25 years later: What might have been; Richmond vs. Earnhardt
AUG 12, 2014 2:30p ET
Tim Richmond was heading into the Tunnel Turn at Pocono Raceway, one of the most precise and technically challenging corners in all of NASCAR, when he keyed his radio mic.
"Rick, you listening?" Richmond called out to his car owner Rick Hendrick. It was the summer of 1986 and things were finally coming together for Richmond after five prior NASCAR seasons had produced promising moments but erratic results for the racer.
"Yep," said Hendrick.
"Watch this," Richmond replied.
As he headed out of the Tunnel Turn and into Turn 3, Richmond slowed and drifted up perilously close to the outside wall, allowing second-place driver Dale Earnhardt to pass him and take the lead. As the duo headed down the massive 3,740-foot Pocono frontstretch, the longest in NASCAR, Richmond tucked in behind Earnhardt in the draft and actually lifted his rear wheels off the ground before releasing him and then passing him to win the race, one of a series-high seven races that Richmond would win that year, all in a 17-race stretch.
After he re-passed Earnhardt, Richmond keyed the mic again.
"Did you like that?" he asked Hendrick.
"Yeah, that was cool," admitted Hendrick.
Had virtually anyone else done that to Earnhardt, they would have found themselves in the wall or maybe in one of "The Intimidator's" famed headlocks in the garage after the race. But not Richmond -- Earnhardt and Richmond loved racing each other because they were the two guys in the entire sport who cared the least about appearances or what people thought.
Or as Richmond liked to say, "I don't give a s--t, I don't take any s--t, I'm not in the s--t business." And that was something Earnhardt could both respect and relate to.
But that's where the similarities ended and the potential for one of the greatest rivalries in NASCAR history began. NASCAR racing, like professional wrestling, thrives on clear-cut polar opposites fighting for the same prize -- two guys as different as night and day, who both have immense talent and can't stand each other. In racing as is wrasslin', hate is great.
You couldn't pick two drivers who were more different: Earnhardt, the high-school dropout from the mill town of Kannapolis, who was fiercely loyal to his friends and family, and who dressed in Wrangler jeans and boots.
Richmond? Well, you never knew what he'd dress up in. One time he showed up for the Daytona 500 in a silk suit, cane and purse. And for his first meeting with sponsor Folgers prior to his magical 1986 season, he wore a long coat, boots, shorts slit up the sides and a T-shirt that said, "Eat Mo' Possum."
That was vintage Tim Richmond.
Sadly, Richmond proved to be a shooting star, a driver of immense talent whose light shone brightly, but far too briefly.
August 13 marks the 25th anniversary of Richmond's death from AIDS.
According to Amfar, the Foundation for AIDS Research, through 1986, the year when Richmond was diagnosed, there had been 28,712 reported AIDS cases in the United States. Of those, 24,559 AIDS cases resulted in death, a fatality rate of 85.5 percent. That rate has dropped steadily ever since. Today, AIDS is treatable. In 1986, it was a death sentence.
Richmond's death left many unanswered questions. One of those questions is whether or not Earnhardt and Richmond have given NASCAR its next great rivalry, something on the level of the legendary battles between Richard Petty and David Pearson. The potential unquestionably was there.
Former Charlotte Motor Speedway President H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, the savviest stock-car promoter since Big Bill France founded NASCAR in 1947, knew early on that Richmond was something special.
“I can remember seeing him drive and thinking, 'Man, I'm going to check his lineage real strong, because I think I'm seeing Curtis Turner again.' ”
"I can remember seeing him drive and thinking, 'Man, I'm going to check his lineage real strong, because I think I'm seeing Curtis Turner again,'" Wheeler said of Richmond. "Turner was the best natural race driver I ever saw. He just wasn't at the right place at the right time or he'd have won 75 races. Richmond had a lot of that same ability. He was a fantastic race driver."
Richmond didn't start out racing stock cars, which makes his story that much more remarkable. Born in Ashland, Ohio, the son of a successful business owner and his wife, Richmond was born of privilege. He entered horse shows as a child and was a star football player in high school, by which time he also had his pilot's license.
