Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Days of Thunder: Tim Richmond: To the Limit

“I’m more afraid of being nothing than I am of being hurt.” Officially, those are the words of Cole Trickle, as written by Robert Towne and as delivered by Tom Cruise in the auto racing flick Days of Thunder. In spirit, though, they are the words of Tim Richmond. A fearless driver who became one of the best racers on the NASCAR circuit under the guidance of a crusty crew chief, Richmond was the flamboyant real-life character upon which Cruise’s Trickle was loosely based. But Days of Thunder isn’t Richmond’s story. Not by a long shot. Richmond was confident, talented and brash, and, appropriately enough, he had a Hollywood icon’s sense of the spotlight, but his life wasn’t blessed with the stereotypical Hollywood ending. Just when Richmond was beginning to show his potential for legendary greatness, he died at the age of 34. What killed him wasn’t overconfidence on the racetrack but ignorance off of it. Richmond fell victim to something he didn’t think he needed to fear: sex.

Tim Richmond died of AIDS. And in the impressive documentary Tim Richmond: To the Limit, the latest release in ESPN Films’ “30 for 30” series, we see the way Richmond lived, the way he died and, most important of all, the way he lived en route to dying. Because what’s really notable about Tim Richmond isn’t that he died of AIDS but when he died of AIDS: 1989. That’s five years pre-Real World: San Francisco, four years pre-Philadelphia, three years pre-Arthur Ashe and two years pre-Magic Johnson. For most of America, 1989 was the dark age of HIV/AIDS awareness – a time when there was just enough light to spot something to fear and not enough light to understand what we should really be afraid of. In the late ‘80s, AIDS was widely considered to be a “gay cancer,” and the great hypocrisy was that some of the same folks who thought only homosexuals got AIDS were also the ones who feared they could contract the disease through casual contact with someone who had it. It wasn’t an environment in which most anyone would feel comfortable living publicly with HIV/AIDS, least of all a NASCAR racer who had already been held at arm’s length by the sport’s “good ol’ boy” establishment just for having an apartment in New York, just for not being one of them.

Through interviews with Richmond’s sister and several of his friends, including Dr. Jerry Punch, plus archival footage of Richmond himself, director Rory Karpf gives us a sense of what Richmond knew, what he didn’t know and what he refused to believe in his final years of life, which were plagued by illness and rumor. One rumor suggested that Richmond had a drug problem. The other rumor suggested he had AIDS. To the press, Richmond denied both, instead stating that he had “Asian flu” and “double pneumonia.” To his friends, he didn’t say much at all. To his immediate family, he admitted the truth. Richmond’s public silence wasn’t tied to any attempt to die with dignity. Rather, it was an attempt to preserve his career. Until the end, says Punch, Richmond never believed he was going to die. After all, he’d seemed to overcome the disease before. One of the most stunning facts about Richmond’s final years is that after initially retiring from NASCAR in 1986, upon his surreptitious diagnosis, his health already deteriorating, he returned to racing briefly in 1987 … and won! Richmond wasn’t suffering delusions of grandeur in believing he would survive AIDS. He was just too naïve to realize the direness of his condition.

To Karpf’s credit, To the Limit is frank about Richmond’s carousing lifestyle. A still photo shows that mirrors hung over Richmond’s bed and his friends note that he had a sex apparatus in the corner of his room. Old NASCAR footage shows Richmond once pausing mid-interview to admire a blond walking by in a short skirt and also repeatedly making the most of all those post-victory hugs from the trophy babes. One of a handful of NASCAR drivers to appear in 1983’s Stroker Ace, it was as if Richmond took on Burt Reynolds’ overt, predatory sexuality. He seemed to be promoting sex all of the time. It was the perfect way to cultivate his rock star image, because in a sport in which you perform underneath a hood and helmet, the key to stardom is less victory than colorfulness (see: Cinco, Ocho). And from Richmond’s perspective, what better way to be colorful than to have lots of sex? It seemed harmless enough, but it proved to be reckless. After his death, some of Richmond’s former lovers appeared on 60 Minutes and claimed that Richmond initiated sex with them when he knew he was infected. Whether that’s true is impossible to say. Richmond’s sister not surprisingly objects to that suggestion, but her bias blinds her to reason: If Richmond himself was in denial about what it meant to have HIV/AIDS, he might also have been in denial about the consequences of spreading the disease.

Karpf plays this kind of stuff down the middle, seemingly without an agenda. He doesn’t seem concerned with salvaging Richmond’s personal reputation, nor is he out to create villains. To the Limit documents the cold reception Richmond received from the establishment drivers like Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, but it doesn’t paint Southerners maliciously or as especially AIDS-phobic. Kyle Petty admits in one of the film’s interviews he was “ignorant” about AIDS, but that describes most of America in 1989, doesn’t it? Karpf realizes that the controversy over Richmond’s illness was a product of the times, and so his only mission seems to be ensuring that Richmond’s career isn’t defined by his death. The early portion of To the Limit is dedicated to Richmond’s ascent through racing, and even for someone who doesn’t understand the allure of the sport the footage is thrilling. I couldn’t explain how drafting works or what it takes to make a pass (other than driving faster than the other guy), and yet Richmond’s special talent is impossible to miss. When one of the talking heads suggests that Richmond would have become one of NASCAR’s all-time greats, you won’t need to take his word for it, because you’ll already believe it.

