- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Last year Tim Richmond was the flamboyant bad boy of NASCAR. He lived the way he drove: He never let up. During an electric and sustained burst of brilliance over one 12-race span, he won six times and was second four times. Off the track, he burned the candle at both ends, with a blowtorch. He decided he wanted to be a movie star, and a Hollywood publicity agency kept him spread thin doing interviews and providing photo opportunities. Richmond also was dutifully making promotional appearances for sponsors and racetrack promoters. And for most of the season he fought off a sore throat and increasing tiredness.
Finally, in December, during a photo session in Charlotte for one of his team's sponsors, he had uncontrollable chills. Richmond was escorted back to his family's home in Ashland, Ohio, by his big sister, Sandy, and was checked into the Cleveland Clinic. There he was diagnosed as having acute double pneumonia, and a medical team was assigned to monitor him around the clock. He nearly died on his second day at the clinic, and it wasn't until 24 days later that he could be released.
While Richmond spent the first five months of this year recuperating, defending Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt scorched the NASCAR circuit, winning 6 of the first 11 races. But Richmond finally got back behind the wheel on June 14, for the Miller High Life 500 at Pocono, Pa. He and Earnhardt ran up front most of the way, but near the end Earnhardt faded with a flat tire. Richmond says he almost missed the checkered flag, his eyes were so full of tears. He continued his dramatic comeback with a second straight win a week later on the road course at Riverside ( Calif.) International Raceway.
Richmond is probably NASCAR's most charismatic, complicated and gifted driver—his bout with pneumonia has not changed that. But because it was being Tim-for-others that made him sick—Evelyn Richmond says her 32-year-old son's big problem was that the word no was not in his vocabulary—there's now a new Tim Richmond. For one thing, he can say no.
"I know I could check out at any time in these race cars," says the new Richmond, "and that would be O.K. But dying from pneumonia wouldn't have been. It made me realize that time means too much to me now. I can't see wasting any of it in situations I don't want to be in."
The 1987-model Richmond also comes with a lot less flash. Gone is much of the flamboyance—and much of the vanity. Last year he wore "threads that make Don Johnson look like a bag lady," observed motor sports writer Godwin Kelly in the Daytona Beach News-Journal. Now he wears baggy slacks and T-shirts. Last year he would fly to a hairstylist in Miami to have his locks sculpted and frosted; this year Richmond's hair grows as it grows, cowlicks and all. Although he lost some 25 pounds during the illness, he's gained more than that back, and doesn't seem to mind the impending potbelly. "Before I got sick, I cared too much about what people thought of me," he says. "Now my goal is to enjoy Tim Richmond as Tim Richmond."
Part of that enjoyment seems to come from the way Richmond is resisting NASCAR's regimentation and highhandedness. At the Firecracker 400 in Daytona, for instance, he gave a TV interview while lying on his back on the pit wall; had an argument with NASCAR officials over the legality of the carburetors on his Monte Carlo SS; had a disagreement with other officials over NASCAR's demand that he have a medical exam; and had another fight about posing for photos in sponsors' hats. Then on the sixth lap of the race, Richmond became the object of some unwanted attention when another car spun into him, sending his car into a hair-raising spin through the thick of the 190-mph traffic. After repairs, Richmond was able to continue, but he finished 22nd in the damaged car.
When Richmond isn't busy twitting the establishment, he usually can be found in a crowd of adoring fans, in particular pretty girls and little kids. Observing a friend's whining and foot-stomping three-year-old, he joked, using the self-deprecating charm that often gets him out of scrapes, "Hey, kid, you're acting just like I have all day."
Richmond has been a natural at sports and at getting attention all his life. His father, Al, recalls, "When Tim was little, if he went to the store for a quart of milk, he'd make us time how long it took him. And if you beat him at trapshooting, he'd want to fight you." Tim began learning to pilot airplanes at 13, about the same time he began cutting and showing quarter horses.
Though the family lived in Ashland, Tim was sent to the Miami ( Fla.) Military Academy, where he starred in the 100-yard dash and set a conference record in the high hurdles. But he really stood out in football, and his jersey was retired after his four spectacular years as a 145-pound tailback. "He was very elusive, very explosive, and could bust a game wide open," says his former coach, Jim Thomas, who might be describing Richmond's driving today.