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'Too fast to live, too young to die'

OPINION

- sfowler@charlotteobserver.com
Monday, Oct. 18, 2010

If you missed the late Tim Richmond’s shooting-star career as a NASCAR driver – and given that it happened in the 1980s, a lot of us did – then you’re about to get a great chance to catch up.

A one-hour documentary called "Tim Richmond: To the Limit" – detailing Richmond’s flamboyant life and his death due to AIDS -- begins airing Tuesday night at 8 on ESPN.

It is spellbinding stuff, even if you never saw Richmond race live (I didn’t) and you’re not much into watching cars turn left.

Richmond was the sort of character that you can’t make up. He shook up stock-car racing in the 1980s with Hollywood theatrics and driving talent you couldn’t teach.

You hear Richmond’s voice in the documentary several times, once saying his biggest goal was to succeed "at the fun department." And for a while, that’s exactly what Richmond did.

In the 1980s, NASCAR was still dominated by good ol' Southern boys who wore cowboy hats and big belt buckles off the track. Richmond was more GQ. He wore silk suits and cared about his hair. He dated multiple women, lived on a yacht in Fort Lauderdale and looked the part of a lead singer for an '80s band like Styx or REO Speedwagon.

Richmond was about as far from your typical down-home, grits-eatin' NASCAR driver of the '80s as you could get. He didn't grow up driving on red-dirt tracks. He was from Ohio back in a time when most drivers still hailed from the South. He didn't know what made the cars tick.

Race promoter Humpy Wheeler supplied one of the best on-camera quotes in the documentary when he said that Richmond knew about as much about what was going on under the hood of a race car as "your average Labrador retriever."

But boy, could Richmond drive.

In 1986, Richmond won seven Winston Cup races, finished third in the overall points standings and seemed poised to win a points championship soon.

Instead, he started coughing.

He got sick. And then it got worse. It was publicly called "pneumonia," and later "double pneumonia." That was part of it, but in reality Richmond had full-blown AIDS. He retired briefly, made a flashy comeback and then had to leave racing again under hushed circumstances.

Richmond would never admit publicly that he had the disease, but it was rumored for years and confirmed shortly after his death. Richmond's sister Sandy Welsh – well-spoken and wisely utilized by director Rory Karpf – noted icily that the funeral home charged an extra $100 to handle Richmond's body once it found out he had had AIDS.

The documentary isn't perfect. The fact that some sit-down interview subjects are shot from long range seems designed to be arty but instead is distracting. The compelling story of LaGena Lookabill Greene – who contracted AIDS from Richmond but lived, albeit with many health problems – is only mentioned briefly.

This couldn't be helped because of the timing of the documentary, but the film also could have greatly benefited from the insights of the late Dale Earnhardt and The Observer's late racing writer David Poole. Poole wrote an authoritative biography of Richmond in 2005. Earnhardt and Richmond were heated, respectful competitors.

Still this is quite a story, and it is quite well-told.

Richmond died at age 34 in Florida. He was a virtual recluse by then.

It’s a sad ending to the tale of a playboy who was one of the most talented men to ever drive a stock car until a disease took everything away. For while some NASCAR fans consider Richmond no more than a footnote in racing history, he was much more – and much more interesting – than that.

Scott Fowler: 704-358-5140; sfowler@charlotteobserver.com

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