His first taste of a race car came in 1976 at Lakeville (Ohio) Speedway, where Richmond took a buddy's sprint car out for some laps as something of a lark. That first day, he started turning laps faster than the car's regular driver. That was all it took. Soon, there was a sprint car team bankrolled by Richmond's father, then a supermodified team and after that an IndyCar team.
Richmond's moment of glory in open-wheel cars came in 1980 at the Indianapolis 500. He ran out of gas near the end of the race and hitched a ride back to pit road on top of race-winner Johnny Rutherford's car, a photo that appeared in newspapers across the country.
But after one too many crashes in the rear-engined open-wheel cars, Richmond's mother, Evelyn, called his father, Al, and threatened to divorce him and bleed him of every last dollar if he didn't put a halt to Richmond's open-wheel career.
And so it was on to NASCAR, where Richmond immediately drew attention to himself, in some good ways and some less good ones. As a rookie driving for the unheralded Bob Rogers-owned squad, Richmond nearly won one of the biggest races of 1981.
"We were within about 16 or 17 laps of winning the fall Charlotte race that year, a team that never was even talked about finishing probably in the top 15," said FOX analyst Larry McReynolds, who was a crewman on the Rogers team. "But Tim Richmond could make that big of a difference in a race car. We unfortunately lost an engine with 15-16 laps to go -- again, leading the race."
Off the track, Richmond drew lots of attention, too.
"He was devilishly handsome," said National Motorsports Hall of Fame journalist Steve Waid, who was the editor of the sport's bible, NASCAR Winston Cup Scene. "He was outgoing. He was not like your basic Southern born and bred race-car driver. Completely different. He was obviously attractive to women. He knew it. He was very rakish. He was like a guy who belongs in Hollywood. That's pretty much what we were thinking."
And that didn't set so well with the good old boys.
"A lot of the older drivers of the day cast a wary eye toward him," said Waid. "They hadn't seen anything like this, either. This guy is strutting around, acting pretty confident of himself. It was just a new concept in a driver that we hadn't seen."
Wheeler, who tried to mentor Richmond, agreed. "I kept telling him, 'Look, I don't care who you are, you've got to have just a little bit of humility when you come down here,'" said Wheeler. "And I could have been talking to Darrell Waltrip or innumerable guys when they came, they just didn't give a hoot. They came to race and they didn't care what anybody thought, which is exactly what he did."
Those were very different times.
“He (Richmond) come up to me and started running his mouth, so I punched him.”
In 1981, the first year Richmond competed in the Daytona 500, 26 of the 42 starters were from North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama or Virginia. This year, just six of 43 starters were. In those days, drivers were tough guys from the South and they didn't know what to make of somebody with movie star good looks and a mouth to match.
Richmond was despised by Richard Petty, one of the sport's old guard, and at the 1984 Firecracker 400, Richmond got socked in the eye by David Pearson after calling him an old man.
"He come up to me and started running his mouth, so I punched him," Pearson said afterwards. That's how you did things back then.
"He was one of those drivers that when he came in the sport, everybody looked at him a little different, because he was a ladies' guy, really -- you wouldn't know what he would come wearing in the garage next, if it'd be a long mink coat or what he'd have on," said Richard Childress, who was Earnhardt's car owner. "But that was Tim Richmond."
FOX Sports analyst Jeff Hammond, who won two NASCAR championships as Darrell Waltrip's crew chief in the 1980s, said Richmond had a way of getting under the skin of his rivals. "He was such a d--khead about that time," said Hammond. "You liked him but, at the same time, that cockiness just really came through. It shone through so brightly at that point in time."
The flip side was that every day was a new chance to have fun for Richmond, who lived large and partied hard.
"Everybody loved him," Hendrick said of Richmond. "He was the most fun-loving guy. Always laughing and smiling and cutting up. You just loved to be around him. He made everybody feel good. He touched everybody on the team. He had nicknames for all of them. They would kill for him."
"There were a number of practical jokers in racing at the time, but there was no stunt too outrageous for Tim, and it was just him having fun and everybody else was along for the ride," said FOX Sports NASCAR play-by-play man Mike Joy. "He had a unique charisma along the lines of Darrell Waltrip or Rusty Wallace. When he walked into a room, there was suddenly a party going on, and it was just that infectious enthusiasm for life and for racing that really defined him. Yeah, he was fun. He was fun to be around. He knew he was the center of attention, and he really kind of cherished it."
