Welcome to Grant's tribute to Tim Richmond
Tim Richmond, all but forgotten
There was a time not long ago when Dale Earnhardt and Tim Richmond were the flat-out coolest guys on the track.
Earnhardt was the heart of Southern stock car racing in his too-tough Wrangler jeans, denim shirt and cowboy hat. Richmond had his own style-Armani suits, silk shirts, and Rolex watch.
And, oh, how they raced-diving into into the corners after each other on the brink of losing control, barreling down the straightaways door-to-door.
Then Tim Richmond got AIDS and died on Aug. 13, 1989.
Does Earnhardt miss racing against Richmond? He glares at the question. "I miss him. period," Earnhardt says. "He was a friend."
Others in NASCAR would rather forget.
"It's something that a lot of people in racing would like to forget happened-that there even was a Tim Richmond, that Tim Richmond died the way he died," says H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, president of Charlotte Motor Speedway.
In a sport that memorializes it's drivers, it's hard to find even a trace of Richmond around Stock car racing's tracks.
Other fallen champions, like Davey Allison and Alan Kulwicki, have become heroes in death. Today, there's scarcely evidence Richmond competed among them, despite winning 13 races and $2.3 million in just six full seasons.
You won't find Richmond's car in any stock car museum.
"This is the first time I've ever heard his name, and I've been working the circuit 4 or 5 years," said a woman selling souvenirs last month at Pocono Raceway, where Richmond won four races-the last, when he knew he was dying.
Kyle Petty, a friend and fellow racer, sums it up this way:"If the good die young-and everyone from James Dean to Marilyn Monroe to Alan and Davey are those guys-when they die, there's an instant shrine. So why is Richmond standing on the outside looking in? Why is he not part of that group? Why did no one grieve for the lost potential of Tim?"
In 1986 he won seven races and eight poles, more than any driver that season.
Richmond thrived in the spotlight, and in 1986 he was in it like never before. He was named NASCAR's Driver of the Year with Earnhart at the season-ending December banquet in New York.
Within a week, he was hiding behind the name Lee Warner at Ohio's Cleveland Clinic, whee he was diagnosed with aquired immune deficiency syndrome on December 10 as Case No. 1-861-775-7. He'd come back to win two more races, then disappear again.
In his second comeback attempt, Richmond found himself pitted against NASCAR and the sport's establishment in a battle as hopeless as his fight against AIDS.
This time, he was in the spotlight of his life: Wrongly suspended for a drug test NASCAR said he failed, although he hadn't; later reinstated, but barred from racing until he turned over medical records that would have shown he had AIDS.
Richmond refused, fired back with a $20 million lawsuit and slipped from view again, leaving behind nothing but innuendo and intrigue.
He died at age 34 in a West Palm Beach, Fla., hospital. His parents were nerby, but he was cut off and shut out from nearly everyone in racing. It was a tragic ending. But the build-up, well, that was entertaining as
Richmond himself. Having fun was the whole point. Every day was Christmas; every night, Saturday night.
Until dawn, at least, where his story ends.
LIFE AT FULL THROTTLE
Richmond never did fit stock car racing's mold. He had a personality for every pair of sunglasses, every hat, every pair of snakeskin boots and Italian loafers he owned. "I'd love to meet the man that knew me," he once said. Winning racing was Richmond's adrenaline, but he fed on anything fast from a Harley- Davidson with a suicide clutch to helicopters, speedboats, water skis and airplanes.He ran in wildly different circles that rarely intersected: bikers, actors, musicians, truck dirvers and a millionaire businessman named Bob Tezak, his first major sponsor, who's in federal prison today for pleading guilty to two counts of arson. "The WRFX rock-n-roll crowd loved him. Girls loved him. Cool guys loved him," said Ed Clark, Atlanta Motor Speedway executive vice-president and general manager. "I don't know if the blue-collar guy that worked at Cannon Mills, if that guy ever fell in love with him, but that guy's girlfriend did." Richmond had his own ideas about how a Southern stock car ought to be driven.
