By Ken Gross Meg Grant
January 08, 1990 12:00 PM

In his prime Tim Richmond rode the gray part of the racetrack, the area up against the wall where only those reckless souls who thrive on the far rim of danger live. And in those few, furious seasons when he became a famous race-car driver crowding 220 mph, moving fast enough to hold the limelight, Tim Richmond feasted on celebrity. They called him Hollywood, and the girls trailed him like shadows as he made his one quick lap around the gray fringes of life.

Last August, Tim Richmond died alone and unsung in a West Palm Beach hospital. He was, at 34, a specter of the robust stock car champion his fans had known—the echo of their cheers had hardly faded.

Richmond had been no typical blue collar hero. In his car he was a gritty, steel-nerved competitor, but off the track he was an unashamed aristocrat who dazzled fans with his frosted blond hair and sophisticated tastes. “We’ve never had a race driver like Tim in stock car racing,” says Humpy Wheeler, president of the Charlotte Motor Speedway. “He was almost a James Dean-like character.”

Like the short-lived actor, Richmond had his own style and tragic destiny. In eight seasons he earned more than $2 million in prize money, but in hindsight, the spectators of his career remember the scorching rubber he left on his turns. There were those first warning signs when he was drinking too much, carousing too late and falling asleep before races. Many worried about his driving, some whispered of drugs, and all wondered what was happening. Then in February 1988, after that last sad season, the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing demanded to see Richmond’s medical records. Richmond refused. Not because there was evidence of drugs, as NASCAR officials suspected, but because he feared revealing something even more devastating to his image. The swashbuckling rider of the stock car circuit had AIDS.

With the revelation—10 days after his death—a shiver went through the community where drivers and crews spend 10 months on the road each year and sex is casual and frequent. Women who had slept with Richmond began calling his physician and are said to have been discreetly tested. Men, too, began looking into the possibility of infection, not because Richmond was gay, insist the insiders who knew him, but because he traveled in a world in which men share women, and vice versa. “Tim Richmond was a lot of things, but he wasn’t gay,” says Johnny Hayes, vice president of Motorsports for U.S. Tobacco, one of the circuit’s major sponsors. “He was all man. You can go to the bank on that.”

Many of those who knew Richmond best are equally adamant about drugs. “I was the guy who put him in the cars before races. There was no way he was on drugs,” says Cheech Gardé, a member of his pit crew. Gary Nelson, crew chief for driver Kyle Petty, insists that Richmond had to be clean to be “as good as he was. The guy was the top in his sport. He had to make split-second decisions on the track.” Even Dr. David Dodson, the infectious-disease specialist who treated Richmond, scoffs at the notion that his AIDS came from a contaminated needle. Instead, he most likely got, it through promiscuous heterosexual contact, one of the least common methods of infection for men, says Dodson. And “if it can happen to Tim, it can happen to anybody.”

Tim Richmond wasn’t just anybody. Born to a wealthy Ashland, Ohio, manufacturer, he and his sister, Sandy, were raised in lavish style. His father, Al, and his mother, Evelyn, bought him a fresh horse for every division of the 4-H shows he entered. At 13, he took flying lessons, and when he turned 16, his parents gave him a car, a boat and his own plane.

It was his father who planted the seed of racing by giving the boy a go-cart. At 18, Richmond dropped out of Ashland College to attend the driving school at Willow Springs raceway in Rosamond, Calif., and he became the fastest student ever to graduate. Then he was named the United States Auto Club’s sprint car rookie of the year. In 1980 he drove the fastest practice time of the month at the Indianapolis 500 and was named Rookie of the Year for his ninth-place finish. He so impressed the winner, Johnny Rutherford, that Rutherford let Richmond climb aboard his car for a victory lap. It was the racing world’s first clear look at the handsome young showboat.

After tearing his car in half at a Michigan race that same year, Richmond shifted to the relatively safer stock car tracks. He moved into a ranch-style lakefront home north of Charlotte, N.C., and began competing in NASCAR’s Winston Cup circuit. But he was branded a nonconformist by some fellow drivers, put off, perhaps, by his splashy show of money and rampant ego. “Every time I saw him, he looked like a designer had put together his outfit for him,” says free-lance photographer Bob Jones Jr. Richmond “wanted to be a movie star so he could play the role of the hero,” says Johnny Hayes. “He would show up looking like a cowboy or bull rider.” With fans, however, “he had some kind of magic. He’d light up the crowds. I can’t tell you how big he was here. It would be like Bruce Springsteen in New Jersey.”

