The first scene in "To The Limit," ESPN's outstanding new documentary on the life of Tim Richmond, is one of the most heartbreaking NASCAR vistas you can imagine. In local news footage from 1987, Richmond stands at a window in one of the condos high above Charlotte Motor Speedway and points out at the race going on below.
"This is what I used to do," he says, "and I will do it again."
He opens the window, and that old familiar sound of engines revving at the green flag rolls up and out of the television, so close to Richmond yet impossibly far away.
Short history lesson: Richmond was, for a brief moment, one of the finest drivers in NASCAR. In the mid-1980s, he and Dale Earnhardt went toe-to-toe, sharing the Driver of the Year honors in 1986. Over seven-plus years at the Sprint/Winston level, he won 13 times and recorded 78 top 10s. He was on pace to win multiple championships and become one of NASCAR's all-time greats.
But his all-out style didn't stop at the checkered flag. Richmond was an anomaly in the garage, a styling, Ralph Lauren-wearing Hollywood type in an era of jeans, beer and good ol' boys. In the closed circles of the NASCAR garage, Richmond's style — straight out of the Miami Vice mold — didn't sit well with the elder elites, and whispers began almost immediately about his dalliances with both drugs and less-than-reputable women.
Richmond could have blown off all the backstabbing were it not for that persistent cough that trailed him through much of the 1986 season. By the end of the year, he was visibly ill, and took off the first 11 races of the 1987 season with what he variously termed "double pneumonia" and "Asian flu," but was in truth in the final stages of full-blown AIDS.
Amazingly, Richmond won his first two races back in 1987, but his health soon declined precipitously. He only made eight starts in 1987, and tried to come back in 1988 for the Busch Clash, but NASCAR barred him from returning. The next year, as Jay Hart recounted here a few months back, Richmond was gone.
"To The Limit" covers all this and more, including Richmond's final days until his August 1989 death, in painful but necessary detail. And while the film is produced by the NASCAR Media Group, it doesn't shy away from the uglier sides of the Richmond saga — the garage rumor-mongering, the failures of NASCAR to properly conduct drug tests, the allegations that Richmond continued to have sex even after he knew he was infected.
Participants include everyone from Darrell Waltrip and Rick Hendrick to Humpy Wheeler and a visibly still disgusted Richard Petty. Dr. Jerry Punch and Richmond's sister Sandra Welch have the key roles, giving perspective on Richmond off the track in both his early and his final days.
You can't come away from "To The Limit" without thinking that NASCAR lost someone special — not necessarily heroic, but certainly unique. His charisma onscreen is still palpable a quarter of a century later, whether he's goofing with DW or leering at a passing blonde (a scene which takes on sinister, disconcerting undertones in the film). Still, he was magnetic, a product of his times but a man who could have flourished no matter when he'd lived.
"To The Limit" airs Tuesday night at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN, with repeats scheduled throughout the week. It's part of ESPN's almost uniformly excellent "30 for 30" documentary series, one of the best products the World Wide Leader has ever produced. Highest recommendations. Check it out and report back here with your thoughts.
(Editor's note: We did a podcast interview with "To the Limit" director Rory Karpf, which you can check out right here.)