Never mind that he grew up in Ashland, Ohio, had a prep school education and got a Trans Am 455 with a bow on top for his 16th birthday to go with the Corvette that he already had. To many in stock car racing, Richmond's long hair, Hollywood friends and parade of gorgeous girl friends were enough to arouse suspicion. "In one sense, it was always there because he was different," says Chip Williams, a former NASCAR spokesman. "A guy that good-looking, that cool, that much fun - he knew people in the movies and hung exit sideways with all four tires off the ground. Earnhardt brought out his best. "He'd rather race Earnhardt as eat," says Harry Hyde, Richmond's veteran crew in 1987-87. "He just enjoyed the hell out of racing Earnhardt. He'd pull up under Earnhardt and just sit there, lap after lap, they're side by side. He'd come on the radio and say,
`That's all it'll do. I can't go any faster.'
"And I'd say, `Well, are you in a bind sitting there?'
"He says, `No.'
"I says, `How long can you stay there?'
"He says, `All day.'
Richmond never won a Winston cup championship, but had a tuxedo custom-made for the occasion, with a silk shirt patterned like a checkered flag. He pictured his race team riding up the East Coast from Florida on a cigarette boat to collect its trophy. He even charted the course to a dock on Long Island where they'd hop into a limousine for the ride to New York's Waldorf-Astoria. "He was going to start at the top and go from there," Hyde says. "He wasn't going to wait for anybody else to decide the course he took. He was going to decide himself."
That cocky streak never sat well with NASCAR, a family business run with a firm hand by President Bill France Jr. Stock-car racing is as much a culture as a sport, and successful drivers play both games well. There's a way to behave: As assembly-line as the cars they drive, and every-day as the products they sell. There's a way to dress. And a way to speak, so pervasive that drivers who know better suddenly forget basic grammar when TV cameras start rolling. But Richmond was Hendrick's only choice when Procter and Gamble offered its Folgers brand for a new race team 1986. "At first they were a little reluctant," Hendrick says, "Because they were conservative and he was flamboyant. But I basically said if you won't take Tim Richmond, I'm not interested. Jimmy Johnson, the Folgers team manager, remembers the first time he met Richmond - about 10 a.m. in November 1985 at Richmond's Bahia Mar boat slip in Fort Lauderdale. "He was sitting on top of the most beautiful Chris-Craft houseboat with this little old tiny bathing suit, with imported beer and a whole big plate of crab legs beside him," Johnson says.
ALWAYS A SHOWMAN
The Hendrick ride signaled Richmond's entry into the sport's elite, and he turned up at the 1986 season-opening Daytona 500 in a $1,000 Armani suit, a new, shorter haircut and a man's purse slung over his shoulder. "Everybody just looked at each other when he walked in," says Carolyn Wax, who handled his publicity. "Everything stopped." He wrecked in his first race, a 125-mile qualifier, and hurt his leg.
That night, after typing up a press release about Richmond taking time off to recuperate, Wax glanced over her balcony at the party in the hotel lobby. "There he was, in all his glory, dancing with a cane," Wax days. "He may have had a short life, but I guarantee you, nobody lived it any harder." Women loved him, and he'd stage pre-race shows just for them: Unzipping his driver's suit to his crotch puffing out his bare chest, then, in due course, pulling his fireproof vest over his head and zipping back up. "He was like doing a strip tease," Johnson says. "It was downright lewd, and people would just go crazy. "In classic Richmond fashion, he was late for his first major Folgers appearance, an 8 a.m. tour of a New Orleans coffee plant. The night before, he was spotted entertaining two women at the hotel bar. The next morning, country singer T.F. Sheppard was at the plant on time. So was Hyde. No Richmond. Wax sent someone to his hotel, and a housekeeper found him sound asleep. He finally arrived at the plant without apology, peered out from under his dark sunglasses and said, "Well, if that Folgers coffee can wake me up, it can wake anyone up!"
MAGIC ON THE TRACK
It took half the 1986 season before Richmond and Hyde clicked on the track. They were magic from then on, winning seven races, finishing second four times and taking eight poles. Buddy Barnes, a friend and former crew member, remembers driving his boat up to Richmond's Lake Normal home that summer and finding him on the dock a grin broad enough to split his face, holding a checkered flag he'd just won.
