Richmond was born in Ashland, Ohio and, unlike many other NASCAR drivers, was born into wealth and did not grow up with auto racing. He did not even begin racing until the age of 21, when he drove a Sprint car owned by a friend, but he knew instantly that it was to become his vocation.
Tim Richmond was a perennial playboy. Growing up in wealth, he always appreciated the best things and was very flamboyant especially in comparison to the other gruff, working-class drivers of the time like Dale Earnhardt, Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough. Richmond had expensive tastes in food and drink and lived a fast lifestyle that mirrored his on-track performances.
He continued on the open-wheel racing circuits, racing in the 1980 Indianapolis 500 and finishing ninth. But he decided to move on into stock car racing in NASCAR, which is where he spent the rest of his racing days. His first few seasons, he bounced from team to team looking for a permanent ride which he found in 1982. He raced in 26 events, winning twice and finishing in the top 5 seven times, but only finished 26th in the Winston Cup points standings.
In 1983, Richmond, now with Raymond Beadle's Blue Max team, worked his way into the top 10 in the points standings and securing his position among the circuit's best drivers. By this time, Richmond became friends with another owner, Rick Hendrick and by 1986, Hendrick had built a new team around Richmond. Behind the wheel of his new #25 Folgers Chevrolet Monte Carlo, Richmond won seven times in 1986, finished in the top 5 13 times and in the top 10 17 times. He finished third in the Winston Cup points standings, the best result of his career.
However, at the tail end of the 1986 season, Richmond was becoming noticeably ill. Following the season, he checked into a clinic and discovered that he had AIDS, which, at the time, was a little-understood disease. Despite his illness, Richmond worked to regain his strength and in 1987, he returned in midseason and subsequently won two consecutive races at Pocono and Riverside. However, Richmond's health started deteriorating and so did his results. Richmond would race in six more events before being told not to race by NASCAR.
In 1988, Richmond again tried to make another run in NASCAR, but NASCAR was concerned not only about Richmond's health, but also about how he contracted AIDS in the first place. They subjected Richmond (and Richmond alone) to a drug test and several days later, NASCAR announced that Richmond was suspended indefinitely for testing positive for banned substances. Richmond was livid saying that he had not taken any banned substances and demanded another test, which he passed. NASCAR later admitted that the only substances found in the first test were the over-the-counter medications Sudafed and Advil. They also released the permanent ban, but refused to allow Richmond to drive again until he surrendered his medical records that said he had AIDS.
However, regardless of the circumstances, the damage to Richmond and his career had been done. The rumor mill began and many other NASCAR drivers were now aware of Richmond's condition and speculation began as to how he contracted the virus. At the time, the most common methods for contracting HIV were assumed to be through male homosexual sex or drug abuse using infected needles. To this day, no one is completely sure exactly how Richmond contracted HIV, although some of his closest friends insist that Richmond never used drugs.
Regardless, Richmond filed suit against NASCAR for defamation of character, but NASCAR countered by requiring Richmond to surrender almost all of his personal information from the past eight years: tax returns, drug screening results and medical records. Richmond withdrew the lawsuit rather than have to disclose his illness to his fans.
As Richmond's story finally became public, many of his numerous fans were outraged at NASCAR's treatment of him. NASCAR has never apologized to his family or fans for his exclusionary treatment.
In recent years, NASCAR has suspended three drivers for drug violations. Busch Series driver Shane Hmiel was suspended twice (2003 and 2005), before he was suspended for life in 2006, while Kevin Grubb also has been suspended for failing a drug test, and Craftsman Truck Series driver Brian Rose was suspended in 2003 for failing a drug test. Many people continue to point to the incident with Richmond, however, to show that the exclusionary "good ol' boy" system is still in place within NASCAR.
The movie Days of Thunder was loosely based on Richmond's life, with Tom Cruise's character (Cole Trickle) inspired by Richmond, while Robert Duvall's (Harry Hogge) inspired by crew chief Harry Hyde, and Randy Quaid's (Tim Daland) inspired by owner Rick Hendrick.