Eventually, Richmond conquered the doubting drivers with his sheer talent. In his third season, he won his first big race at Riverside. By then, he had also taken a shot at a screen career. Hal Needham, a former race-car team owner and stuntman, was directing Burt Reynolds in Stroker Ace and cast Richmond for a bit role. Clearly at home in front of the cameras, “He fell right in with the group working on the film,” says Needham. Richmond’s part was later drastically cut, but he hired a Hollywood public relations firm and began taking acting lessons in the off-season.

Yet as Richmond’s celebrity grew, so did his problems. Whether from the stress of speed or the pressure of ambition, by 1985 his personality seemed to fracture. On the one hand, he gave away money, spent time with children at the track and “was nice to everybody,” says Hayes. Barry Dodson, one of Richmond’s former crew chiefs, tells of the driver finding an old man scavenging for food under the Dover racetrack grandstands in Delaware. Richmond took him to a restaurant and bought him a steak, and when the old man wept because he had no teeth, Richmond bought him a second meal more to his liking. That was one Tim Richmond.

The other, says Hayes, was “an arrogant, cocky son of a bitch who thought he was better than anyone in the world.” He began dressing in black, letting his hair grow wild and hanging out with bikers. Humpy Wheeler, fearing alcohol or drugs, urged Richmond to seek professional help. A few weeks later, however, Wheeler had a barbecue at his lakefront home near Charlotte, and Richmond, apparently inebriated, took a swing at another guest and had to be escorted from the premises. “I washed my hands of him that year,” Wheeler says.

But the following spring, yet another Tim Richmond showed up at the track. He had gone through aerobic training, shaved his beard, cut his hair and looked “like Mr. Yuppie in a Brooks Brothers suit,” says Wheeler. That year, 1986, proved to be his best ever. Richmond won seven races, placed second in four others and dominated his sport.

As always, he reveled in his high profile as much as in the purses. When he entered restaurants, he had toadies precede him to alert waitresses that he was coming. On the road, he’d hang a banner at his hotels so his fans could find him. Adoring groupies “used to throw their motel keys at him,” says Deb Williams, editor of a racing trade magazine and a track regular. She also heard wild stories, including one tale about six different women going into Richmond’s hotel room. Jerrell Caskey, a commercial artist who worked with Richmond, recalls a phone call from Richmond, who was, at the time, airborne. “He told me he had two pretty women with him, ladies he met in New York,” Caskey says. “He wanted to know if I could drop everything and join them on their trip to the Bahamas.”

Not surprisingly, Richmond suffered a kind of burnout after that glorious 1986 season. He grew increasingly irritable and moody, and the drug rumors began again. In December, Wheeler met him at a party in New York, and “he looked terrible. He told me he had this sore throat that he just couldn’t shake.” That month, at the Cleveland Clinic, Richmond was diagnosed with AIDS and related pneumonia. He retired to his condominium in Deerfield Beach, Fla., and told his doctor that he had ceased all sexual activity.

But by the following spring he had recovered enough to make a comeback. Almost miraculously, he won his first two races but then went into decline once again. When he showed up late at a drivers’ meeting wearing sunglasses and looking haggard, some of his competitors complained to NASCAR officials and insisted he take a drug test. The next season, NASCAR insisted upon a test, which they say he failed. The tests had shown a false positive, and Richmond took a second two days later. This time he passed. NASCAR would later admit that the only chemicals they had found were ingredients for over-the-counter cold pills, although in massive doses. Still wary, they agreed to let him drive only if he released his medical records. Richmond refused.

Broken and bitter, he returned to his condo and shunned his old friends, ducking phone calls and denying, when cornered, that he had a problem. A group of his friends, still worried about drugs, went to Florida that April, hoping to rescue him with a surprise encounter session. “The people in the group were crying. It was really emotional,” recalls Hayes. “But Tim didn’t show any emotion. He just said, don’t have a problem.’ ”

This summer, after months of almost total seclusion, Richmond checked into Good Samaritan Hospital in West Palm Beach. Only his family—and the few women companions he had reportedly informed—knew of his disease. “I just don’t think there were women to call,” says one longtime associate. “I mean, I don’t think he ever bothered to take their phone numbers.” On Aug. 13 he died in his sleep with only a nurse by his side.

There is, of course, no way of knowing whether the promiscuous Richmond has passed his dread legacy on to others. Fearing the obvious stigma, past lovers have grown silent now, refusing even to appear at a memorial service at the Charlotte speedway held after his private burial in Ashland. But, ironically, there may be one outcome to his troubled life that only the would-be Hollywood hero himself might have predicted.

In the end Richmond may finally get his wish and get into the movies at last. Hal Needham has purchased the screen rights to Richmond’s life story.

—Ken Gross, Meg Grant in Charlotte