"He was waving it back and forth, and say, `This is what it's all about. This is the breakfast of champions,' " Barnes says. It was September when Hyde first noticed something was wrong, around the time Richmond won Darlington's Southern 500. "He looked awful bad, and he was taking antibiotics," Hyde says. "It looked to me like he had the flu or a cold. After Darling he got all right. I thought he was all right. But by Rockingham and the last two races, I could tell he was ... down. It was in his face and eyes." At NASCAR's December awards banquet, Wheeler thought he looked awful. "I could tell it was somthing worse than stress; he said he was exhausted," Wheeler said. "He was extremely disturbed about what he looked like." Within a week, Richmond was in the Cleveland Clinic, diagnosed with AIDS.
"I DIDN'T KNOW WHAT IT MEANT"
Hendrick had never heard of AIDS before Evelyn Richmond, his mother, called to explain. "I didn't know what she was telling me," Hendrick said."It was like my first time .... I was confused. I didn't know what it actually meant - what the prognosis was. The more you found out - the more you just ... it hurt and it killed you." Richmond spend Christmas and New Years in the hospital, dwindling from 171 to 148 pounds. Rumors about drug use had dogged him since his IndyCar days. Most friends say they never saw drugs around him. Others say he never used "needle drugs."
When Richmond missed the 1987 Daytona 500 with what was reported to be double pneumonia, the rumors flew. Some said cocaine addiction. Others said AIDS. Kyle Petty didn't believe them any more than he believed Richmond had pneumonia. He thought it was cancer. Richard Petty, stock-car racing's King, felt then and now it was drugs. "There's a question in my mind about drugs - that at the time he was driving that race car, he was pumped up," Richard Petty says. "Whether he was or he wasn't, I'm always questioning that. I always will." Richmond's return to racing in spring 1987 triggered a media frenzy. Hyde scheduled a secret practice at Darlington to see whether Richmond was physically able to come back. Word leaked out and reporters showed up with stop watches. So Hyde slipped four left-side tires on to give the car an added edge.
News-papers reported the next day Richmond was back, setting track-record speeds. Next came an endurance test at Rockingham. Richmond tried to run 500 miles, but couldn't last more than 127. Hyde covered again, telling reporters, "Tim wanted to go on longer, but I pulled him in." Richmond was too weak to run Charlotte's Coca-Cola 600 in May, so he flew to Indianapolis for the Indy 500 instead. Linda Vaughn, racing's most famous beauty queen, got a call at her Indianapolis apartment shortly after midnight. He'd been partying and had to see her. "He fell into my arms, and his eyes rolled back, and he said, `What can I do? What can I do to make it up to you?'" says Vaughn, a longtime friend. "That's when he told me what was wrong. And I said, `Go back and kick ass and take names, because you are a racer." " ... He had a deep, dark lonely side. He was like a little lost boysome-times. He always used to sing, `I Want You to Want Me, I Want You to Love Me.' He used to drive me crazy with that song.
RETURN TO VICTORY LANE
Richmond had an edge when he returned to racing. "Testy", some said. "Not your normal Tim."
"He was never accepted when he came back," Richard Petty says. "Everyone knew he had trouble." Meaning AIDS?
"Yep. It was just one of those things. Whether it was true or not, everybody said that's it, and so everybody kept their distance."
His first full-length race since the diagnosis was the Miller 500 at Pocono Raceway in June, 1987. Just before the start, Earnhardt walked over and slapped him on the back. "You ready to get it on?" Earnhardt asked. "Yeah!" Richmond said.
And when Richmond won the race, he cried so hard he couldn't see the checkered flag. Earnhardt, Kyle Petty, and Bill Elliott drove alongside to offer congratulations, and Richmond cried all the more. He made an extra victory lap to compose himself, but it didn't do any good. In Victory Lane, Richmond couldn't utter a word-just hugged his mother, whipped a towel in the air and started pouring beer everywhere.
For Johnson, the team manager, there'll never be a moment like it. "I've got a 5-year-old son," Johnson says,"and if he becomes a race driver and wins a race, it'll still be second to Tim winning that race. Nothing would ever top that for me." Richmond won the next race, too, at Riverside.
Barry Dodson, Richmond's former crew chief with the Blue Max race team, watched from the California hills above. Dodson's own team had fallen out of contention early, so he jumped into his rental car to find the best view of Richmond coming through the road course's turns. He was afraid it might be his last chance.
"He wouldn't just run through them like an old lady," Dodson says. "He'd sashay through there, slinging the ar into the corners. passing on the inside of Turn 8.
