Tim Richmond always wanted to be a movie star. A cocky glamour boy with a flashy style and a supercharged ego, he was a race-car driver straight from Central Casting. Until he died of AIDS in 1989, at 34, Richmond was one of auto racing's brightest stars, NASCAR's resident sex symbol.
In Days of Thunder, Tom Cruise replays much of Richmond's life story on the screen. Like Cruise's Cole Trickle, Richmond switched from racing Indy-style cars to stock cars and teamed up with one of racing's most respected car builders, Harry Hyde. And like Tricke, Richmond fell in love with a beautiful female doctor. It is also true that Richmond's friends once arranged an X-rated stunt much like the movie's gag involving a woman impersonating a highway patrol officer.
In other ways, Richmond was a far more complex and troubled figure than Thunder's Cole Trickle. Throughout his brief but spectacular career 13 victories and $2.2 million in earnings the driver often displayed an uncanny talent for rubbing people the wrong way. ''An arrogant, cocky son of a bitch who thought he was better than anyone in the world'' was how an executive of a major NASCAR sponsor described him. Rumors of drug and alcohol abuse where whispered but never proven. In February 1988, NASCAR demanded to examine his medical records for evidence of drugs. Richmond, by then diagnosed with AIDS, refused.
''We've never had a driver like Tim in stock-car racing,'' recalls Humpy Wheeler, president of the Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway. ''He was almost a James Dean-like character.'' Richmond cultivated that image carefully. In restaurants his flunkies preceded him, warning waitresses to be on their best behavior. On the road, he'd hang a banner out of his hotel window so that fans particularly his female groupies would know exactly where to find him.
Since Richmond's death, his former girlfriend, an opthamologist, has closed down her practice and dropped out of sight. His parents, who feel burned by the press exposing the cause of their son's death, avoid public comment. But Richmond's racing colleagues still talk about him. In words eerily similar to lines spoken by Robert Duvall in Thunder, Hyde explains: ''If you have a piece of steel hanging on the wall and you take it down and work it into a race car, you sweat over it and mold it into something fine. Then you get a guy who will buckle himself into that car and make that car do all you built it to do and more. How can you not love him, miss him? God, yes, I miss him.''