Twenty-one years ago Friday, Tim Richmond died. He was 34. Race fans remember Richmond, but even if you don't, you know him (through Hollywood's eyes anyway) if you've seen "Days of Thunder."
Four years ago, I wrote a story for The Morning Call about Richmond. Click here to read the entire story. Here's an excerpt:
"He had as much talent as anyone that has sat in a race car," Kyle Petty said. "Tim was just ahead of his time."
In every way, according to those who were there. Richmond was the first driver to bring an RV to the track. He wore designer clothes and sunglasses, rode a Harley Davidson, hung out with movie stars and jetted off to New York City when everyone else was stuck in the Southeast. As his good friend Dr. Jerry Punch, who met Richmond before he was a big NASCAR star, says, "Tim took NASCAR to Hollywood before NASCAR was headed there on its own."
In fact, Hollywood would come to him, loosely basing Cruise's character in "Days of Thunder" on Richmond.
By the end of 1986 season, Richmond had established himself as one of NASCAR's biggest stars. He'd won seven races that year, finished third in the points, and if not for a late-season swoon, might have won the championship Dale Earnhardt did.
Then it all came crashing down.
Richmond contracted AIDS. He took a leave of absence from racing, but would eventually return to the track in 1987. In his first race back, at Pocono, he won. He'd win again the next week in California. But that would be the last time Tim Richmond ever went to victory lane. His Cup career ended with a blown engine at Michigan International Speedway on Aug. 16, 1987.
Subsequently banned from racing by NASCAR because of alleged drug use, Richmond went to Florida to live out what would be his final days. On the morning of Aug. 13, 1989, he called his mother to ask her to come to his hospital room in West Palm Beach, Fla. Before she got there, Richmond died, alone in his room.