Needless to say, this is quite a bit of subject matter to stuff into a 50-minute film. But while Karpf would have benefitted from even 15 more minutes to tell his story, To the Limit never feels overly rushed. The film’s biggest disadvantage is its thankless place in the “30 for 30” schedule. As the 26th film in the series, and the ninth release in as many weeks, Karpf’s film can’t help but feel formulaic, particularly its attractively lit talking-head interviews. Yet whereas so many “30 for 30” documentaries merely dust off events for trips down memory lane, To the Limit is one of only a few films in the series that tells its story with a clarity that we didn’t have when the events occurred. One could easily argue that we now have a better understanding of Richmond’s near-death predicament than he did as he was living it. If Magic Johnson’s HIV announcement and initial retirement was the major turning point for HIV/AIDS awareness in this country, To the Limit is a reminder of just how unaware we were back then. The tragedy isn’t only that Richmond died, it's how he was forced to live on the way out.

Tim Richmond: To the Limit premieres tonight on ESPN at 8 pm ET, and will rerun frequently thereafter. The Cooler will be reviewing each film in the “30 for 30” series upon its release. See the archive.


DavidEhrenstein said...

Richmond's denials are as one with those of Bruce Chatwin.

89 was well into the epidemic. I mark its start as 79.

Jason Bellamy said...

89 was well into the epidemic.

Absolutely. I wasn't trying to suggest otherwise. Rather, I was trying to point out how close general public awareness in '89 was to awareness '79. It was still the dark ages, in other words. The little information that was out there was often misunderstood or misused. It was in the '90s that the general public seemed to understand the reality of AIDS better -- and, as important, to trust that reality. (As opposed to: "They say you can't get it from touching someone who has it, but I'm not about to risk it." A mindset that was pretty common at the time, even among the relatively enlightened crowd.)

Hope that made sense.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Well all that I can say is they sure took their time.

I date it from 1979 because of a weekend I spent in san Francisco visiting my friend, Warren Sonbert -- the experimental filmmaker and international bon vivant. Alien opened that weekend, and we greatly enjoyed it. We were staying at Warren's and a friend of hsi dropped by to return an opera recording. He was in a state of great agitation -- rail thin and bald as the provberbial billaird ball. When he left Warren told us that the friend had contracted some sort of cancer that the doctors were ahving great difficulty in diagnosing. He;d lost a ton of weight, all his hair and strange lesions had sprouted up on his body.

Warren himself was to be an AIDS casualty a number of years later.

Jason Bellamy said...

I think your comment says a lot about why it took so long: exposure. The truth of the matter is that AIDS broke out in specific cities first, with greater numbers in the "homosexual community," a term that I hate using because it makes it sound as if homosexuals live on their own island, but I think you know what I mean. It took a lot of time for America to get any kind of first-hand exposure to what AIDS really looked like, in part because some folks like Tim Richmond remained quiet about it. (Diver Greg Louganis, who is a talking head in this doc, tested positive for HIV in '88 but didn't make it publicly known until '95.)
For so many the exposure came through those rare celebrity and Hollywood figures: Magic, Ashe, Philadelphia and The Real World.

My first personal glimpse of AIDS -- that I'm aware of -- came in the late '80s. One of my mom's good friends died sometime around '92. I didn't see him near the very end, but she did. I still vividly remember the night she came home from seeing Philadelphia, which I'd already seen with my girlfriend, totally devastated because it poked at wounds that hadn't begun to heal. (I've only seen her cry harder than that once.)

For so many years, there was as much misinformation as there was information. Which of course led to stereotyping. I still remember in the aftermath of Magic's announcement hearing people wonder if the problem wasn't that Magic screwed so many women but that maybe he was gay; after all, he'd (innocently) kissed Isiah Thomas on the court before the NBA Finals. AIDS fed into homophobia that was already there and created homophobia that might not otherwise have existed, and it was one ugly cycle.

Sad days, in so many ways.

Josh Morgan said...

This is a great read. Just seen the 30 for 30 tonight and I couldn't agree more with your piece. You are a very talented writer.

I do agree that pre Freddie Mercury,Arthur Ashe and Magic, there wasn't enough reliable information about AIDS. People generaly figured it was a gay mans cancer. Times were just brutal with people living with AIDS, not to mention a sport that just oozes conservative values.

DavidEhrenstein said...

The first well-known figure I heard dying from AIDS was Hibiscus of The Cockettes and "Flower Power" fame (here he is inventing it at that big demo at the Pentagon in '67. He had been diagnosed with pneumonia and treated for it, but died shortly afterwards. The reason was the specific AIDS strain Pneumosistis pneumonia hadn't been identified -- and required quite different treatment than regular peneumonia.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Here's more on Hibiscus