NASCAR Needs To Do More For Tim Richmond’s Legacy


One of the oldest truths about NASCAR is that it has produced some of the most colorful characters in all of American motorsports. Some are remembered fondly, like Junior Johnson and Richard Petty. Others are looked upon with sadness, like Lee Roy Yarbrough and Alan Kulwicki. The story of Tim Richmond is tainted with the latter and is truly regarded as a human tragedy.

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A 13-race winner in the Winston (now Sprint) Cup Series, Richmond was what NASCAR wasn’t: Flashy, eccentric, handsome, and sophisticated. The only thing that he had in common with the rest of the drivers in the garage was that he knew how to wheel a race car. When it came to that, he was without peer.

Following a brief IndyCar stint in 1980 where he won the Indy 500 Rookie of the Year, he moved to NASCAR full-time in 1981. However, his winning ways didn’t begin until 1982 when he swept Riverside while driving for J.D. Stacy. It wasn’t until he paired up with Rick Hendrick and Harry Hyde that he began to visit Victory Lane more frequently, winning a career-high seven races in 1986, where he finished third in points.

However, during the off season, Richmond was diagnosed with the AIDS virus and fell gravely ill, missing a substantial portion of the 1987 season. One could suspect, given the limited knowledge of the AIDS virus in the 80s’, that Richmond felt that keeping the virus under wraps from the public was the best course of action.

Keep in mind the implications of the AIDS virus in those days. During the AIDS scare, initially it was thought that it was an extremely contagious virus spread through homosexual couples. Knowledge that it was in fact a blood-borne pathogen that could be spread heterosexually as well was limited. Still, the common belief didn’t jibe well with NASCAR’s Southern majority, especially when Richmond’s hard-partying lifestyle was taken into consideration.

Even as he was dying, he managed to make a limited run in 1987, winning his first two races back at Pocono and Riverside. Both were tough tracks that just so happened to be his best tracks. He even managed to score a pole before being sidelined for good due to complications. Still, the rumors persisted. Was it drugs? Was it AIDS? Was it pneumonia? Richmond denied the first two, claiming the third. But at that time, NASCAR began to have doubts and as a result, he was sidelined by a “failed” drug test in February 1988.

Tim Richmond won the 1986 Pepsi Firecracker 400, his only Cup win at Daytona.

Of course, NASCAR would go to say that the test “was botched” and Richmond would go on to pass the second test. But when Richmond fought back after NASCAR demanded to see his medical records, the curtain was as good as dropped on his driving career. NASCAR has never been much for admitting wrongdoing when it’s convenient, and in Richmond’s case it was no different. Sure, they believed they were acting in the best interest of all involved, but a “failed drug test” is a party line that is too convenient for them.

Richmond was listed as one of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers in 1998, and rightfully so. However, an induction into the Hall of Fame would be more appropriate. Granted, the HoF only opened in 2010 and of course, there are other deserving candidates like Smokey Yunick and Davey Allison. But the thing is, NASCAR wronged Richmond personally and publicly.

First, they wronged him with the drug test, then they pushed him into a corner when they demanded his medical records. This was before the days of HIPAA, so talk of invading his privacy wasn’t taken into consideration. Right or wrong, NASCAR made a misstep by trying to delve into Richmond’s personal matters. He was cleared by the drug test. It should have been left at that.

As for HoF criteria, he meets those as well. He had a larger-than-life persona. He could wheel a race car with amazing precision, having earned several wins on road courses. He came back, gravely ill, and won his first two races back, both of which were extremely tough tracks. His story was the basis for the 1990 Tom Cruise blockbuster Days of Thunder. He never won anything prestigious, but does that matter?

The final battle between Richmond and NASCAR before he passed in 1989 was a sad ending to an otherwise exciting career. NASCAR may run the show and call the shots, but in the case of Richmond, they have a chance to right a major wrong by properly inducting him into the HoF. After all, there’s never been a driver like him, nor will there ever be.

Next: Where Does Tim Richmond Rank On The List Of The 100 Greatest NASCAR Drivers?