Late in 1986, stock car driver Tim Richmond was hospitalized for pneumonia. But, as he soon discovered, that was secondary to a more serious illness: He was diagnosed with AIDS, the acquired immune deficiency syndrome.
Richmond, 31 at the time, did not want to quit racing. And he did not. He was named NASCAR’s driver of the year for 1986, and planned to continue driving for as long as his strength would last.
But it was not AIDS that knocked him out of racing. In February of 1988, Richmond was suspended by NASCAR officials just before the Daytona 500 because a drug test reportedly showed he had used illegal substances.
Eighteen months later, Richmond died from AIDS after having spent much of his last year in seclusion in southern Florida. His doctor said last year that Richmond contracted AIDS from a woman who had the disease.
And now, his parents, Al and Evelyn Richmond of Ashland, Ohio, and others contend that NASCAR officials and their former drug adviser, Dr. Forest S. Tennant, used false test results to ban Richmond and ultimately end his career.
Tennant, executive director of Community Health Projects of West Covina, has come under criticism for his handling of drug tests as the National Football League’s drug adviser. Tennant left NASCAR last summer in what officials termed an amicable parting.
Interviews with Tennant’s former employees and sealed court documents obtained by Washington television reporter Roberta Baskin corroborated charges Richmond’s parents made Tuesday that negative tests were publicly reported as positive.
Richmond, who challenged the findings in a $20-million lawsuit that was settled out of court, never raced again.
“They ruined his character,” Evelyn Richmond said Tuesday, breaking three years of silence.
“It was really damaging because it was a big enough kick that he had AIDS without being (charged) with a false drug test.
“Tim demanded to be tested because of the rumor. They took him into a trailer and had him urinate over a 55-gallon drum into a bottle with some of the NASCAR officials standing there watching. That was humiliating.”
In an interview last week, Tennant said the drug test was a minor part of his recommendation to disallow Richmond from racing.
“To bring up the Tim Richmond case now, with everything that has happened, is sickening,” Tennant said. “There is a doctor-patient confidentiality here. But we’re talking about a very sick human being at the time.”
Tennant said his role with Richmond was minor. He also said he could not remember the test result except that it was positive.
Richmond, who was NASCAR’s first driver to be tested under a program devised by Tennant, was first reported to have produced positive results for two drugs on NASCAR’s prohibited substance list that included cocaine, marijuana and opiates.
According to Baskin’s report on station WJLA Tuesday night, a court document revealed that Tennant had told NASCAR officials that the two substances were amphetamines and opiates.
Sources who have knowledge of the test say that test actually produced negative results.
Les Richter, vice president of competition for NASCAR said he is bound by a court order not to discuss Richmond’s case.
Richmond asked for a second test when the first was reported as positive. He knew something NASCAR officials did not: He was clean.
Richmond had first been tested by his personal physician, David Dodson, an infectious disease specialist from West Palm Beach, Fla., a few days before NASCAR’s test.
Before taking the NASCAR test Richmond wanted to make sure he no longer had the drug AZT (azidothymidine) in his system, Evelyn Richmond said. AZT has proven effective in delaying the progression of HTLV-III, the virus that causes AIDS.
AIDS victims usually contract the disease from sexual relations with those who have the disease, blood transfusions or contaminated needles.
Evelyn Richmond said that her son did not want the public to know about his disease, and thus stopped taking AZT six weeks before the Daytona 500 to ensure a clean test result. The drug AZT would have been detected had it remained in his system.
Dodson said Tuesday that Richmond was clean except for some caffeine.
“He was suspicious of NASCAR, so we did a test,” Dodson said. “I was absolutely surprised when I saw (NASCAR’s announced positive). “He took some Sudafed and Advil. Advil can give an initial false positive for opiates. I told him that when Tim called. I was surprised he had taken anything period.”
Once NASCAR officials realized that Richmond had an official negative result, they changed their position, saying that his positive findings were caused by the over-the-counter nonprescription drugs Sudafed and Advil.
Dr. Douglas Rollins, director of the Center of Human Toxicology at the University of Utah, said such drugs cannot be accurately gauged by an EMIT screen test, which was used in Tennant’s laboratory.
“If the tests were done by a certified laboratory, they would have been done by a screening test followed by the gas chromatography-mass spectrometry in which case the mistake would not have been made,” he said.
Gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC/MS) is the most expensive but considered the most accurate testing system. Community Health Projects did not use the GC/MS method when Richmond was tested, according to Bobby Tovar, one of two laboratory technicians at the time.
The EMIT process basically uses light to read through certain chemicals. Tovar said he calibrated his instrument to test Richmond’s specimen for marijuana and cocaine.
Tovar said he tested Richmond’s second sample, which he picked up at the airport. He said the specimen was marked with Richmond’s name.
“Tim was a driver on his way up,” Tovar said. “They had suspected he was under the influence. A urine sample was sent, I picked it up, ran the test and it came back negative.”
In an unusual procedure according to drug-testing standards, that sample was retested by another technician two days later, Tovar said. It again was found to be negative.
But further testing resulted in the presence of Sudafed, which Tennant reported as being five to 20 times the normal dose. Traces of ibuprofen (Advil) also were found.
Whether the drugs were found in the first or second sample could not be determined. Tennant said he does not remember the details of the test. Tovar said he did not deal with the test after reporting his initial results to Tennant.
NASCAR officials subsequently reinstated Richmond but said he could not race without releasing his medical records.
Richmond declined because of his disease, and countered with a suit claiming that NASCAR had released unsubstantiated information prematurely.
Richter, who refused to discuss the case, admitted he was one of two auto racing officials trained at Community Health Projects by one of Tennant’s assistants, Gordon Griffith.
Griffith has been characterized by Tennant as a disgruntled former employee.
Griffith currently is a defendant in a 1 1/2-year-old criminal suit in West Covina Municipal Court. The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office has charged Griffith with making threatening and annoying telephone calls to Tennant’s home. The case, which has been postponed several times, is scheduled to go to trial March 1.
Griffith said in an interview last summer that he had trained Richter and Chip Williams, NASCAR’s public relations director. He said Richter told him that Bill France Jr., NASCAR president, wanted to construct a drug program to disqualify Richmond.
“Bill’s concerned we got one person (Richmond) in particular who is really outspoken and he is somewhat bizarre so he must be a drug user,” Griffith said Richter told him. “We don’t know so we’re setting up a drug program so we can catch him.”
Richter would not elaborate on his training sessions with Griffith and what was discussed.
Evelyn Richmond said that NASCAR officials mistook the symptoms of Richmond’s AIDS for symptoms of being on drugs. She said her son and the officials had long been at odds.
“He was not homosexual and he never used a needle. (But) Tim lived in the fast lane, there’s no doubt about it,” she said. “He knew they would pull something like this. Tim and NASCAR did not get along because Tim was a person who told it like it was.”
Evelyn Richmond claims her son was not a drug user.
“He was so devastated by having the disease that I can’t even find the words to explain how he felt,” she said. “With his illness, he was very, very angry. He was angry at God, he was angry at everything.
“He didn’t come across too pleasant many times. Nonetheless he had the talent and he was a very good driver . . . along with being a caring, kind person.”
Richmond first drove a super-modified stock car in 1977. The next year he was the United States Auto Club’s sprint car rookie of the year. Also in 1978, he attended Jim Russell’s driving school at Willow Springs International Raceway and became the fastest student in school history.
He entered the 1980 Indy 500 after having run in only five Indy-style races, and posted the fastest time in the month during practice. He finished ninth and was voted rookie of the year.
He started racing stock cars in 1980, and joined the NASCAR circuit full time the next year. In parts of eight NASCAR seasons he won 13 races and $2,228,558.
Richmond’s personality, however, never endeared him to NASCAR veterans. He was called “Hollywood” by his peers because of his shoulder-length hair, bushy mustache, dark glasses and dress that was different from that worn by most of the Southeastern stock car community.
He often was accompanied by glamorous women at racing events and parties.
Evelyn Richmond said Tim’s conflict with NASCAR began after he blew a tire at Daytona early in his career. She said Richmond had difficulties being admitted to a local hospital although he was injured. Evelyn, who accompanied her son to the hospital, said Tim caused a ruckus when a security guard tried to stop him from entering.
“Had he not had the virus, NASCAR would have killed his occupation (anyway),” Evelyn Richmond said. “And to say nothing of what this did to his illness and to the remaining days of his life.”
The Richmonds said that in the end, their son was too weak to fight NASCAR. And as a result, that he died with his secret.