Built For Speed: Richard Pryor in GREASED LIGHTNING (Warner Brothers 1977)

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Richard Pryor  (1940-2005) has been hailed as a comedy genius, and rightly so. But Pryor could also more than hold his own in a dramatic role. Films like WILD IN THE STREETS, LADY SINGS THE BLUES, and BLUE COLLAR gave him the opportunity to strut his thespic stuff, and GREASED LIGHTNING gave him top billing as Wendell Scott, the first African-American NASCAR driver. Pryor plays it straight in this highly fictionalized biopic about a man determined to break the color barrier in the predominantly white sport of stock car racing.

We see Scott returning to his rural Danville, VA hometown after serving in WWII.  He tells everyone he wants to drive a cab and someday open a garage, but his secret wish is to become “a champion race car driver”. He meets and falls in love with Mary (Pam Grier, who’s never looked more beautiful), and they eventually marry…

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A Movie A Day #129: Tim Richmond: To the Limit (2010, directed by Rory Karpf)

Tim Richmond was not the typical NASCAR driver.  In a sport that was largely dominated by blue-collar “good ol’ boys,” Richmond was from a wealthy Ohio family and considered himself to be a “cosmopolitan.”  Unlike many of the drivers, he was not a car expert but he still instinctively knew how to handle a 200 mph turn.  A charismatic showman, Richmond spent a few years as one of the sport’s rock stars.  Along with co-starring with Burt Reynolds in Stroker Ace, Richmond was also the basis for the character played by Tom Cruise in Days of Thunder.  Tragically, one the way to becoming the best, his career was sidelined by health problems, starting with a bout of double pneumonia.  When he was returned to the sport, he was sidelined again when a drug test came back positive and rumors of his hard-partying lifestyle made it difficult for him to find a sponsor.  Even as he fought to get the drug test overturned, he was hiding a bigger secret.  At a time when the merest rumor of having the disease could ruin someone’s life, Tim Richmond was battling AIDS.

Fans of NASCAR might enjoy this documentary, which was produced as a part of ESPN’s 30 For 30.  It is mostly made up of talking head interviews and archival footage of Richmond both racing and being interviewed.  I had never heard of Richmond before I watched this documentary but his charisma is obvious in the clips shown of him and those interviewed speak of him with enough awe that it is easy to believe that, had he not died, Richmond would have become one of the greatest racers of all time.  Mostly, this documentary serves as a reminder of the fear and paranoia of the early days of the AIDS epidemic.  Long before Magic Johnson famously announced that he was HIV positive, Richmond died isolated and fearful that the world would learn the cause of his condition.  This documentary serves as a reminder of who Tim Richmond was and who he could have been.