Loss of a Legend


It's been over a decade now since Tim Richmond last competed in a Winston Cup race.

There's little mention of him in NASCAR's official literature, and if you're a new race fan, sadly you may never even have heard his name. But for those of us privileged enough to have watched Tim Richmond drive a race car, during that all too ephemeral time that marked the peak of his career, there is no forgetting the magic. He only drove stock cars from 1981-1987, but he raced like he lived; all out, all the time. Every day was Christmas morning and every night was Saturday night. He was handsome, rich and very talented, and was destined to become one of the greatest drivers of all time. Simply put, he was a racer; the personification of a competitor. In an interview, he remarked "I'm not happy unless I'm competing. For example, when I was a kid and my dad would send me out to get the paper, I had him time me so I could compete against myself to see if I could better my previous best."

If there ever was a "natural" at driving a race car it was Tim Richmond. Lap after lap fans watched in wonder as he hit the same mark time after time, but when it came time to get around another driver, it was like the laws of physics themselves stepped aside a few moments, content to be suspended and watch in wide eyed wonder at what Tim could do in a race car, driving the line everyone else thought was impossible. And it was impossibleÖ for everyone else.

He earned his aviation ratings for instruments, multiple-engines, and helicopters while still a teenager, soloing at the age of sixteen. He used to say flying made him "sleepy."

Tim Richmond started driving race cars at a relatively advanced age by the standards of today. He was 21 years old when a friend who owned a sprint car invited him to take a few laps around the track at the Lakeville Speedway in Ohio. Tim was ill-prepared for his debut at the wheel of a race car. "I was wearing cowboy boots and I had to borrow a uniform, gloves, helmet, everything." Tim hopped in the car and within a very short period of time was turning lap times better then the car's regular driver, who had five years of racing background. More importantly, that day Tim discovered his niche in life, the one thing that he enjoyed doing as much as his late night partying with friends. That evening, Tim told his father that he was "born to be a race driver," and with that goal set he pursued it with the same tenacity and determination he did everything else he set his mind to.

In 1977 Tim Richmond started driving a Supermodfied car he co-owned with his father at Sandusky Speedway, which bills itself as "the fastest half-mile oval in Ohio." Success was almost immediate and that year Tim won not only "Rookie of the Year" honors, but the track championship in his class as well. The following year he won the Ohio State Champion series, driving a Supermodified car on asphalt tracks. Like most kids growing up in the Midwest at that time, Richmond's goal was not stock car racing but Indy Car racing and towards that end he competed in the Mini Indy car series in Phoenix, Arizona and again he won the title the first time out. From the Mini Indy car league Tim moved to the USAC sprint car series, and in 1979 he won the coveted "Rookie Of the Year" honors in that series as well. Many a driver spends years driving in the sprint car series waiting for a chance to drive in the Indy car series, but Tim's goal lay beyond the sprints and he made his own chance happen rather then waiting. Al Richmond was certainly wealthy enough to buy his son an Indy car, and there is a lingering misimpression among some people that was the case, but in fact Tim aggressively courted sponsors on his own and got backing from a business in his hometown of Ashland, Ohio, Robert Schultz and Associates. With financing in place, and with help from Roger Penske, Tim was able to set up a deal to buy a car, and planned to make his Indy car debut at Michigan.

The debut did not go well, the car developed mechanical problems, but Tim's driving abilities raised some eyebrows. Mark Stainbrook, crew chief for a team owned by Pat Santello, asked if Richmond would be interested in driving for that team. When Tim expressed interest, an agreement was reached that if Tim could qualify the car at the next race, he would be given the ride. Fortunately the test took place at the Willow Spring road course in California. Already an accomplished oval course racer, Tim had attended a Jim Russell driving school at that same track and set the lowest lap time by any student ever. Needless to say he got the ride with Santello's team. Once again the ugly rumor that his dad had bought him the seat dogged Richmond, as a disgruntled friend of the team's former driver printed a story in the Indianapolis Star to that effect. Though the story was later retracted, it left a taint.

During the 1980 season, a difficult year as CART took over control of the Indycar series from USAC, Richmond made five starts in Indy cars. A pattern was set where he would qualify and run well, only to be sidelined by mechanical problems with his outdated equipment.