McReynolds, who also worked with Richmond at Blue Max Racing, liked Richmond, too. "He loved attention, there is no question," said McReyonlds. "I mean, if you go back and look at some of his interviews at the racetrack, there's no question he stole the show. Kind of in that regard -- and I say this cautiously because you're comparing an apple to a green bean -- he kind of reminded me a little bit of Darrell Waltrip. You know, some people want to be a part of the show, some people want to be the show, and that's kind of how Tim Richmond was."
Richmond was generous to a fault with his friends. Denny Darnell, who was general manager at Bristol Motor Speedway from 1983-88, said Richmond approached him about finding a parking space at the track for mom Evelyn's RV. Darnell obliged. From then on, every race, Richmond would bring Darnell food Evelyn had prepared for him.
"He would bring dessert, a piece of cake, cookies, something over as he came, but he always made a personal trip to say 'Thank you,'" said Darnell. "And that was something that you didn't get a lot from the drivers. The man said, 'Thank you.' Not a lot of people did that."
Of course, the measure of any driver is the results he posts.
On the track, results were erratic. Richmond won his first two NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races on the old Riverside, Calif., road course, driving for J.D. Stacy in 1982. After Stacy's team disintegrated in a pile of unpaid bills, Richmond moved to the Blue Max Racing squad, owned by drag racing star Raymond Beadle.
It was at Blue Max where Richmond won his first race on an oval -- or at least a triangle -- when he was victorious for the first time at Pocono in 1983. It was also at Blue Max, where the team was sponsored by Old Milwaukee beer, that Richmond's reputation for hard living was cemented.
"Those f---ers were crazy," said one former NASCAR Sprint Cup driver of the Blue Max team. "Studio 54 had nothing on them."
"Where you'd have the guys out on pit road with their wives and kids, he'd be out there with four or five girls, suit unzipped to his navel," said Hendrick. "He would be good for the sport today, because he'd bring so much color to the sport."
“He really reveled in stepping outside the envelope in just about every aspect of his life: work hard, play hard, play harder.”
Another NASCAR team owner said the stories of Richmond and women were legendary in the garage.
"I got some stories. But I ain't about to put 'em on that thing," he said, pointing to my tape recorder.
Waid remembered the women who used to flock to Richmond. "He was seldom without company," said Waid. "It didn't take a genius to figure out that a guy that looked and acted like him and dressed in the latest fashions -- everything. He was right up there. He looked and acted like a playboy. He never really wanted for female company."
Joy, who began as a NASCAR radio announcer for MRN before moving into TV, said Richmond loved pushing any boundary he could find.
"He really reveled in stepping outside the envelope in just about every aspect of his life: work hard, play hard, play harder," said Joy. "And some people may have questioned his lifestyle, but nobody could question his dedication to racing and driving a race car."
Although Richmond and Blue Max were a good match, on and off the track, it took time to get results. From his first Cup race in 1980 through the end of 1985, his last year with Blue Max, Richmond competed in 148 Cup events. During that time, he won four races and had 26 top-five and 57 top-10 finishes. Tellingly, he also had 55 DNFs.
Richmond often drove his cars beyond the limits of their capabilities, resulting in myriad crashes and mechanical failures. "Tim to a certain extent was like Curtis (Turner)," said Charlotte Motor Speedway's Wheeler. "He was either go or blow."
That all changed in 1986, when Richmond exploded into the record book with a remarkable season that saw him become a regular in Victory Lane. But Richmond being Richmond, it didn't happen quickly or easily.
At that time, Hendrick Motorsports was heading into just its third season and team owner Rick Hendrick liked what he saw in Richmond, flaws and all, and signed him to a multi-year contract.
As part of Richmond's contract, Hendrick provided his driver with a brand-new 1986 Chevrolet Camaro Z28 from one of his Chevy dealerships. Delivery was to be made by Jimmy Johnson, the former Hendrick Motorsports general manager, not to be confused with Jimmie Johnson, the six-time champion driver.
The delivery did not go as hoped. At the time, Richmond was living on a boat on Pier 66 in Fort Lauderdale.
