To the Limit

Tim Richmond documentary a stunning look at a career, and life, lost

Tim Richmond documentary a stunning look at a career, and life, lost

by Tom Bowles

“It’s tough, when you sit down and think about it; the saddest thing is that you never got a chance to say goodbye to him. But oh, how he lived.”  — Kerry Cramer

One of Tim Richmond’s lifetime friends sums it up perfectly, the triumph and tragedy captured in ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary on the NASCAR legend that could have been. It’s the story of a talented driver brought down by both the phobia and the poison of AIDS, a story in cultural contradiction between the loose-living, feel-good attitude of a man whose brash ways inevitably clashed with a conservative Southern culture. It was a tale of awkward acceptance, then ignorance and a long list of misunderstandings until it was far too late.

The story should bring you to tears, and by the end you’re certainly crying your eyes out for a life that didn’t deserve this ugly ending. But in the 50 minutes until we get there, this documentary produced by NASCAR Media Group achieves a type of even-keeled balance you rarely see, making it a must for your TV schedule once it premieres Tuesday, 8:00 p.m. on ESPN. Put together through a detailed, chronological look at Richmond’s life and career, we see the beauty of a free-wheelin’, naturally talented party animal rise and fall in a way no one in this sport had done before or since.

Through it all, in this age of earthquake-shattering declines in ratings and perception you can’t help but wonder how much NASCAR would beg to have his personality now. An excitable, always optimistic soul, he had the fashion sense employed by Manhattanites Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, a “cosmopolitan man,” as the documentary says, living in a good ol’ boys world. But while the driver got lost, even beaten down initially inside a sea of cowboy hats and one-track minds, the bright, engaging side of his personality never stopped to become a sponsor shrill. From start to finish, it was Richmond doing things his own way, the type of charismatic character brought forth in a film that leaves hardcore fans longing for a simpler time.

“Are you going to win, or are you going to survive?” a reporter asks Richmond in a clip from the early ’80s. “Win,” he says. “I don’t know how to spell survive. Win is a lot easier to spell. M-O-N-E-Y is what they call it.”

How many millions will you bet that no one inside this year’s Chase for the Championship field ever says that? In some ways, this man stood alone while in others, he served as a preview of the sweeping NASCAR changes to come during the Jeff Gordon era of the 1990s and beyond.

“He didn’t know much more mechanically about the car than your average Labrador retriever,” claims Humpy Wheeler, one of many similarities he has with Gordon and others who followed him at Hendrick Motorsports. “He just knew how to drive one naturally as good as I ever saw.”

During a time where mechanics also doubled as men behind the wheel, it was one of one thousand reasons this playboy who originally started his career in IndyCar struggled to gain acceptance. For those that think the lawsuits of the last two years are truly heinous — Mauricia Grant and Jeremy Mayfield — think back to a time in the mid-1980s where just a white boy with a northern accent would walk around the garage and get looked at like an unwanted outsider.

“The conservative, beer-drinking guys from the south, it was a tough road,” says Jerry Punch in the film. “They didn’t like him because he was different.”

“NASCAR had a hard time accepting him because he wasn’t one of those good ol’ boys,” adds sister Sandi Walsh. “And he struggled those first years.”

In a way, then, his 1986 partnership with then-up and coming businessman Hendrick was like a match made in heaven. Two industry outsiders, two new philosophies filtering into the sport, combining together to harness a talent that throughout the first seven years’ of Richmond’s career had been filled with potential — not overall performance. It was simply breathtaking to review all over again. Bring in a military-style, award-winning crew chief named Harry Hyde, and you have all the ingredients for a Hollywood story. Indeed, one of the few omissions from this outstanding production is the fact this trio provided the basis for the 1990 NASCAR mainstream movie Days of Thunder.

“One of the greatest talents that ever drove one of these cars,” said Hendrick, whose penchant for matching the perfect pairing led to a breakout season for Richmond: seven victories, eight poles, and a third-place finish in the final standings. By this point, it’s the halfway mark of the film and you’re roped into the heart of this storybook success, waiting patiently for the fairy tale ending that never comes.

Then, out of nowhere the nightmare begins, a film’s shocking transition into the dark prejudice of AIDS and resulting contraction that ultimately brought Richmond down. The national ignorance and fear within the NASCAR community is captured brilliantly here by director Rory Karpf, some shocking admissions of mistakes within a sanctioning body that usually says the words “I’m sorry” next to never.

“‘Ignorant’ is the best word you can use to describe what he was going through,” says Kyle Petty, surrounding Richmond’s downfall and resulting isolation. During the 15-month period between December 1986 and his final departure from the sport following the 1988 Busch Clash, a brief comeback gets nixed along with a second, the latter including a “failed” drug test that even Bill France Jr. admits was a mistake. One by one, the myths of a mystery disease get exposed, the tricky national controversy a then-growing sport just wouldn’t make the gamble to take on.

And that’s where this film rises bluntly to the occasion, presenting both sides in a way that you actually find yourself sympathetic to NASCAR’s tough decisions despite its cold-blooded intentions. Surely, there were missteps in a problem that, if handled differently, could have been a landmark in the fight to change the perception of AIDS. But in any relationship breakdown, it takes two to tango and Tim’s portrayal as someone who never came to grips with this deadly disease makes you understand how quickly this disaster began to snowball, allowing the phobias to strengthen by his own ignorance to accept the tragic hand that was dealt.

Still, when all is said and done it’s Richmond’s fellow competitors in the crosshairs, the deep seeds of refusal to both acknowledge and accept something different at the heart of the film’s central message.

“He was a heck of a race car driver, but I don’t know how strung out he was on something to make him that way,” Richard Petty says, speaking words that, considering the 21-year gap between Richmond’s death and the breadth of AIDS awareness now, are simply stunning. “If I was taking something, I might be a little different, too.”

“Everybody I’ve ever known that tries to play hardball with NASCAR loses,” adds Punch, a quote that sticks from a battle Richmond fought and ultimately lost to stay inside the sport as he grew sicker. “Because they own the ball and they own the playing court.”

As you might expect, that’s where Karpf heads towards the inevitable tragic conclusion steeped with the pain of personal connections that drive its point home. But keep in mind this film isn’t without some brighter moments; in fact, both the beginning and end is where you keep your eyes open for my favorite person, the hometown friend of Richmond’s who has a beard to make hippie Santa Claus proud. I’ve never been so excited to hear the words “honey” and “nice” used in the same sentence — absolutely hysterical. Stroker Ace aficionado Hal Needham is among a handful of other surprise guest who make an appearance.

Looking back at the Hall of Fame selections this week, it’s hard to quantify just how much, if any, impact a full-fledged Richmond career could have had. Considering he drove in the same era and style as one Intimidator, Dale Earnhardt, you’d have to believe one, if not multiple championships, would have swung his way instead. That alone would have swayed the type of heavyweight punch to change a sport forever, Earnhardt’s absence on the first induction likely in a building that could have very well one day sported Richmond’s bust.

The fact that will never come to pass is one of the most tragic, unfulfilled potential stories in the sport’s rich 61-year history. I’m just glad there’s a perfect documentary out there to do it justice.

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ESPN's 30 for 30 documentary is a fitting and poignant look at the hard times and fast life of NASCAR's ultimate shooting star: Tim Richmond.

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