It was Richmond's last win.
ONE LAST SHOWDOWN
Hyde had heard the complaints around the garage. Some drivers wanted NASCAR to keep Richmond from competing, and they grew more vocal after Richmond was late to qualify at Michigan and rode out to his race car in a golf cart.
"The door latch on the trailer jammed, and we couldn't get in," Evelyn Richmond says. "He had 5 minutes to get to his car, so he took a golf cart over to get him there. He was sick in the truck, and never should have raced."
"He checked back into the Cleveland Clinic about the time Hendrick got a call from Les Richter, then NASCAR's competition director.
"Your driver doesn't look in any shape to drive.", Richter said. In September, 1987, Richmond resigned from Hendrick Motorsports. His final showdown with NASCAR came over the 1988 Busch Clash.
"You just couldn't go in and tell Timmy to get off this,"Evelyn Richmond says of her son's obsession to race again. "He had enough strength left to drive that Busch Clash. In a way, I thought, if this is what Timmy wants, he's had enough jerked out from under him, and since he only had so much time left."
He had no race car. And NASCAR had developed its first drug-testing policy, which Richmond felt was designed with him in mind. He stopped taking his AIDS medication, AZT, six weeks earlier so it wouldn't be detected. He also asked his doctor to give him a drug test to make sure he was clean. He sealed the sample in a safe deposit box in Daytona Beach Shores. He knew when he was clean when he signed NASCAR's drug-testing consent form in the Daytona garage area, so he asked to take the test right then.
Two days later, NASCAR announced Richmond was suspended indefinitely for testing positive for substances on its list of banned drugs.
"It tore him apart," says Terry Magovern, a friend in the music business whom Richmond called after getting the news. "It tore him apart, and nobody would listen to him."
Richmond met with Richter, told him there was a mistake and demanded another test.
Five days later, NASCAR announced Richmond's first test actually showed nothing more than over-the-counter cold medicine, though in large doses. The second test was clean.
"We were under a certain amount of pressure to release some sort of information as soon as we reasonably could," says Williams, the former NASCAR spokesman, of the initial suspension. "Tim Richmond wasn't going to be there (for the race). He was suspended. There had to be a reason.
"What we offered was the best information we had at the time. When we recieved further information, I got a call from (NASCAR president) Bill France Jr., who asked me to come down to his office. He had just gotten off the phone.
Williams said that's when NASCAR learned what the first test actually showed (over-the-counter cold medicine).
"And a few hours later, we released that," Williams said. Dr. Forrest Tennant, NASCAR's drug testing consultant, says no scientific mistakes were made in analyzing Richmond's drug test.
France won't discuss Richmond, saying through a spokesman that a court order prohibits it.
Richter says Richmond was a great talent with a great personality. Asked about NASCAR's drug test or anything else about Richmond's departure from the sport, he says, "You're getting into that no-no land."
Hendrick is still bitter about the way NASCAR handled the drug test.
"That's horrible to damage someone-to character assassinate without the facts," Hendrick says.
NASCAR lifted Richmond's suspension, but still wouldn't let him race until he turned over his medical records from the Cleveland Clinic. Richmond offered instead a letter from his doctor there stating he had not been treated from drug dependancy.
Richmond appears to be the only driver to have taken NASCAR's drug test before or since, according to information gathered from interviews with drivers and others in racing.
Neither Richter, now NASCAR's senior vice president, nor Williams will say whether any other driver has been drug tested.
"When NASCAR announced it's drug-testing policy, they said if someone tested positive we'd announce it-mainly because the guy was going to disappear. So if somebody else took the test, it was negative," Williams said.
Asked if anyone else has taken the test, Williams declined comment. Richter said, "That's internally our business. We don't say we tested so-and-so. While we're sitting here, somebody might tested."
