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Harris: Rich Memories Of Tim Richmond

Mike Harris | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, October 21 2010

Tim Richmond, flanked on left by Rick Hendrick, clutches trophy after winning the 1986 Firecracker 400 at Daytona. (Photo by RacingOne/Getty Images)

By Mike Harris | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

The first time I met Tim Richmond was in 1980 when he showed up at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as a rookie.

He was a bit cocky, good looking and friendly. I wrote what I believe was the first national feature about him, but I didn’t think much about it, since I chronicled just about every entry in the Indy 500 in those days during the month of May.

Still, the day after the story went on the AP wire, Tim sought me out in the media center to thank me. That was the beginning of a treasured friendship.

All of my memories of Tim Richmond flowed back this week, thanks to the excellent ESPN 30 for 30 show this week. But, as good as the show was, it didn’t tell the whole story about the Tim I knew – a man with an impish sense of humor and a truly fun-loving nature.

That Indy 500 was won by Johnny Rutherford driving Jim Hall’s “Yellow Submarine” Chaparral that introduced ground effects to Indy. But one of the most memorable moments

that day was when Richmond, later named the Indy rookie of the year, hitched a ride back to the pits with Rutherford after crashing late in the race, riding on the sidepod of the Pennzoil-sponsored car, waving and sharing the moment with the winner as if he had taken the checkered flag.

That was the biggest moment of his Indy-car career. In 1981, he crashed so many times that his car owner – his father – fired him, afraid that he would kill himself.  The crowning moment came at Michigan International Speedway when Richmond crashed so hard, his car broke into three big pieces.

I was looking right at the car when it hit the wall and I had a sick feeling in my stomach as I waited for the safety crew to arrive. But Richmond got out of the tub, which sat alone in the middle of the track, brushed himself off, waved to the crowd and kicked the steaming engine block as he walked past it.

That was the last straw for his dad. But it didn’t slow down the irrepressible Richmond, who turned to NASCAR for his next chance.

Shortly after he arrived in NASCAR, the then-Winston Cup cars were racing at North Wilkesboro and I was covering the event. On a quiet Friday afternoon, prior to qualifying, Richmond flagged me down in the  pit lane and asked if he could talk with me privately.

We looked for a quiet place and wound up sitting in the cab of the team hauler. The first thing he said was, “Do you believe how poor the safety situation is in NASCAR?’’

He was concerned after crashing at Talladega and being picked up by a panel truck with a magnetic red cross sign affixed to it.

“The guy that rode with me wasn’t even a doctor or an EMS guy,’’  Richmond said. “The only medical equipment in the truck was an oxygen bottle that looked like it had been there a long, long time.’’

Richmond wasn’t injured that day, but he wanted to know if there was something he should do to let people know how much better the safety crews were in open-wheel  racing.

He was new to the stock car sport and didn’t want to make waves, but the two of us decided to talk with Bill France Jr. when we were in Daytona for the July race and make a plea for some changes. France wasn’t buying it, lecturing us on how NASCAR was like the federal government and the tracks were local government.  The tracks were responsible for their own safety  precautions and NASCAR didn’t interfere.

It wasn’t what Tim wanted to hear and he and Mr. France were never on very friendly terms after that.

But there weren’t many people Tim didn’t get along with. And the media loved him.

We even had a little fun at his expense every now and then.

He won the pole in Darlington one year and, thanks to all the awards and picture taking, it was almost 90 minutes before he came in for the post-qualifying interview. In those days, the interviews were conducted in a little steel shed where folding chairs were set up facing a card table.

It was a warm and uncomfortable wait as all of our deadlines approached. We knew it wasn’t Tim’s fault, but everybody kept talking about ways to punish Tim for his tardiness.

Finally, it was suggested that when he walked in, we’d all get up and pretend to walk out the door just to see his reaction.

In walked Tim with a huge smile on his face,  and out the door without a word went the entire press corps (about eight people in those days). Richmond’s  smile froze on his face,  his jaw dropped and he said, “Where you going?”

We all started laughing and came back into the room. Richmond regained his smile and said, “I knew you guys love me too much to walk out on me.’’

Another indelible memory is a race in Pocono where Richmond was leading when it begin to rain in earnest.  It was only a few laps from the halfway point and NASCAR decided to try to get the official race in under caution.

But it was raining so hard that Bobby Allison spun out and crashed his car. Meanwhile, Richmond was cruising along behind the pace car and his windshield was fogging up. He didn’t want to have Allison’s fate, so he took down the window net and sat in the window frame, steering from outside the car as the carburetor provided just enough gas to keep him moving to the crossed flags.

Eventually, the rain stopped and the race finished under clear skies with Richmond out front.

It’s the way I like to remember him.

– Mike Harris can be reached at mharris@racintoday.com

Mike Harris | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, October 21 2010
4 Comments

4 Comments »

  • Hank Epton says:

    This is an outstanding look at the human side to a guy that there’s just not a lot out there about since coverage of NASCAR was much more sparse in those days.

    I was a stunned at the way Richard Petty recalled Richmond in the documentary, but as I remember he had some less than tasteful comments about Dale Earnhardt following his passing as well.

    Richmond was a staggering talent behind the wheel, and it’s unfortunate that for a lot of the past two decades NASCAR has seemingly omitted him from the historic narrative of the sport. It was nice to see his short career given its due for the excitement and charisma he brought to the sport.

  • jld1948 says:

    Great article Mike! The ESPN 30 for 30 program was an excellent account of Tim’s short-lived Nascar career, but it couldn’t begin to tell about all of Tim’s life away from the track! I was fortunate enough to get some of those funny stories from Harry Hyde, with whom I had a casual friendship at the time. Tim was responsible for a lot of changes to Harry’s life, just as Harry changed things about Tim! Together, the two made for a hilarious duo! Both were great men and are a sad loss to everyone who knew them!

  • Jason says:

    Mike,

    As one who knew Tim fairly well, what was your opinion of Richard Petty’s comments during the ESPN documentary in which he stated that Tim was a heck of a race car driver, but he didn’t know what he was strung out on to make him drive that way? I thought it made Petty look, well…petty and pathetic.

    Also, were / are the rumors regarding Tim using drugs true? All I have seen or heard is rumor and speculation. I haven’t seen anyone with first hand knowledge corroborate those rumors.

    Thanks.

  • Will says:

    Shame on you Richard Petty, over 20 years after Richmond’s death, Petty still displays the same ignorant and misguided notions about Tim’s life. Instead of coming “clean” and reflecting intelligently on Tim’s ability and legacy as a driver, or his penchant for partying and having a good time, “The King” goes with the same old stale position he had over two decades ago about Tim’s alleged drug abuse. Booooooo…but I am not surprised. Regardless, Petty’s inability to reflect upon Tim’s legacy beyond his own shallow and misguided prejudices, is a prime example of the type of people and attitudes that Tim Richmond had to deal with as professional driver, and a person dying of AIDS…

    Still, I am not a NASCAR fan in the least bit, and I can say had Tim Richmond lived longer, I would have probably became one! To ESPN: thank you for setting Tim Richmond’s legacy straight, and providing Tim with dignity in death, something that some folks (e.g. Richard Petty) still refuse to provide to Tim Richmond….