CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Tim Richmond leaned out the window of a condominium high above Turn 1 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, watching a race go on without him. The sound of the cars whizzing by left him breathless, his longing to be on the track obvious.
It was Oct. 10, 1987, and Richmond had been out of a car almost two months.
"This is what I used to do here, and I will do it again and I hope I'll do it well," he tells a camera crew.
He never did race again.
Richmond's rapid rise and fall in NASCAR — he became a superstar in just six full seasons of racing, only to become one of its most controversial figures in his losing battle with AIDS — has been captured by ESPN in its 30 for 30 documentary series. The latest installment, "Tim Richmond To The Limit," is broadcast Tuesday night.
Produced and directed by NASCAR Media Group, the documentary relies on old interviews and race footage, as well as lookbacks by those who knew Richmond and watching his roller-coaster ride through NASCAR.
It doesn't sugarcoat anything.
Richmond had his struggles when he entered NASCAR in 1980. He was flamboyant, loved clothes, women and parties, and didn't lead the same lifestyle as his fellow competitors.
"I am trying to prove that I was put on this earth to have fun," says Richmond early in the film, "to succeed at the fun department."
Did he ever.
Born into a family of wealth, Richmond didn't have to claw his way into a ride. While Richard Petty sported a cowboy hat and boots — the common wear for the good ol' boys of NASCAR then — Richmond preferred silk suits and split his home between a boat in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and an apartment in New York City.
He also loved a good time.
Almost any footage that exists today of Richmond shows the driver living it up in a beer-spray shower in Victory Lane and surrounded by pretty girls. In one scene, he's shown sporting a Tim Richmond T-shirt that says "Sleep with a winner."
It rubbed most of his competitors the wrong way.
"I knew he was a heck of a race car driver," Petty says in a present-day interview, "but I don't know how strung out he was on something to make him that way. You know what I mean? I mean, if I was taking something, it might have been different, too."
NASCAR had no drug-testing policy at the time, and the rumors followed Richmond his entire career despite his constant denials.
But as his career took off — Richmond won seven races in 1986, including the season finale, where he beat Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip at Riverside and finished third in the standings — his health was rapidly deteriorating.
The movie shows Richmond struggling with a persistent cough through the '86 season. He passed it off first as Asian flu and then as pneumonia. His ailments caused him to miss the first 11 races of the 1987 season.
The rumors were rampant that he was suffering from AIDS, but Richmond, who presumably contracted the virus through heterosexual sex, denied it all the way until his death. He returned to competition at Pocono in 1987 and won, then followed it with another victory the next week at Riverside.
His health was up and down the rest of the year, and he was out of the car for good after Michigan that August. He fought and lost a battle with NASCAR to compete in an exhibition race at Daytona the following February, partly because he refused to turn over his medical records, partly because NASCAR said he failed a drug test officials later admitted was in error.
But he never raced again, and retreated to Florida that year where he lived secluded from everyone except his family until his death on Aug. 13, 1989 at age 34.
"Looking back, you think what could have been? How many championships could Tim Richmond win?" a pensive Rick Hendrick asks in the film.
The documentary does an excellent job of showing the charisma Richmond brought to NASCAR, his achievements on the track and his constant battle for acceptance within a traditional community wary of outsiders.
Director Rory Karpf of NASCAR's Media Group worked with Richmond's sister, Sandy Welsh, on the film. She'd been hesitant to agree to a project because she feared all the old wounds that could be reopened by seeing her brother's story unfold.
"I didn't want him to be dragged through the dirt again, and all the nastiness come back," she said.
But when Karpf finally showed her the final project, she was in tears.
"He was a good person, and he was complex and he was always ahead of his time," Welsh said. "It's amazing that after 21 years that people still love him, still talk about him. For so many years, it was like Tim didn't exist. But here he was again, in a movie that is telling the truth, and it's very hard to tell Tim's life in 51 minutes. But if you knew him, 51 minutes will do it for you."