Tim Richmond, however. Although it has been noted Richmond contracted AIDS through an “unknown female” there is no shortage of speculation that Richmond could have been bisexual or indeed, had used drugs. Whatever the case may be, post death, over 90 drivers and personnel in the league underwent testing for HIV as reported by Dr. Jerry Punch. The possibility of Richmond unknowingly infecting others also caused a quiet panic.
Ultimately, reporter Roberta Baskin would uncover after Richmond’s death that Dr. Forest Tennant along with NASCAR had falsified Richmond’s failed drug test for two reasons. The league wanted to implement a concrete drug policy and singled out Richmond to get him out of the sport. Drivers of that time period were certainly treated differently if they hailed from a northern state, such as Richmond’s Ohio, but adding a still fairly new virus such as AIDS into the mix? Richmond was most certainly on the black list. The party driven wild child that Richmond represented, was no longer welcome in NASCAR. His legacy is a shadow, an 800 lb. gorilla in the garage area. NASCAR would like nothing better than to ignore one of it’s most talented products. They’d rather have fans shed tears at the third lap of every race and continue the constant funeral procession for a man who didn’t make people uncomfortable.
Tim Richmond was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2002. As for NASCAR’s official Hall of Fame? Tim Richmond will always be the spirit of the sport, peering through a window at the progression of the landscape he helped create. Make no mistake, however. He will never be allowed into the fold of the sport’s history.