High Speeds, Low T-Cell Counts: The HIV Story of Tim Richmond and NASCAR

Tim Richmond
Ted Van Pelt

Only after his death in 1989 would the racing world learn what had long been rumored: NASCAR driver Tim Richmond had been suffering from HIV/AIDS.

It would be an understatement to say that Tim Richmond was not your typical stock car driver. Unlike virtually all of his colleagues in the 1980s, who were born and raised in the South, Richmond was a Yankee. It wasn't as if he was from a big city -- his hometown of Ashland, Ohio, had only about 20,000 people in it -- but, back in those days, anything north of the Mason-Dixon might as well have been a different country for the good ol' boys of NASCAR. A flamboyant, brash jokester who loved the finer things in life and only stopped cutting up when he was behind the wheel of a race car, Richmond stuck out like a sore, well-manicured thumb among the Stetson-clad mechanics' sons and calloused farmhands who made up the rank and file of the sport at that time. As a matter of fact, most of the other drivers probably would have mistaken his penchant for designer clothes and overall rakishness for homosexuality if Richmond hadn't loved chasing women as much as he loved chasing checkered flags.

On the track, Richmond was all business. Off of it, partying and pursuing pretty ladies was his business. Richmond was NASCAR's answer to Joe Namath: a suave and savvy Don Juan who was as comfortable in furs and Ferragamo loafers as he was in a racing suit. He had an apartment in New York City, a houseboat in Florida and spent much of his time away from the track hobnobbing with celebrities and enjoying the company of the fairer sex. At a time when NASCAR drivers' appeal didn't really leave the South, Richmond was unlike anyone the sport had ever seen. And, to the vexation of many in the old guard, the Yankee could drive.

The year was 1987; the place was Riverside International Raceway in Southern California. Richmond had pulled to about a 30 car-length lead on the track's back straightaway, with a little less than three miles of asphalt between him and a trip down victory lane at the Budweiser 400. For well over two hours, Richmond had been hurtling himself around a serpentine race track in a 3,500 pound stock car that was pitching and yawing at an average speed of more than 100 miles per hour. He had been leading the 41-car field for more than half the race while the hot summer sun sent his non-air conditioned car's internal temperature upwards of 130 degrees, causing him to shed at least five pounds of water weight before he crossed the finish line.

With the outcome of the race no longer in doubt, the broadcast team on ESPN started talking about the racers' conditioning, with the lap-by-lap announcer praising Richmond for his strength and athletic prowess. The man doing color commentary beside him, Richard Petty, was not as impressed. Petty -- a man whose name is as synonymous with stock car racing as Babe Ruth's is with baseball -- instead noted that Richmond, who had just returned to driving after a six-month hiatus, was more rested than his fellow competitors. What Petty did not mention was the cause of Richmond's hiatus -- a mysterious illness that had hospitalized him for several weeks and was referred to in the press as "double pneumonia."

1987 was supposed to be Tim Richmond's year. After several seasons characterized by flashes of brilliance, untapped potential and a lot of beat-up stock cars, he finally had his coming-out party in the second half of 1986. Under the tutelage of Harry Hyde -- a hard-nosed, good ol' boy disciplinarian who was the diametric opposite of his braggadocious driver -- Richmond won seven of the season's last 17 races. After six up-and-down seasons, he had finally turned the corner and established himself as one of NASCAR's elite, only to run smack dab into an impenetrable wall.

In December 1986, Richmond fell ill after attending a NASCAR banquet in New York City. Almost immediately after the illness hit, Richmond got a call from a physician in California whom he had seen earlier in the year about a persistent cold he couldn't shake off. The doctor had gotten back some troubling test results and wanted Richmond to return for further testing. It was then that Tim Richmond found out that he had HIV/AIDS.

In June 1987, Richmond returned to NASCAR and somehow managed -- with a CD4 count that was probably lower than his car's top speed -- to win his first two races at Pocano International Speedway and at Riverside. But Richmond would never again make it back to the victory lane and, after a few more races, he was out of the sport for good. Although he was clearly very ill, Richmond tried one last time to get cleared to race in 1988. No one in NASCAR knew for sure what was making Richmond sick. Speculations abounded, with many in the racing world thinking it was drug abuse, while others suspected AIDS, but since they had no way of proving what was wrong with him, the panicked NASCAR brass falsified a drug test to keep Richmond from racing.

Blackballed from NASCAR and with no medical treatments for AIDS available at that time, Richmond went down to his parents' condo in Fort Lauderdale to die. According to his sister, Tim would just go into his bedroom, close the blinds and sit in the darkness day in and day out until he wasted away to the point that he needed to be hospitalized. By then, NASCAR had wiped its hands clean of its former rising star, with the only enduring reminder of his presence in the sport being a more stringent and tamper-proof drug-testing policy. Richmond wound up dying, unheralded and alone, in a West Palm Beach hospital in August 1989. He was 34 years old.

After his passing, Richmond's personal physician formally announced his client's cause of death to the public, stating in a press conference that he had contracted the disease through heterosexual intercourse, but by that time it seemed as if everyone outside of Richmond's family, his friends and the women he may have transmitted the virus to, had moved on. Sure, in the immediate aftermath of that announcement about 90 drivers and crew members got tested for HIV, but those tests were motivated by uninformed fear more than anything else. As soon as the results came back negative, the drivers and pit crews went back to the track and NASCAR went back to acting as if Richmond had never existed. No questions asked. No questions answered.