DAVE DENSMORE SPEAKS (COMMENTARY): TIM RICHMOND BELONGED IN A FUNNY CAR
On August 13, it’ll be 27 years since Timothy Lee “Tim” Richmond succumbed to the devastating effects of the AIDS virus. He was 34.
The late Raymond Beadle, with whom Tim enjoyed his first real success on the NASCAR tour, was himself one of the “cool kids” in a very cool era but even he was overshadowed by Richmond’s larger than life persona. Tim was a modern day Errol Flynn, the movie swashbuckler from the 1940s. You may have seen him on American Movie Classics. If not, Google him because that was Tim Richmond.
He grew up privileged in Ohio and went to school in Florida where he played football, ran the hurdles and earned Athlete of the Year honors at Miami Military Academy. On his 16th birthday, he reportedly was given a car, a speedboat and an airplane by his doting parents.
There seemed nothing he couldn’t – or wouldn’t – do, either on the track or off.
From the outset, though, Richmond’s two favorite sports were sex and auto racing. It was widely claimed that he could drive anything on wheels and bed anything in heels. The combination eventually was his undoing.
Over the extent of his relatively brief career, he successfully drove go karts, sprint cars, super modifieds, Formula Vees, USAC Silver Crown cars, Indy Cars and, of course, NASCAR stock cars. He won 13 Cup races even though he raced in parts of only eight seasons. He was the 1980 Rookie of the Year at the Indianapolis 500.
Eventually he learned the nuances of racing with patience from crew chief Harry Hyde but I preferred his style when he drove Beadle’s Old Milwaukee Pontiac. It was a style not that difficult to describe. It was balls to the wall. It was go to the front or go home.
Regrettably, his life ended before he could play out his automotive bucket list. Beadle, the three-time NHRA and three-time IHRA Champion, had promised him a ride in a Blue Max Funny Car and Richmond was excited as a kid about the possibility of taking one of the world’s most powerful vehicles from zero to 250 miles per hour.
Growing up in Ashland, Ohio, Tim was friends with “Waterbed Fred” Miller, who later would become a key member of Beadle’s drag racing “super crew” along with Dale Emery and D. Gantt. As a result, he kept up with the Blue Max Funny Car team through Miller and came to the races whenever he could. When Beadle decided to expand into the circle track arena, he tapped Richmond to drive his NASCAR entry; Sammy Swindell to drive a World of Outlaws sprint car.
Richmond drove from 1983 through 1985 and was in the car on Oct. 9, 1983 at the Miller High Life 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He started from the pole and led the most laps (99) before finishing fifth. It was a drive that gave me goose bumps then and does still to this day.
He deserved better than fifth place, especially after it was determined in post-race inspection that the engine in race winner Richard Petty’s car was almost 24 cubic inches over the limit and that his crew had mounted tires meant for the left side of the car on the right side to enhance traction.
Nonetheless, Petty was allowed to keep the victory which prompted Beadle to declare that if he had known that was the police, he’d have run his Outlaw sprint car motor in Richmond’s Pontiac..
Anyway, the Funny Car ride got back-burnered when Rick Hendrick hired Richmond away in 1986. With Hyde as his crew chief, he won more races that year than any other driver in the series (seven) but finished third in points behind the late Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Darrell Waltrip.
His cult hero status certainly wasn’t hurt by that performance or by the fact that the Cole Trickle character in the movie “Days of Thunder,” starring Tim Cruise, was loosely based on Richmond and his interactions with Hyde and Hendrick. Tim even had a bit part in the movie himself.
Unfortunately, that would be his high water mark. He missed the 1987 Daytona 500 amid rumors, but came back in mid-season to win twice. He attempted another comeback in 1988 but it was derailed when NASCAR announced that he had tested positive for drugs and suspended him.
The organization later recanted, calling it a false positive, although later depositions pointed to something more sinister, especially after it was confirmed that all they really found in his system were Advil and Sudafed. Unfortunately, by then the damage had been done, both physically and emotionally.
I would pay money today for the chance to watch Tim Richmond drive, whether it was a stock car, an Indy Car or the Funny Car he planned to add to the list. There are few other drivers in any discipline about whom I can say that. He was, quite simply, exciting. He lived for competition.
Ironically, although they came from backgrounds that bore little resemblance to one another, I saw in Tim the same qualities I do in John Force. Tim was the mamma’s boy son of a successful entrepreneur and manufacturer; Force was the youngest of five children born to a Waffle House fry cook and a truck driver.
However, both possessed a charisma that is infectious. Both saw themselves as movie stars, both had the ability to take control of a room and both were passionate to a fault about driving race cars.
I regret that they never met. It would have been a great Instagram moment.
Tim certainly was reckless. He also was unlucky. So little was really known about the HIV virus at the time. It was foolishly portrayed during those early years as a homosexual problem. I’m sure that made him believe he was not at risk.
He was wrong. I wish he hadn’t been. I wish he had taken that Funny Car ride. Who knows where it might have taken him.