"When Jimmy Johnson took a Camaro down there for Tim to drive, he was on top of his boat at 11 in the morning, in a Speedo, drinking beer and eating crab legs," Hendrick said. "Jimmy's got to get back to the airport, right? So Richmond gets behind the wheel of the Z28 and they're going down the freeway to the airport and there's a topless donut shop on the other side.
"Richmond just goes through the median and spins the car around -- a brand-new Z28 -- and takes them to the donut shop. And Jimmy Johnson says, 'Man, I got to get on the plane, you've got to get me to the airport.' So when they get to the airport -- Tim gets to the airport and he stops the car and gets out to shake Jimmy's hand. A cabbie behind him starts blowing the horn. So Richmond puts this brand-new Camaro in reverse and starts pushing the cab backwards at the airport."
That was part of who Richmond was.
No question, Hendrick knew Richmond came with baggage, but the team owner's rationale was simple: If your driver has raw speed, you can teach him finesse and maybe even good manners. But you can't take a slow driver and make him go fast.
"What I liked about Tim was seeing him drive that Old Milwaukee car and how out of control he was and still racing," said Hendrick. "I just thought he had unbelievable car control. And I knew he was kind of a free spirit. It was kind of like looking at a stallion that you want to take to a race. You can hopefully break the stallion and get him to where you can ride him, but you're not going to make a donkey run the race. I felt like Tim had so much God-given talent that I'd be willing to try to keep him between the ditches."
Hendrick, who runs a tightly buttoned-up operation, told Richmond to straighten up his act for the team's debut at Daytona Speedweeks in 1986. So Richmond flew to New York. To get a haircut.
"I told him, 'Tim, you got to cut your hair. You got to clean yourself up.' And so he walks into Daytona with a silk suit, a cane and a purse. In 1986," said Hendrick. "Here's Petty and Waltrip and all those guys with big belt buckles and cowboy boots, Earnhardt with his cowboy stuff on. And here's Richmond over here with a silk suit. Just been to New York and got his hair done. A cane and a purse. And I thought, 'Oh, no, man. No, no, no.'"
To keep Richmond out of the ditches, Hendrick paired him with crusty veteran Harry Hyde, who had been a crew chief since 1966, winning a championship with Bobby Isaac in 1970 and finishing second in points with Dave Marcis five years later. Hyde was Geoff Bodine's crew chief when All Star Racing -- the team that became Hendrick Motorsports -- was launched in 1984. Bodine and Hyde won three races together in 1984, but went winless in '85, their relationship disintegrating in a series of ugly spats.
At first, Richmond and Hyde disagreed vehemently and often. But eventually, the two found common ground.
"Richmond constantly had to be tutored by Harry Hyde, who was one of the great crew chiefs in the sport, about how to deal with the car," said Waid. "Harry had to tell him, 'You can't abuse the car.' Tim was a very aggressive driver. He didn't know anything about patience or strategy. If the car could stand it, he was going to drive the wheels off it. But it was Harry who finally convinced Tim to do certain things to save his car and made his cars fast from the start of the race until the end of the race. So he learned from Harry. Harry's lessons helped him out immensely."
The watershed moment between Hyde and Richmond occurred at North Wilkesboro Speedway in the heart of North Carolina moonshine country. Hyde told Richmond to run 50 laps exactly the way he wanted. Then, Hyde put fresh rubber on and told Richmond to run 50 more laps in the style Hyde preferred -- run at 9/10ths and save your tires instead of 11/10ths and burn them off the car.
"You couldn't just tell Tim this set-up's better than that set-up," said FOX's Joy. "You had to go out and prove it to him."
As it turned out, Hyde's way of driving was faster, which Richmond, to his credit, accepted.
"In hindsight, it was probably the best thing for Tim, because Harry would clamp down on him and make him do things that Harry wanted done," Hendrick said. "Harry wasn't bashful about getting in your face. It turned out to be a really good pairing."
Oddly, as much as the two would fight occasionally, Richmond never argued with Hyde about the nuances of the components in the car.
"He didn't care what you had in that race car," McReynolds said. "He didn't care if you put the rear springs in the front and the front springs in the rear, he didn't care if you took the front sway bar off, he didn't care if you flipped the rear-end housing around backwards. He just got in there and drove. There ain't but one way to put it -- drove the living hell out of that race car."