1980 was Tim Richmond's biggest year in the Indy Car circuit, and his proudest moments were during those weeks in May leading up to the Indianapolis 500. Though a rookie, Tim set the fastest time in practice, and was considered a favorite for a front row starting spot. Unfortunately a crash on Pole Day eliminated that possibility. Still Richmond was able to make the field in a back up car, and compete in the Indy 500. Throughout the event Tim showed skill and speed that belied his inexperience, and he actually led the race at one point, before running out of fuel in the waning laps and finishing 9th. Race winner Johnny Rutherford was kind enough to let Tim hitch a ride to Victory Lane on the sidepod of the winning car. Legend has it, as Tim hopped off Rutherford quietly told him, one day Tim would be visiting that hallowed ground on his own. Later, Rutherford laughingly commented, "Tim will do anything to get to the Winner's Circle." For his remarkable achievements that month Richmond was awarded "Rookie of the Race" honors.

Ashland, Ohio promoted a Tim Richmond Day parade and program at its Myers Memorial Band Shell after the race. In following years, he would shuttle between North Carolina and Florida, but on and off the camera, he would frequently mention family, friends, and his home town of Ashland.

Among the quarter million spectators on hand that day for the Indy 500 was Dr. Joseph Mattioli, founder and president of Pocono International Speedway. He had been impressed by Tim's style and asked if he might be interested in driving a NASCAR stock car race there that July. (Recall Pocono also hosted Indy Car races at one time.) Tim was the sort who would drive anything with wheels, and quickly agreed. Dr. Mattioli was able to line up a Chevy owned by DK Ulrich for Tim to drive.

While he qualified a disappointing 23rd, Richmond was able to finish 12th in his very first Winston Cup race. Despite the venture starting out as a lark, Tim fell in love with racing stock cars. He would later describe the difference between Indy cars and stock cars as being that you "drove" an Indy car, but "raced" a stock car, and Tim Richmond had a racer's heart. He would compete in four more Winston Cup races that year. Mechanical problems relegated him to disappointing finishes at Dover and Atlanta, but Tim managed to finish 12th at both Charlotte and Martinsville (in his very first Winston Cup short track run.)

Richmond was never forced to decide between NASCAR and CART. A series of wrecks and financial problems with the team ended his open wheel driving days and in 1981 Tim Richmond began driving the Winston Cup circuit full time. Tim's arrival made quite a splash in the normally staid world of NASCAR. He wasn't exactly the image of a driver that NASCAR likes to portray, in fact, he was the antithesis of that perfect driver. While most drivers of the era had "Opie Taylor" style haircuts, Tim wore his hair shoulder length and admitted to using a hair stylist rather then a barber. His Ohio accent sounded a bit different then the good old boys. He was single, and didn't hide the fact that he liked women, he smoked and drank a little, he brought a different girl to each race, much to the dismay of many people involved in racing—including some drivers. Richard Petty was especially vocal about his disdain for Tim's wild ways. And Tim arrived upon a Harley Davidson, not in a car, in an era long before Milwaukee's Finest was near standard issue for every cup driver. His impact on Winston Cup was immediate. He was instrumental in initiating NASCAR's standard use of fireproof headsocks and closed-faced helmets. He was the first driver to use a motorcoach and the first to come from the open-wheel ranks and achieve success. Richmond had a sort of confidence some mistook for arrogance, and more then a few guys in the garage area weren't very impressed with him. Of course, more then a few women were.

That year was the first year of the "downsized cars" and even a lot of the top teams were struggling to figure those cars out. It was as true then, as it is today, Winston Cup racing is the most competitive series on earth, and Tim struggled a bit driving the DK Ulrich Buick Regal the early part of that season, including a disappointing 30th at the Daytona 500. His first Winston Cup top ten came at Bristol on March 29th 1981, when Tim finished tenth. The best finish Richmond had with DK Ulrich, and in fact that season, was a sixth at Talladega in May. After a disappointing result at Riverside in June on the road course where Tim had been expected to run well (he crashed out on the 12th lap) Richmond and Ulrich parted ways.

Tim signed on with Kennie Childers to drive his Oldsmobile after the separation. The best finishes Richmond earned while with Childers were a 9th at Pocono, and an eighth at Bristol. Once again things went downhill and in September Tim moved over to Bob Rogers' team, debuting with them at Dover and finishing 9th, his last top ten of the season. In 29 starts in 1981 Tim had six top ten finishes and wound up 16th in the points.

Tim Richmond found himself without a Winston Cup ride for the 1982 season. He did not make his first start that year until Rockingham in March, driving the Fast Company Limited Ford to a dismal 31st place finish after losing an engine. But his fortunes were about to change... both for the better and the worse.

