Tim Richmond was electric. It goes without saying. Anyone younger than their mid-30s probably doesn’t have any recollection of seeing him race. He was spectacular.
In 1986, his hang it out driving style earned him eight poles and seven wins. It carried him to third in the final points standings. His magnetic personality and movie-star looks propelled him to transcendent status inside the good ol’ boy NASCAR world.
Then 1987 came, and his tragic decline began.
As chronicled in this week’s ESPN 30 for 30 documentary directed by Rory Karpf, the last year and a half of Richmond’s life was spent in off and on isolation. Ostracized by most of his racing peers, he lived out his last days in South Florida.
Because his story happened before NASCAR’s boom of the 1990s, many fans don’t really know much about him. The ESPN documentary and the feature film Days of Thunder are about as close as a lot of the current NASCAR fanbase has come to learning the whole story about Richmond.
His disease and the era that he succumbed to it somehow made it easier to forget about Tim Richmond.
Another driver has suffered a similar fate because of the era in which he competed and the circumstances surrounding his death.
His name was Lloyd Seay.
Lloyd Seay was one of stock car racing’s most popular drivers of the late 1930s. He entered his first race at 18 at Lakewood Speedway in Atlanta. He won immediately.
By the age of 19, he was teamed with his cousins Roy Hall behind the wheel and Raymond Parks as an owner. The result was magic.
He won in his first start for Parks at Lakewood Speedway in 1938.
In the summer of ‘41, Seay won three times in 15 days that put him on the map seemingly for good: He won on the beach and road course at Daytona on August 24 and High Point in North Carolina seven days later.
That night, he headed to Atlanta for one of the biggest races of the early stock car schedule: Labor Day at Lakewood Speedway.
He missed qualifying and started near the back that day. It took him just 35 laps to knife his way to the front and take the lead from the great Bob Flock. He never looked back, taking home the trophy and pocketing the $450 prize.
In just a little more than a week, Lloyd Seay had won three of the biggest races of the year. Imagine winning at Darlington, Daytona and Indianapolis in nine days. That was the magnitude of Lloyd Seay’s late summer campaign in 1941.
Then Seay’s world came crashing down partially as a result of the perceived scourge of his day: moonshine.
Seay had cut his teeth behind the wheel of a race car as a “whiskey tripper.”
Running white lightning from Dawsonville, GA to Atlanta was a lucrative business, and Seay was good at it.
Legend has it that Seay was pulled over for speeding once and paid double the fine to the officer. He explained that he’d be speeding on the way back too, so he figured he’d go ahead and pay.
That night after the race at Lakewood, Seay headed to his brother Jim’s home in Burlsboro, GA to spend the night. It was his last night alive.
The following morning his cousin Woodrow Anderson came by. He had a beef over money for moonshine.
Anderson was going to collect on the money from sugar that he said Seay had charged to his account at the store. Sugar is one of the critical ingredients of moonshine.
It was decided that Seay, his brother Jim and Anderson would head to Anderson’s father’s home to settle the dispute.
What happened next depends on who you believe.
Woodrow Anderson says the two Seay brothers jumped him and he defended himself; Jim Seay said he was warned to get out of the car the trio was in and then the shooting started.
In any event, when the scuffle was over, Jim Seay was shot in the neck and the great Lloyd Seay was dead. He was killed by a .32 slug to the chest on September 2, 1941. He was just three months shy of his 22nd birthday.
In October, Woodrow Anderson was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.
Just three months after Seay’s murder, Pearl Harbor happened, and America was plunged into World War II. Stock car racing went on hiatus for the most part while many of its stars went off to fight for their country.
When the war was over and stock car racing returned, the murder of a moonshiner and stock car driver was hardly a blip on the radar for a world that had seen so much death by violence over the previous four years.
The war produced a whole new crop of drivers. Many were thrill seekers who came back from the war needing a fix for the adrenalin rush that combat provided. By the time NASCAR was born in 1949, there was a new group of talented stars wheeling stock cars around the South.
Lloyd Seay’s short but spectacular career was all but forgotten. Over the years, NASCAR’s effort to distance itself from its dark bloodline swept much of the moonshine past under the rug.
Just like with the stigma surrounding AIDS in the 1980s, stock car racing, either by design or omission, largely left the great Lloyd Seay behind because of his violent death associated with the illicit liquor business.
Both Richmond and Seay hold important pieces of stock car racing’s heritage. Their stories, for better or worse, are part of NASCAR’s story. They also give us a great history lesson about two eras in American life nearly a half century apart.
One was a time when the contents of your trunk held disdain in a sport; another was a time when the contents of your blood brought the same shame in a society.