"I remember once walking into the trailer behind him at Riverside and Harry said, 'Tim, tell me which one of these motors you want,'" Hendrick said. "'This motor's got 10 more horsepower, but it's got 20 laps on it, this motor's brand-new, but it's about 10 off of that one. This motor's got a little bit more bottom end, if you want to come off the corner better.'
"Tim looked at him and said, 'Hell, I don't care, Harry. Put what you want in there.' He didn't even want to get serious about what the engine was."
The 1986 season started off slow for the No. 25 Hendrick team, with just three top 10s and a best of fifth at Darlington in the first 10 races of the year. But then, Richmond and company caught fire. Richmond finished second to Earnhardt in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway over Memorial Day weekend, going to Victory Lane to raise Earnhardt's arm up after the race. A week later, Richmond finished second to Waltrip in another Hendrick car, although there was no joy this time.
"A lot of people didn't think Tim cared that much about winning or losing, but you remember that Riverside race where Darrell beat him on the last lap?" said Hendrick. "He went in the truck and he set down and cried, because he felt like he let the team down."
Richmond attacked furiously after that, winning the next weekend at Pocono. Following a disappointing 15th at Michigan, Richmond won the Firecracker 400 at Daytona and again the next week in the second Pocono race. After that came a runner-up finish at Talladega Superspeedway, a victory on the Watkins Glen road course, second at Michigan, sixth at Bristol and then victories at Darlington and Richmond. In the span of 10 races, Richmond won six times and finished second twice. By the time the season ended, Richmond had seven victories, three of which saw Earnhardt finish second to him. He also had 13 top fives and just two DNFs, finishing a career-best third in points.
To end the season, Richmond won from the pole at Riverside, what should have been a high point to cap a great year. What Richmond didn't know is that he was already dying.
"He started feeling bad, and this was coming on for a long time," said Wheeler. "I saw him up in New York. We were up there in December for the (NASCAR) banquet, and I said, 'Tim, you've got to see a doctor, man.' So I sent him to my doctor. Next thing I know, he's gone. Nobody can find him. He looked like he had pneumonia. He acted like he had pneumonia."
From there, Richmond went into hiding.
"I tried to find him. Everybody was trying to find him," said Wheeler. "He completely disappeared. And everybody's calling me trying to find him. I don't know where he is. I called his mother. She said she didn't know where he was. I wasn't sure about that. I know his mother knew where he was. I said, 'Look, we're trying to help him. Rick Hendrick, everybody's looking for him.' He just disappeared as much as any race driver who's currently employed could do. Then I found out that he had checked into the Cleveland Clinic, and that's when I really got worried, because at that point, that's where you went with AIDS when there was no hope. I began to feel at that point that that's what the problem was, that he had AIDS."
Richmond sat out the first 11 races of the 1987 season, and then made a miraculous and emotional return, winning his first race back at Pocono and again at Riverside.
“We went on and it was probably several months after that that his mother told me he was sick and that he had HIV. I didn't even know what it was."”
"He was gone until Pocono in '87, and durned if he didn't win there," said Waid. "And then he went to Riverside the next week and he won there. You can't write this. Hollywood can't come up with this stuff. We all thought, 'Man, he's going to come back and pick up where he left off.' But unfortunately, that didn't happen.'
By then it was obvious that Richmond was sick.
"He won at Riverside and he was coughing up some black stuff," said Hendrick. "It looked like he had flu. Nobody knew anything other than the flu. We went on and it was probably several months after that that his mother told me he was sick and that he had HIV. I didn't even know what it was."
As Richmond's health deteriorated, the problems increased, most notably at Watkins Glen, where he was the defending race winner.
"The night before the race, at a restaurant where a couple of us stopped in, he was there. He was already obviously drunk," said Waid of Richmond. "He could barely keep his head up. The next morning, we were in the drivers' meeting. Tim was in there, glassy-eyed and nodding off, barely able to stand. Some of the drivers went to (NASCAR Competition Director) Dick Beatty and suggested that if he's on the track, they're not going to get on the track. He was in no condition to drive. Fortunately, rain postponed the race by a day and it went on Monday and Tim was able to race."
It got worse.
