Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series: Austin Dillon
NASCAR Nationwide Series: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: Tony Stewart

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Legacy of Tim Richmond

What exactly is the late Tim Richmond's legacy?

The ESPN 30 For 30 documentary, Tim Richmond: To The Limit, which aired Tuesday night, offers a few possibilities. Some might choose to remember him as a great driver with an unrivaled charisma and personality that endeared him to fans and rubbed fellow competitors the wrong way. Others might remember him as a wild party animal whose outlandish lifestyle ultimately caught up with him.

Or maybe it was simply as the late Dale Earnhardt once said, "That man can drive."

Boy, could he -- to the tune of 13 career wins in what was then the Winston Cup Series, including seven in 1986, when he finished third in the points and tied with Earnhardt for Driver of the Year. Then winning his first two races back in 1987 -- at Pocono and Riverside -- following his first health-induced hiatus.

Richmond's talent was never disputed, but in the 1980s, he was everything NASCAR wasn't. He wasn't a good ol' boy. He was handsome, charming, hailed from Ohio. He loved flying private jets to Manhattan and Los Angeles, he favored designer clothes -- and boy, did he like to party.

Competitors were wary of Richmond, at best.

I view Richmond the same way I see Davey Allison; a young driver with plenty of promise and talent, snuffed out way before his time. Fans always have an "If only ..." wistfulness about them when they talk about Allison, and the same can be said of Richmond.

What if Richmond, who had the bulk of his success driving for Rick Hendrick, hadn't died in 1989? What if he'd never contracted AIDS? Would Earnhardt still have won his seven Cup titles? Would Jeff Gordon have won four? If Richmond's career had run its full course, where would he be on the all-time wins list?

Would we be debating his candidacy for the NASCAR Hall of Fame?

NASCAR practically forced Richmond out of the sport amid rumors he had AIDS -- something he never publicly disclosed because he knew his career would be over. This was before other prominent athletes, such as Lakers legend Magic Johnson, came forward with the disease, and so little was known about it.

AIDS was still considered a gay disease back then. If you had it, that meant you were gay. NASCAR had no idea what to do with that. Yes, it was crass and deplorable, but that was the climate back in the 1980s. Hindsight tells us NASCAR was wrong to ostracize Richmond for his disease, but even the medical community knew little about AIDS back then.

If a driver came forward with AIDS today, the response would likely be much different.

Frankly, NASCAR today could use another driver like Richmond. Not necessarily for his talent -- there are plenty of talented drivers out there -- but because of his personality and carefree attitude. Sponsors might not care for that, but fans see today's drivers as boring corporate cardboard cutouts; a guy like Richmond coming in to shake things up would be just the medicine NASCAR needs.

Then again, Richmond was one of a kind. There will never be another like him, and I'm glad ESPN and NASCAR decided to tell his story for today's audience. Despite his tragic downfall, Tim Richmond is one of NASCAR's legends, and he deserves to be remembered.

But just think of what could've been if he hadn't died. If only ...

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