Want Hall of Fame flair? Think Tim Richmond


Monday, May. 21, 2012

I went to the National 500 in October 1981. It was my second big NASCAR race. Some of the writers in the Charlotte Motor Speedway press box had talked about moonshine, and the way they talked, moonshine was to alcohol what Darlington (S.C.) Raceway is to race tracks.

It’s just booze, I finally said.

One of them had a party that night, and they summoned me to the kitchen. Everybody in it was on their knees in praise of the mighty moonshine.

Dorks, I thought.

Then they lit the alcohol on fire.

Darn. Who’s a dork now?

Because I had failed to properly respect the hooch, I had to drink it in front of everybody. I knew I couldn’t gag. So I quickly drank the shot that was handed to me and could feel it in my toes.

In the kitchen was a new driver who had finished 18th that afternoon in a Rogers Auto Leasing Buick. Over time, Tim Richmond would prove to be much more potent than the alcohol.

At 6 p.m. Wednesday, NASCAR will announce five inductees into its 2013 Hall of Fame class. Richmond, who died of AIDS in 1989 at the age of 34, will not be one of them.

He started only 185 races. He won 13. His numbers do not suggest the Hall of Fame.

But his career does. The Hall has to be about more than numbers. During the 1980s, the sport was full of characters, and Richmond was a bigger character than any of them.

He was more than entertainment. He changed the sport. He came from Ashland, Ohio, and at the time almost nobody came from outside the South. You were practically a Yankee if you came from Virginia.

Richmond came from open-wheel racing. He wasn’t the first. But most of the others were guests. Richmond stayed.

He came from money. Almost nobody in racing came from money. If there was ever dirt beneath his fingernails, he probably paid somebody to remove it.

Perhaps because of his background, he saw possibilities few others did. He talked to me one afternoon in the garage about how stock car racing was too big to be tethered to the South.

Take it national, he said excitedly. Show it to fans in Cleveland, Chicago and anywhere else, he insisted, and they’ll go crazy, too.

This was years before NASCAR went national, and Richmond was considered uppity, as if he didn’t know his role.

A good-looking and flamboyant guy, Richmond might have attracted as many women to NASCAR as Danica Patrick has. He grew his hair long, dressed like a biker one day and a banker the next, drank champagne and loved beautiful women. They loved him more.

Also, he could drive. He was fearless. Richmond won his first race in 1982 and his last in 1987. Again, he won 13 races during that period. Only four drivers won more: Darrell Waltrip had 26 victories, Dale Earnhardt 19, Bill Elliott 18 and Bobby Allison 14.

Richmond’s best season was 1986, when he won seven races. Earnhardt was second in victories; he won five.

Richmond finished third that season, six points behind Waltrip and 296 behind the champion, Earnhardt.

I don’t know when Richmond knew he had been diagnosed with AIDS. Nobody knew what to make of the disease then, especially NASCAR.

AIDS was a faraway plague that was alien to everything for which the sport purported to stand. The disease was even more outside than he was. Magic Johnson did not announce he had been diagnosed with HIV until 1991, two years after Richmond died.

Richmond dropped out. NASCAR ran him off.

He agreed to meet with me and I talked him into doing the interview not at his Lake Norman home – other writers would find out – but in Ohio, where his family still lived and where he occasionally spent time.

I flew to Cleveland and drove to Ashland to meet with him. He pushed the interview back a day. Later he explained he flew to New York to get his hair cut.

John Edwards has been criticized for a $500 haircut. With airfare, Richmond spent at least that. He was Edwards first.

Late that first afternoon, Richmond suggested we grab a drink. We grabbed several. When I switched to coffee, he told me that unless I returned to tequila, the interview was finished. So I did. In another hour, I was finished, too. I stayed another day.

I was so used up when I returned to Charlotte that I flew first class knowing the company might not pay.

Does the Hall want character or characters?

What are the standards? Who gets in?

Brief as his career was, Richmond had Hall of Fame talent and a Hall of Fame impact. If you’re good enough, you can come from anywhere. He proved it.

Sorensen: 704-358-5119;; Twitter: @tomsorensen

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