Ingram's Flat Spot On: Richmond lived fast, died young

Ingram's Flat Spot On

Richmond Lived Fast, Died Young
by Jonathan Ingram

Was Tim Richmond ever really understood or appreciated by the NASCAR community -- the fans, the participants in the garage or the sanctioning body?

Tim Richmond
Tim Richmond

Photo by: Goddard Marketing Group

Over 20 years after the mercurial driver's death from AIDS, that question and others are answered in a documentary directed by Rory Karpf for ESPN. "To the Limit" combines tragedy with celebration and social history with an extraordinary racing story.

It's not surprising Richmond's career was the one motor racing segment chosen as part of the "30 for 30" series of sports documentaries by the American sports network, which airs "To the Limit" for the first time on Tuesday evening Oct. 19. Not only was Richmond's all-too-brief career extraordinary -- like his personality. But most are unaware of the behind-the-scenes issues resulting from the first American athlete in a major professional sport to contract AIDS.

Although universally compelling, the documentary belongs to NASCAR because it captures well the go-go growth years of the 1980's of what is now known as the Sprint Cup, which was then just taking off due to the regular cable TV coverage combined with the promotion from the Winston brand of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. The sport was rough, but ready for prime time.

It was an era when NASCAR and Indy cars first seemed capable of drawing up to the status enjoyed by the professional leagues of baseball, football and basketball in America. Both types of racing had finally started bursting into living rooms regularly via live TV coverage. With a driving talent perhaps never seen before or since, Richmond was able to bridge the gap between Indy cars and NASCAR with typical moxie as he moved from a very prominent status as rookie of the year at the Indy 500 into NASCAR, where he quickly became a race winner.

The sad ending to Richmond's life was an ignominious first that followed other cutting edge accomplishments. The first to make a full-time career move from Indy cars and an upbringing in the Midwest to NASCAR, Richmond arrived at a time when stock car racing was dominated by the good ol' stars and long before Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart had yet to be heard from. The factory-backed teams that had enabled Freddy Lorenzen to move into NASCAR from Illinois in the 1960's no longer existed.

In the 1980's, NASCAR was virtually a closed shop, open only to southern drivers. It was southern in style and attitude and was dominated by a family ethos. When he ended up third in the points in 1986, playboy Richmond was the only driver in the Top 20 who wasn't married and most of the others not only had wives but children as well. Richmond, by contrast, remained an irrepressible, fun-loving and likeable Lothario, determined that he would eventually succeed on the track.

Victory lane: race winner Tim Richmond celebrates
Victory lane: race winner Tim Richmond celebrates

Photo by: Getty Images

It wasn't easy. As one of his crew chiefs told print journalists at the time on the topic of his growing pains behind the wheel, "Tim Richmond would wreck a car 30 times during a race. Unfortunately, he would only save it 29 times."

In a discrete manner, the documentary captures his risque lifestyle as well as the difficulties Richmond had fitting in on the track and in the garage. In one extraordinary piece of footage, he goes eye-to-eye with "King" Richard Petty in a driver's meeting in a manner that clearly mocked the NASCAR way of doing things but wasn't really offensive. That would be the incomparable Richmond.

He might have easily been compared to the NASCAR legend Curtis Turner, a bootlegger, timber wildcatter and party hound for three decades starting in the 1940's. But Turner, who grew up in the hills of Virginia, was one of their own when it came to the stock car participants. And the tragic ending in Richmond's case arrived far more suddenly.

It's still stunningly difficult to comprehend that Richmond died at the age of 34. That was two years after he won six of ten races and finished second in two others during his meteoric 10-race streak midway in the 1986 season while under the tutelage of crew chief Harry Hyde and team owner Rick Hendrick.

Gradually coming down with the symptoms of AIDS, Richmond did not win for almost two months before winning again at Riverside, Calif. in the season finale in November of 1986. His disease, manifested in the form of double pneumonia, sidelined him for most of the first half of 1987 before he came back to finish second at "The Winston" exhibition race in Charlotte in May. He then won the first two points races entered after his bout with pneumonia at Pocono and Riverside in June, capping another incredible streak of three wins and a second place in four races, especially in retrospect.

The film, which to its credit has a lyrical approach versus any dwelling on statistics, pulls few punches on the issues of AIDS or how NASCAR -- the sanctioning body and community -- responded to Richmond's personal struggles. Richmond got drummed out due to erratic behavior and poor health under a haze of accusations, including drug use. The driver himself went into both personal and public denial about his condition. With an extensive film and tape library, Richmond's own struggle to cope via denials made in public comments was handled by Karpf in a way that moves the story beyond sadness or tear-jerking and into profound tragedy.

The storytelling relies heavily on Richmond's sister Sandy Walsh, who shares the family perspective on his entire life with extraordinary frankness, humor and insight. There's an apology of sorts from a compassionate Kyle Petty, who recognizes that there was no way anybody in the garage could have really understood what Richmond was going through and that the driver himself couldn't very well have revealed it. The footage includes comments from two other high profile athletes, Greg Louganis and Magic Johnson, who were later diagnosed with AIDS at a time when much more was known and understood about the disease.

Ultimately, this documentary of Richmond's story makes him seems more like a member of the NASCAR family rather than a star-crossed wunderkind gone wrong. In the opening segment, as he watches the start of the Coca-Cola 600 from a window in the condos at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, Richmond talks about his upcoming comeback at Pocono in that fateful summer of 1987.

"I will do it again," he says over the roar of engines. "I hope I will do it well. This is the greatest sport in the world."

Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jonathan@jingrambooks.com