NASCAR began to grow rapidly in the late 1980’s and drivers like Tim Richmond are the reason the sport exploded in popularity. Richmond wasn’t groomed for racing in his teens like so many of today’s drivers, but there is no denying he was born to drive. His natural ability on the track is well documented and somewhat infamous in old school racing circles. Whether it was at the Indy 500 where he won “Rookie of the Race” in 1980 or Winston Cup where he finished 12th in his debut, Richmond was always off to a quick start. Tim was a black sheep of sorts in the Cup Series and his flashy persona was unwelcome at times. He would show up at the track with long hair driving a Harley Davidson, lived on a boat in Miami and wore Armani suits. He was a stark contrast to a sport dominated by good ole boys with deep southern roots- nothing against the good ole boys, they are the foundation of stock car racing. While Tim alienated some of the more no-nonsense personalities in the pits, power brokers on the circuit took notice of what he could do with a race car and word soon spread that Richmond was limited only by the lower budget teams he drove for.
Hendrick Sees Gold
The racing gods smiled on Richmond in 1986 when Rick Hendrick of Hendrick Motorsports signed him to drive the Folgers Coffee Machine. The move proved to be a good fit for both men and Tim had a season that legends are made of. As a matter of fact, the movie Days of Thunder starring Tom Cruise and Robert Duvall, was based loosely on the experiences of this dynamic duo in the Cup series. Much like today, Hendrick offered the best equipment in the business and Richmond drove with reckless abandon in what would be his last full season. When the team finally began to hit on all cylinders, Tim won seven races finishing third in points with 8 poles and 13 top fives to his name. Richmond had more wins that year than any other driver, including the 1986 series champion, Dale Earnhardt.
The Flame That Burns Twice As Bright
Tim lived the same way he drove; when in doubt he hit the gas. It is easy to see why his driving style was compared to that of seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt. Driver Mark Martin, who totaled 40 cup wins, said of Richmond “When I first started racing, I thought, man, Tim Richmond is the coolest. I want to be like Tim Richmond. He was what being famous was all about. He had the women, the looks, the clothes and that kind of wild, crazy attitude that only super famous people have. And he could drive, too. He truly was one of the greatest that ever was.” Orlando Sentinel – Juliet Macor
At the peak of his career, Richmond missed the first part of the 1987 season to deal with “double pneumonia”, later revealed to be the HIV virus. In a season in which Tim was considered a favorite to win the championship, he was only able to drive in 8 races. His final victory on the road course in Riverside, CA, is forever etched in my memory. The Budweiser 400 fell on Fathers Day and Tim tearfully dedicated the race to his Dad in Victory Lane. I remember rushing to the store to pick up a magazine with “Tim Richmond Storms Back!” on the cover. I was thrilled. I carefully removed the article and still have it to this day. His comeback was inspirational. Little did his fans know it would be short and bittersweet.
Legacy In Question?
Richmond stormed back into the Winston Cup Series in the spring of 1987 and quickly won Pocono and Riverside back to back before his season was again cut short. At Michigan, the rest of the cup drivers were said to have lobbied to stop Tim from driving because he was rumored to be on drugs. NASCAR deemed Richmond “physically unfit to drive” and Tim was compelled to end his season abruptly. Not long after, NASCAR created a drug testing provision for all drivers. Richmond’s test failed due to high levels of over-the-counter drugs such as ibuprofen. The test was later retracted after a lawsuit was filed on Tim’s behalf. So much was unknown about AIDS at that time and NASCAR was right to be concerned. However, the manner in which the rising star was treated left much to be desired. Being blocked from racing by a falsified drug test added insult to injury at a time of intense fear and uncertainty for the 34-year-old Richmond. The fake test is a black eye on what is otherwise one of Americas great sporting leagues. Richmond’s legacy in NASCAR is both notorious and controversial. Kyle Petty said of Tim “He is almost like a comet that blew through here and everybody said Ooh! Then it’s gone, and you really wonder if you saw it in the first place. Tim Richmond was one of the greatest drivers this sport has ever seen, but he was in the wrong era for us for this sport. He was ten or fifteen years ahead of his time.” Richmond had demons; He lived fast and died young. Despite his short career, he is recognized as one of the greatest drivers in NASCAR history.