NASCAR’s rough-and-tumble history has its share of legends and folk heroes down South. But a Northerner named Tim Richmond may be the wildest of the bunch.
Hello everybody, I’m Karleigh Webb. I’m a sports journalist with outsports.com, a transwoman athlete, an activist, and I’m a lifelong motorsports fan. As youngster watching NASCAR in the 1980s, I was a fan of Tim Richmond. Because he was that dude. High energy. Free spirit. Raw Talent.
NASCAR commentator Mike Joy recalled, “When he walked into a room, there was suddenly a party going on. And it was just that infectious enthusiasm for life and for racing that really defined him … He was fun to be around. He knew he was the center of attention, and he really kind of cherished it.”
Perhaps that’s why Richmond had the nickname “Hollywood,” and inspired Tom Cruise’s character in the movie Days of Thunder. He was fun even when he was trying to be serious. When team owner Rick Hendrick told Tim to clean up his appearance, the driver responded by appearing in a silk suit, clutching a purse, and a cane like an old woman.
The Tim Richmond story began in his native Ohio, with dreams of Indianapolis. In 1977, he was Rookie of the Year at Sandusky Speedway and was a track champion. In 1978, he was the U.S. Auto Club’s national sprint car Rookie of the Year. In 1980, he was Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year. But after that, Richmond took an offer to head south to NASCAR.
He snagged his first of 13 career wins in 1982 on the road course at Riverside. By the end of the 1984 season, Esquire magazine tagged him one of the “best of a new generation.” 1986 was the breakthrough year. Driving for owner Rick Hendrick, Richmond became a Winston Cup championship threat — seven wins, third in the championship. And the Motorsports Press Association named both Tim Richmond and ‘86 Winston Cup Champion Dale Earnhardt as Co-Drivers of the Year.
In 1987, an illness reported as double pneumonia caused him to miss the first 11 races. But when Tim Richmond came back, boy, he came back. He won at Pocono, and then followed it up back-to-back with a win at Riverside. But after six more starts that year, he was too ill to keep driving.
He tried another comeback in 1988. NASCAR reported that he tested positive for banned substances and was suspended prior to start of qualifying for the Daytona 500 that year. Richmond denied the findings and challenged them publicly.
Days later, those substances were identified as Sudafed and Advil. Richmond sued NASCAR for defamation and later settled out of court. He was retested and reinstated later in the year but couldn’t find a ride for any team. By then the rumors concerning Richmond, HIV and AIDS were prevalent. He denied those rumors as well. A doctor friend claimed that Tim was hospitalized due to a motorcycle accident.
Tim Richmond died on August 13, 1989, at the age of 34.
Ten days after his death, his family announced at a press conference that he had died from complications from AIDS and was diagnosed during his breakthrough season in ‘86. It was asserted that he had become infected through sex with an unknown woman. A few months following his death, a Washington DC television station reported on sealed court documents and interviews that showed that a doctor employed by NASCAR had falsified drug test results to keep Richmond out.
Looking back at a brief yet brilliant career, Rick Hendrick concluded that Tim Richmond was 20 years ahead of his time.
“I think he was good for the sport,” Hendrick observed. “He had a tremendous following of fans. He could drive anything. Not afraid of anything. We need a little bit of that charisma today.”
During NASCAR’s 50th anniversary celebrations in 1998, Tim Richmond was named one of the top 50 drivers of all time. In 2002, he was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame.