It was 25 years ago today that NASCAR lost one of its brightest stars with the passing of Tim Richmond on Aug. 13, 1989. I wasn’t a NASCAR fan back then. Instead, I was an overly-obsessed University of Kentucky basketball fan embarking on the eighth grade.
Even though I wasn’t a fan back in the late 80s, I had, of course, heard of Dale Earnhardt, and as a Kentucky native, I was definitely aware of the Waltrip brothers, but Richmond? Not so much, even though he had a part in the move Stroker Ace (which has since become one of my all-time favorite racing movies, despite its cheesiness or maybe because of said cheesiness), and legend has it that he was the inspiration for Tom Cruise’s Cole Trickle character in Days of Thunder.
Okay, I’m still the overly-obsessed UK basketball fan, but I’ve since also developed a love of racing.
Point is, I wasn’t aware of Tim Richmond, but in hearing of stories about the wild and crazy Richmond in the years since becoming involved in NASCAR, I’ve learned that Richmond was definitely an interesting, and at the very least entertaining, character.
From what I’ve heard about Richmond the last couple of decades, he liked to have a good time and he loved the ladies, if you catch my drift. But above all, he was a heck of a wheelman.
Richmond competed at the Cup level, for a time for Hendrick Motorsports, between 1980 and 1987. During that time, he made 185-career starts, with 13 of those starts turning into wins. His stats also included 42 top-five and 78 top-10 finishes.
While Richmond won several races, one battle that he wasn’t able to win was a battle with AIDS. Like I mentioned, Richmond loved the ladies and it was that love that was believed to eventually lead to his illness. At the time of his death, the fact that he had AIDS wasn’t confirmed, but it was widely speculated within the NASCAR community. Later, Dr. Jerry Punch, who was then and still is now an ESPN broadcaster, confirmed that Richmond had confided in him that he had AIDS. During Richmond’s life, his late-career health issues officially remained somewhat of a mystery.
When doing research for this blog post, I discovered a couple of connections between the period of Richmond’s downfall and modern-day NASCAR that I admit I was completely unaware of before. Fans who have been around the sport longer may have already made the connections, or they may be facts that could have been forgotten over the years.
Amid his health crisis, Richmond tried to wage a career comeback at the start of the 1988 season by entering the Busch Clash, turned Bud Shootout, turned Sprint Unlimited. In the race he was to drive for car owner Ken Ragan. Does that last name sound familiar? Ken Ragan is the father of current Sprint Cup Series driver David Ragan.
Richmond didn’t run the Busch Clash, because he failed a drug test and was sidelined by NASCAR’s first substance abuse policy. NASCAR announced that Richmond testest positive for a controlled substance. A few days later, though, NASCAR was forced to admit that all that was found in Richmond’s system were Sudafed and Advil. Richmond sued NASCAR and the case settled out of court. Sound familiar? Jeremy Mayfield, anyone?
Of course, in Mayfield’s case, Mayfield wasn’t able to beat NASCAR. And I’ve publicly given my opinion that Mayfield’s been in denial and NASCAR’s not waging a smear campaign against him. I’m not saying I’ve done a complete 180, but the Richmond story does cast at least a little doubt. And really, I’m not so sure that Richmond actually beat NASCAR. By the time he was reinstated, he was unable to get a ride.
In doing my research, here’s a link to an article written by Ed Hinton for ESPN.com back in 2009. Yeah, it’s five years old, but it’s a great read and contains some interesting and amusing stories about Richmond, a NASCAR star on the rise whose flame was extinquished at too young of an age.
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Enjoy these photos of Tim Richmond (photos courtesy of Getty Images for NASCAR):