Tim Richmond never admitted in public that he had contracted HIV, and, Tim Richmond: To The Limit shows, when he died in 1989, NASCAR -- and the largely homophobic world around it -- responded badly.
There were so many things related to AIDS that us good old boys just didn't want to talk about.
-- Darrell Waltrip
"He was just one of a kind," says A.J. Foyt. "He was different. I respect him for that." Or not. The trouble with Tim Richmond was that he never played the good old boy. He was young and brash and not a little cocky when he made his first NASCAR start in 1980. His background was "different" too. His family was wealthy: for his 16th birthday, his parents bought him a speedboat, an airplane, and a Pontiac Tran Am. He played football and ran hurdles. He liked to party.
According to Tim Richmond: To The Limit, the new documentary in ESPN's 30 for 30 series, Richmond was a natural talent on the racetrack. This made him a phenomenon and something of a threat to traditional NASCAR culture. When he fell ill in 1986, rumors flew: Richmond's team insisted it was pneumonia (recurring) while others believed he was "on drugs" or "recovering from a motorcycle accident." Richmond never admitted in public that he had contracted HIV, and when he died in 1989, NASCAR -- and the largely homophobic world around it -- responded badly.
To the Limit's focus on this response is indirect, letting interviewees say what they can manage. Some NASCAR guys now speak remorsefully, while others, like Foyt, maintain a certain self-preserving silence. Greg Louganis -- who is a frankly terrific addition to this line-up of good old boys -- puts the era in some perspective: "It wasn't a real good time to come forward with your HIV."
The film begins with a series of snapshots showing Richmond's happy childhood, accompanied by his sister Sandy Welsh's fond memories, then cuts more or less to 1983, when Richmond won his first NASCAR race. This leaves out the years he spent not winning races and driving for a number of teams, all the while showing lots of promise and bothering his elders and his old school peers. When Esquire magazine named him one of "the Best of the New Generation" in 1984, he was already walking the thin line that would come to define his short career: as much as other drivers admired him, they also resented him too.
As the film highlights in short-bursty montages, Richmond had all kinds of charisma and enjoyed the celebrations that come with NASCAR wins. It took him a few years to start winning races. Promoter Humpy Wheeler -- who appears here in a good old boys' diner setting, a little eerily emptied of patrons -- recalls that Richmond "didn't know much more mechanically about the car than your average Labrador retriever. He just knew how to drive one naturally as good as anybody I ever saw." Owner Rick Hendrick says he thought he might help Richmond to channel his energies by teaming him with veteran crew chief and renowned "grouchy old man" Harry Hyde.
The team started winning. Richmond's star was rising. His teammate Darrell Waltrip says, "There's probably a little Tim Richmond in all of us guys. We all like to drive cars fast, we like the lifestyle and all the things that Tim actually lived out." He made noises about going to Hollywood (he appeared in Stroker Ace, and, according to director Hal Needham, "was so easy in front of the camera"), partied with Belushi and Aykroyd, and liked "clothes and stuff like that," he told an interviewer an interviewer ("Ralph Lauren and Bill Blass").
The film's shift to AIDS is awkward, literally, a montage of Richmond coughing in racetrack interviews. The context is sparse: no images of Ronald Reagan, incipient activism, or the racism that shaped early coverage of the virus. The NASCAR community was inclined to be generally phobic as well as specifically homophobic about it, and the film makes clear that Richmond was essentially exiled. Some NASCAR guys judge him outright (Richard Petty says, "I don’t know how strung out he was on something to make him that way"), while administrators look for ways to push him out of the circuit, through drug tests (one notorious test was wrong, but ensured Richmond would not race again). Kyle Petty sums up NASCAR's thinking: "If we're the first sport that has a competitor with AIDS, then what's going to do to our national ranking as a sport? We're trying to be baseball, football, basketball. So I think for them, it was more of a media PR problem than anything else."
Among the interview subjects looking back with some sense of consequence, Kyle Petty may be the most affecting. As he sits at table, not looking at the camera that moves slowly around him, Petty says, "That’s probably one of the times that I feel I most let somebody down, and not trying to learn more and talk to him more." The camera cuts to a front-on shot of his face, as he concludes, "Because we were just ignorant, is the only word you can use, to what he was going through."
What he was going through was increasing loneliness and isolation, as well as the devastating effects of the disease. No one here speaks to what Richmond might have said then, how angry and sad or generous and exemplary he might have been. His sister says he spent his last days at home -- before the hospital -- in his bedroom, the shades drawn and lights out. To indicate the hospital, the film shows some greenish rooms with shadows moving, images at once abstract and visceral, suggesting Richmond's experience as well as the horror show of the world that rejected him for seeming "different." If understandings of AIDS have changed since then (the film notes Magic Johnson's decision to become a spokesperson), it's still too easy for many to fear people who seem "different."