Tim was finally able to land a well-funded ride after Rockingham, which was the good news, but the bad news was that he would be driving for mercurial millionaire and con artist JD Stacy. Stacy's financial house of cards was the object of considerable conjecture, but he did indeed pour a lot of money into his team when the mood and means suited him. Joe Ruttman lost confidence in the team and resigned at the end of March, and Tim was given the seat as primary driver for one of two teams Stacy owned. (He also sponsored five others.) Their very first race together, Tim managed to finish a career-best fifth at the Rebel 500 at Darlington. After a couple of races, the team began to gel, and Richmond and the Stacy team began putting together a solid string of top ten finishes.

At Pocono, Tim Richmond showed the sort of driver he really was and engaged in a dogfight for top honors with Bobby Allison. Richmond might have won that race, as Bobby Allison had run out of fuel trying to stretch his gas mileage under a caution flag thrown for rain, fearing if he pitted the race would end under caution. Dave Marcis, in another Stacy car, was kind enough to push Allison back to the pits, an assist that helped Allison to eventually win by 3.1 seconds over Tim. JD Stacy was furious. Marcis professed surprise at Stacy's irritation, pointing out that he and Richmond were not actually teammates, they just shared a sponsor, and no one had told him it was part of his duties to help other Stacy-backed cars win. Shortly thereafter Marcis received notification that despite being the only driver who had won that year carrying Stacy's colors, JD was withdrawing from sponsoring his car. The reason cited was not Marcis aiding Allison at Pocono, but his running "unauthorized associate sponsorship decals" on the 71 car. Stacy needed to renege on some contracts to keep his struggling empire afloat, and the decals provided a legal excuse to do so. But that second-place finish had put the other drivers on notice that Tim Richmond was a contender and would win a race soon.

Very soon, as it turned out.

The next event was the Budweiser 400 at Riverside, the road course. Terry Labonte had the dominant car that day after several other early favorites fell out with mechanical problems. Tim remained running with the front pack and on lap 89 of the 95 lap event he used his considerable road racing skills to outbrake Labonte and take the lead. From there it was smooth sailing to Richmond's first Winston Cup win, the first win for one of Stacy's team cars that season. Ironically the win came on the same day Marcis had received notification Stacy was no longer backing him. That race was also the last ride for Benny Parsons in a car flying Stacy's logos. Despite having posted eight top tens, and four fourth-place finishes, Stacy claimed not to be satisfied with how Benny was running and pressured team owner Harry Ranier to release him. In Parson's place, Buddy Baker assumed driving chores in the Ranier car.

The real shock came that Wednesday when Stacy announced he was no longer going to sponsor Winston Cup points leader Terry Labonte in Billy Hagan's car. Stacy cited the same bogus reasons he had used to renege on Dave Marcis's contract, saying Terry's driver uniform carried an unauthorized "Stratograph" patch. Staratograph was a company related to oil exploration owned by Hagan. While the team later found sponsorship from Texas Jeans, the financial chaos and uncertainty caused by Stacy's sudden departure was one of the reasons Labonte eventually backslid to third in the points.

The second half of that season had it share of highs and lows with Tim getting involved in several crashes not always of his making, amidst mechanical problems and continuing uncertainty about the status of Stacy's finances. Richmond did manage a strong second place finish at Richmond in the fall, again tailing Allison to the checkers, and a fourth at Atlanta in the penultimate race of that season. Financial problems continued to build and that fall Ranier removed Stacy's logos from his cars and announced he was suing JD for being months behind in his payments. Shortly thereafter Ron Bouchard's team did the same. Stacy was down to his team car driven by Tim Richmond, and sponsoring Junie Donlavey's driven by Jody Ridley. Also about that point Stacy began moving his shop equipment under the cover of darkness fearing it would be reposessed, or a judge would issue an order that the shop be locked so the equipment could serve as collateral for moneys owed the other teams until the lawsuits were settled.

The 1982 season ended at Riverside, the track where Tim had earned his first win. With the team's very future uncertain, Tim Richmond announced he would not be returning to the team in 1983. Richmond had landed a ride with Raymond Beadle's new Blue Max team. Beadle was buying out the equipment of MC Anderson, who was quitting racing altogether, because his driver, Cale Yarborough, wanted to remain running a partial schedule rather then contend for the Winston Cup.