'FANS, I MISS YOU'
Meanwhile, Richmond was front-page news and holded up in the Daytona Hilton with a personal manager and a 6-2, 230-pound body guard. "You packing a rod?," Richmond asked when Joe Semas, the bodyguard, appeared. Richmond spent most Daytona's Speed Week on the phone, calling lawyers and looking for a ride, Semas recalls. Some owners told Richmond they wanted to give him a ride, but NASCAR "didn't want him in a car." Kyle Petty asked the Wood Brothers to let Richmond drive his car in the Busch Clash; they didn't want to get involved. Even Hendrick said no. "It was just going to make it harder on him - all that controversy," Hendrick says. "I think he needed it mentally to get back in the car, but it was going to be a tough, tough situation." On the legal front, Richmond tried hiring F. Lee Bailey but settled on Barry Slotnick, who had defended New York subway gunman Berhard Goetz. Slotnick wanted $15,000 in advance, Semas says. Richmond agreed to pay if he'd come to Daytona for a press conference. Hendrick offered his airplane and pilot to pick Slotnick up. Semas can't recall any NASCAR drivers coming to see Richmond that week. But IndyCar champion A.J. Foyt did. So did drag racer Don "The Snake" Prudhomme, movie director Hal Needham, who hired Richmond for a bit part in "Stroker Ace," and Linda Vaughn. Richmond wanted to hire a plane to fly over the Daytona 500 with a nasty message for NASCAR. Vaughn talked him out of it. "You get more with honey than vinegar," she said. He settled on a banner that read, "Fans, I Miss You. Tim Richmond." After the race, he stayed in Daytona for Bike Week with Semas and Donnie Cooper, a friend from Ashland. "He told me if he had been a good ol'boy and went out and drank Blue Ribbon with those hillbillies, nobody would have said(anything) to him," Cooper said.
Needham saw him one last time that spring, when he and Johnny Hayes, a marketing executive at U.S. Tobacco, tried to convince him to seek help for the drug problem they thought he had. "I baited him with U.S. Tobacco, and he really thought he was coming in to talk to us about a race car ride," Needham says. "Then we dropped the bomb on him." "He sat there very politely, and said he appreciated what we all said and the fact that we thought enough of him to do that, but I just have to work this out my own way." Richmond filed his lawsuit against NASCAR and Tennant in April 1988, seeking $20 million in punitive damages for defaming him through the drug test. NASCAR countered by demanding reams of information: Richmond's tax returns from 1980-87; the results of every test of his urine, blood or other bodily fluids since 1980; records of every visit to a doctor, psychologist or counselor since 1980; and his medical records from the Cleveland Clinic and his personal doctor in Florida. Next, NASCAR's lawyers went after his partying past, putting Richmond's friends under oath to find out more. "They wanted me to tell them that Tim did drugs," says Magovern, among those NASCAR deposed. "That's what they were looking for - to tear up Tim Richmond." Richmond's own deposition was taken in Charlotte in October. He gave his name, address, grew confused over where he had gone to grade school and the interview was postponed. Before leaving, he signed an autograph for the court reporter's son. He withdrew the suit three weeks after U.S. District Judge James B. McMillan ordered his medical records be produced.
THE FINAL MONTHS
Shortly before he died, Richmond talked with Hendrick about making his AIDS diagnosis public - a question he struggled with to the end. "He always said maybe I should take a positive step and try to warn people," Hendrick said, "but the country really wasn't ready for it. We all prayed there would be a cure. We chased everything we could find. And if he did come forward, it might have been even worse for him." His last months were filled with pain. "He suffered," Hendrick says. "He hurt. He was ill. If he had a good day, he could see people. If he had a bad day, he couldn't see people. I don't think they had the wherewithal to keep you as comfortable as they do today, and he was really sick at times. I would go see him, and I would wait until it was a good time to go see him. If he wasn't having a good day, then I'd talk to his mom." Richmond died as dawn broke over West Palm Beach on Aug. 13, 1989. Each January since, Jimmy Johnson turns his new desk calendar to that date and copies the words, so he won't forget: "Tim died, 5:12 a.m." Richmond was buried at Ashland County Memorial Park in Ohio following a private ceremony for the family. Charlotte Motor Speedway held a memorial service for him the next week. About 200 people attended. Later, Evelyn and Al Richmond asked their son's doctor to announce the cause of death. "I had the thing sold to CBS," Needham says, "But his mother said she just wasn't ready to do that." Now, it's too late. "Hell, look at all the thousands of people who've got AIDS now. I couldn't sell it now. There are too many bigger stars - the Magic Johnsons that have taken AIDS over and above. Then, it was brand new. Today it isn't.