"At Michigan, they're getting ready to qualify and they can't find Tim Richmond," said Waid. "Harry Hyde is standing right there and I'm right there with him. He turns to us and says, 'OK, guys, fan out. Let's find him.' That's exactly what he said. And they finally found him. He was asleep in the motor home. They got him up, put him in a golf cart, took him to his car and he just looked out of it. And he didn't qualify worth a toot. I think in the race, he blew his engine, and after that, Rick Hendrick came down and said he was not going to race anymore that year, that he was fighting a terrific bad cold and just was not able to be healthy enough to drive."
Tim Richmond ran his last Sprint Cup race on Aug. 17, 1987, qualifying 25th and finishing 29th in the Champion Spark Plug 400 at Michigan.
The following February, Richmond attempted to race again in Daytona, but NASCAR refused to let him compete, citing a ginned-up drug test that allegedly showed abnormally high levels of over-the-counter medications. Richmond sued, the case was eventually settled and he became a virtual recluse in his Fort Lauderdale condominium.
On the morning of August 13, 1989, he called his mother at 4 a.m. and asked her to come see him at the hospital, where she had visited faithfully ever since he'd been admitted earlier in the year. Little more than one hour later, Richmond died.
When Hollywood decides to make a big budget, major motion picture about your life and hires Tom Cruise to star in it, you must have been something special, and Tim Richmond was. The film "Days Of Thunder" -- or parts of it anyway -- is supposed to be about his life.
Just how good was he, and could he have taken away some of the five championships that Earnhardt would go on to win from 1987-94, in addition to the two he earned in '80 and '86? Surprisingly, perhaps, opinions are split.
"I think if Tim Richmond would have lived, the sport would be different today," said Childress, the car owner for six of Earnhardt's seven championships. "Tim Richmond would have been a champion, he would have won a lot of races in his career."
"I think Tim should be remembered as one of the greatest drivers that never got a chance to show his skill," said Hendrick, who recalled a conversation he had with Childress at the 1986 Cup awards banquet. "Richard came up to me and said, 'Man, I don't think we can beat you guys next year. Y'all are on it.' I think the guy was capable of winning 10 or 15 races a year, I really do."
“I feel like he could have been that rival that Dale Earnhardt would have probably met his match on.”
Wheeler, the former promoter, said he thought Richmond would have gone on to win a lot of races, but not necessarily series titles. "I don't know that Tim would have ever won many championships," he said. "He just wasn't that type of driver. He was a champion, but he wasn't a championship driver. He'd have won a lot of races."
"He had Jimmie-Johnson-like car control and that was great," Joy said of Richmond. "He was inconsistent. He had great days and bad days. Mickey Mantle struck out a lot. It came to light very late after Mantle's career was over -- a lot of mornings he'd show up at the ballpark hung over, maybe couldn't even see the fastball, nobody knows. Tim had a lot of great races, and he had a lot of races where things just didn't all come together. We'll never know why. But he had the potential to win a great number of races."
"When I think about Tim, it was more about winning races than probably it was winning championships," added McReynolds.
As for the potential rivalry with Earnhardt, that, too, is something one can only wonder about.
"I think probably one of the biggest rivalries that there ever, ever, ever could have been, had Tim not gotten sick and would have continued his career, would probably have been Tim Richmond and Dale Earnhardt," said McReynolds. "There are a lot of races that drivers won, and there are probably several championships that drivers won, that they would not have won had Tim Richmond still been driving a race car and not have gotten sick."
"I think they raced each other differently than maybe Earnhardt raced Petty or Allison or somebody like that," said Darnell, the former Bristol GM. "Sometimes a pitcher brings the best out in a hitter, sometimes a defense brings the best out of a running back because they want to show that 'I am this good.' I think that was it, it was respect."
Hammond, the two-time championship crew chief, believed Richmond could have given Earnhardt a run for his money. "We can all speculate how far he could have gone if he could have just stuck around a little bit longer but I feel like he could have been that rival that Dale Earnhardt would have probably met his match on."
"I'd love to see him at his age then today, competing with these guys," said Hendrick. "I guarantee you it would be a fan favorite, because he'd still be doing crazy stuff -- get out of the car, pour beer on his head. What people don't realize is Tim was probably 20 years ahead of his time. I think Tim was good for the sport. He had a tremendous following of fans. They still come here today. He could drive anything. Not afraid of anything. We need a little bit of that charisma today."