Tim did leave the Stacy team in style, scoring the second win of his career in a race he flat-out dominated. Tim had won both road course races at Riverside. One of his favorite tracks, he was awesome to watch. He was so good a crowd would gather to watch him negotiate the S's on the ragged edge of control. You could say his driving ability was due in part to his days on the dirt tracks, and practice runs on the back roads of West Salem, Ohio. In 26 starts that year, Tim had the two wins at Riverside, five more top fives, and 12 top tens overall. Those statistics were remarkably similar to a driver who had befriended Tim and taken him under his wing— Dale Earnhardt. Dale had only one win, but like Tim he had 7 top fives and 12 top tens, but because he ran the entire schedule, Dale finished 12th in the points while Tim had to settle for 26th.

Tim Richmond and the Blue Max racing team, running Pontiacs under the Old Milwaukee Beer colors, got off to an uneven start in 1983. The team endured more then its fair share of mechanical difficulties and poor finishes, but if the car was running at the end of the race, Richmond was usually in the top ten. Their first strong run of the year came at Martinsville, where Tim was in contention to win until a pit miscue by crew chief Tim Brewer had the soft compound left side tires put on the right side of the car. NASCAR officials noted the violation and accessed Richmond a five lap penalty. But a fourth place at Pocono in June and a third at the next race in Michigan seemed to indicate the team was turning the corner.

Tim's breakthrough oval course win came at his favorite track, Pocono, in July. A combination of incredible driving and brilliant pit strategy allowed Tim to take the lead when then-leader Dave Marcis had to pit for a splash-and-go with seven laps remaining. Richmond held off a last ditch charge by Darrell Waltrip by two seconds. Pocono Raceway meant a lot to Tim Richmond, who said, "Pocono requires more driving skill than any other track on the circuit with the exception of Darlington. It's as difficult as Darlington, but with another mile in which to make a mistake. But, the tougher the better." The win was a confidence booster for the rookie team and began a long string of top ten and even top five finishes whenever the car made it to the end of the race.

At Rockingham in October, fans got a good look at the magic that was Tim Richmond's style as he engaged in an epic side-by-side duel with Terry Labonte in the waning laps of the race. Lap after lap the two ran together with Tim trying moves on both the high and low side of the track, including several times when he gathered the car up as it got out of shape up in the marbles, where all others feared to tread. Terry Labonte won that race by .7 of a second, but it was one of the best races of that, or any other season. Back at Riverside, a track that Tim had mastered, he led the race several times, before he and Darrell Waltrip made hard contact, and both cars wound up spinning off the track. Tim recovered well enough to bring the car home 5th.

For the season Richmond had the one win, ten top fives, and 15 top tens, which earned him a tenth place finish in the points, and a new contract to drive for Blue Max again in 1984.

1984 did not start out well for Tim and the Blue Max team. Once again he finished well if the car was still running at the end, but the team had a string of engine-related failures that relegated Richmond to disappointing finishes. A hard crash with Rusty Wallace only increased Tim's frustrations.

North Wilkesboro in the spring didn't look like it was going to be Tim's day either. In fact the event looked like a benefit put on for Ricky Rudd for much of the race. Tim patiently paced himself knowing the team needed a good finish to boost morale, until in the closing laps of the event Rudd started showing signs he was struggling. Once that opportunity presented himself, Tim threw caution to the wind, and in an awesome display of driving, ran down and passed Ricky. A great pit stop helped Tim maintain the lead and he went on to beat Harry Gant by a tick under four seconds. It was Richmond's first short track win. After that the mechanical gremlins began rearing their heads again and the season of frustration continued.

Even in that disappointing season there were some strong runs. At Dover, Richmond ran in the lead pack all day, and finished second to the King of Stock car racing, Richard Petty. It seemed appropriate, as many people felt Tim had the talent to one day inherit the King's throne. Richmond was also in serious contention for win in the June race at Riverside, battling once again with Terry Labonte in the closing laps until the two cars made contact. Labonte was able to continue, but Tim was forced to the pits for repairs and wound up sixth in the final rundown. A second at the Southern 500, on a day where he had little chance of catching winner Harry Gant was the only other highlight of the disappointing year as the series reached Riverside for the season finale. Though Richmond never led that race, he was in contention for most of the way and wound up second to Geoff Bodine.

For the year Tim Richmond wound up with the single win, five other top 5s, and a total of 11 top tens, good enough to earn him 12th in the points standings. He was named one of 'The Best Of The New Generation' by Esquire magazine. For a lot of drivers that might have been good enough, but Tim was thoroughly dispirited after what he felt was a lackluster season. Better times were coming, but they were still a ways down the road.

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