MOST IMPERFECT WAY TO DIE
Many of Richmond's friends still struggle with thoughts of his final months."I think if he would have shared what he was going through, then people would have been supportive," says Clark, the Atlanta Speedway executive. "Tim was such a vain guy, I don't think he could stand it for anybody to see him that way." Wheeler says, "Tim tended to be a perfectionist, and at the time, this was the most imperfect way to die. He did not want to put people through it. In those days, it was such a scary disease. If he had come out and said that, number one, the sport would have been put in a tight spot. " ...Owing to the conservative nature of stock car fans, he certainly would not have gotten the acceptance Magic Johnson got in the NBA." Driver Kyle Petty talked to Richmond by phone that last year, but he and his wife, Patti, wish they had done more. "We had regrets the year before he died," Patti Petty said. "I think everyone should feel a touch of regret. They dropped the ball. They really let him down. It goes back to NASCAR did not want that. It was like at some point, his name was white-washed from the list. "...We're as guilty as the next. But if you went to see him, made a friend out of this guy, is NASCAR going to let you through inspection? They wanted it swept under the carpet at that point." Kyle Petty says, "It all boils down to AIDS. I don't care what anybody tells you. Noboby knows how to handle AIDS - especially in a sport as backward-thinking on so many things as this sport is."
NOTHING LEFT BUT MEMORIES
Richmond's parents now live in their son's Lake Norman home. His golf clubs are in the front closet, and nine pair of boots, a few hats and favorite jackets still in his bedroom closet. Many personal things have been passed on to friends. Dodson, his Blue Max crew chief, has Richmond's custom-made tuxedo. Harold Elliott, his old engine builder, a cowboy hat. Rick Hendrick saved Richmond's road-race car, along with the uniforms and few helmets and trophies Richmond's parents don't have. He hopes to build a museum someday where he can display them. "There are just so many people who want to know more," he said. So Hendrick and friends like veteran crew chief Harry Hyde hold on to what they have left of Richmond. Hyde, now 69, stores a roomful of mementos in his trailer - videotapes of each race, cases of Folgers coffee and stacks of photographs of Richmond in Victory Lane. "He wasn't going to be like you wanted," Hyde says. "He wasn't going to be like mama wanted. He wasn't going to be like Harry Hyde wanted. Or Folgers. Or Rick Hendrick. "Now if you can blame a guy for that ...."
TIM RICHMOND - CAREER HIGHLIGHTS
** USAC sprint car Rookie of the Year, 1978
** Indy 500 Rookie of the Year, 1980
** NASCAR Driver of the Year (with Dale Earnhardt), 1986
** Winston Cup starts: 185
** Winston Cup finishes: 13 wins; 42 top fives.
** Biggest purse: $64,355, 1986 Coca-Cola 600
** Winston Cup career earnings: $2,273,568.
1955 - June 7 - born in Ashland, Ohio.
1980 - Finishes ninth in the Indy 500 and named rookie of the year.
1981 - Runs his first full Winston Cup season
1986 - Moves to Hendrick Motorsports as driver of the No. 25 Folgers car. Wins seven races and eight poles with crew chief Harry Hyde, including Charlotte's Coca-Cola 600 and Darlington's Southern 500. Named NASCAR'S driver of the year with Dale Earnhardt. Diagnosed with AIDS on Dec. 10.
1987 - Returns to racing at the Winston in Charlotte, finishing third. Wins his first two full-length races, at Pocono, Pa., and Riverside, Calif. Resigns from Hendrick Motorsports on Sept. 9.
1988 - Feb. 6 - NASCAR announces Richmond is suspended indefinitely for testing positive for a banned substance. Five days later, he is reinstated when NASCAR announces the test showed over-the-counter cold medication. He is ordered to produce his medical records to race again.
** April 28 - Richmond files a $20 million lawsuit against NASCAR and Dr. Forest Tennant, charging them with defamation of character through the drug test.
** December 28 - Judge James B. McMilan orders Richmond's medical records to be produced.
** Jan. 16 - Richmond withdraws his lawsuit.
** Aug. 13 - He dies at Good Samaritan hospital in West Palm Beach, Fla.
** Aug. 23 - At family's request, Dr. David Dodson announces AIDS as the cause of death. Dodson says he is convinced Richmond contracted the disease through heterosexual sex.
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