Will Movie Change Perceptions Of Tim Richmond?

Charlotte, NC (October, 18, 2010) – It was inevitable that someone would make a movie of Tim Richmond’s life. On Tuesday, ESPN will debut Tim Richmond – To The Limit – a 60-minute documentary about the NASCAR Winston Cup (now Sprint Cup) driver who died of AIDS in 1989. The film, which is part of ESPN’s 30 For 30 series, will air at 8 p.m. Eastern Time Tuesday.

The ESPN public relations ‘tease’ to the film indicates it will highlight some of Richmond’s on-track highlights and the controversy surrounding his passing of AIDS. Included in the list of those appearing in the movie are former NASCAR drivers Darrell Waltrip and Richard and Kyle Petty, Richmond’s team owner Rick Hendrick, racing promoter H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler and ESPN reporters Dr. Jerry Punch and Ed Hinton.

It will be interesting to hear some of their comments and if time has changed their opinions at all. Shortly after he came to NASCAR, Richmond got the nickname ‘Hollywood’ from his fellow competitors – many of whom disliked, envied or were jealous of his talents on and wealthy lifestyle off the race track.

Why not dislike Richmond? He was a rock star both. He had all the trappings – airplanes, fast cars, and women – and had possessed them a long time. On his 16th birthday in 1971, Richmond received a new Pontiac Trans Am, a Piper Cherokee Airplane and a speedboat from his parents. Not that Richmond didn’t earn it. As a youth, he was a top athlete at Miami (FL) Military Academy, good enough that they retired his football jersey. He also excelled in other sports and wasn’t a bad student. Why not give him a plane at age 16? By that age, he already had a pilot’s license.

Tim Richmond was special – someone who excelled in everything he ever did. So it was in 1980 that he graduated from Indy cars and finishing ninth earning rookie of the year honors in the Indianapolis 500 to NASCAR. A lot of the old ‘southern guard’ drivers in NASCAR didn’t like Richmond. They liked him even less when he swept both Cup road course events at Riverside in 1982. Richmond had arrived, was winning races and grabbing headlines. For some drivers like Waltrip – the 1981-82 and 85 Cup champion – that made Richmond a target.

After three more seasons and two more wins with team owner Raymond Beadle, Richmond jumped ship to join Hendrick’s team in 1986. Hendrick was relatively new to NASCAR then but he had already experienced success with Geoff Bodine winning three times over the previous two seasons. Now, he would team Richmond and Bodine together for the 1986 season. The move worked to perfection as Bodine won twice – including right out of the box at Daytona – while Richmond posted a monster year capturing seven checkered flags. The team, led by crafty veteran crew chief Harry Hyde, came together winning the 13th race of the season at Pocono. In all, they won six of the next 10 races including Daytona, Watkins Glen and the Southern 500 at Darlington. Richmond finished the season with another victory at Riverside and third place in the final 1986 points chase.

So it was when Richmond became ill after the 1986 season that rumors started swirling about why he wasn’t at the track when the green flag dropped on the 1987 Daytona 500. Initially, Richmond’s illness was reported as pneumonia. Some speculated it was drug abuse. Richmond was eventually healthy enough to make it back to the race track by the 12th event of the 1987 season at Pocono. Richmond ignored some of the biting, nasty and – for the most part – uninformed public comments by his detractors to win both at Pocono and the next race Riverside. Unfortunately, the run didn’t last long as Richmond’s endurance lasted only eight races as Richmond stepped out of the No. 25 Chevy for the last time after the Champion Spark Plug 500 at Michigan on August 16, 1987.

A second comeback attempt at the start of the 1988 was short-circuited when NASCAR suspended Richmond for a failed drug test resulting from a non-prescription over-the-counter allergy and respiratory medication. Richmond sued NASCAR over the suspension and was later retested and reinstated. By this time, however, Richmond was all but blackballed in NASCAR. People who had no clue about what they were talking about were making public comments about Richmond’s condition and suspected vices/ailments.

Frustrated and sick, Richmond withdrew into privacy in Florida for a year and in July, 1989 he was hospitalized with what they were now calling a motorcycle accident. On August 13, 1989, Tim Richmond died. Ten days later, a medical press conference was held revealing that his death was due to complications from AIDS. Richmond’s death did little to stop the controversy that surrounded him in life. Stories began to surface that Dr. Forest Tennant and NASCAR allegedly falsified drug-test results to bar Richmond in from competing in 1988. While there was never any confirmation or litigations to come out of the accusations, NASCAR did install its current drug policy to its list of participant requirements in the wake of Richmond’s death.

Other than the drug policy, Richmond’s legacy to NASCAR has been a silent one for the most part. Although named as one of the 50 greatest NASCAR drivers of all time in 1998 and inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2002, Richmond is a usually omitted when there’s a discussion of the 1980’s NASCAR greats.

Even 20 years later, it’s just more comfortable for a lot of people to talk about ‘The Intimidator,’ ‘Jaws,’ or ‘The Ice Man,’ Cale or Bobby than it is to talk about ‘Hollywood’ – the NASCAR driver who died from AIDS. That’s why Tuesday’s ESPN movie about Richmond is important to watch. Let’s hope they do the story justice with balance and truth and not produce just another layer of veneer over the life and career of Tim Richmond.

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