The Rush of Drug Smuggling Was Just Like the Thrill of Racing

This is an excerpt from a book by Randy Lanier, a champion sports car racer in the 1970s and ’80s who secretly funded his motorsports career by smuggling marijuana.

byRandy LanierAug 2, 2022 12:00 PM
The Rush of Drug Smuggling Was Just Like the Thrill of Racing
Hachette
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One day in 1977, I was at the Miami International Auto Show perusing the latest machinery when I saw a booth for the Sports Car Club of America. The SCCA is one of the main sanctioning bodies for amateur club racing. I took home some literature—“Join Now!”—and left it on my kitchen table. For the next few days, every time I came home, those brochures were staring at me. Finally, I called the 800 number. I needed to take a classroom test and a road test, I was told. I’d need to find myself a car I could take onto a racetrack and have it tech inspected. Then I could get my competition license and compete in club racing.

(Editor's note: The following story is an excerpt from the book SURVIVAL OF THE FASTEST: Weed, Speed, and the 1980s Drug Scandal that Shocked the Sports World, by Randy Lanier with former Drive editor A.J. Baime. Lanier was a champion sports car racer in the 1970s and '80s who secretly funded his motorsports career by smuggling marijuana into the United States, a crime for which he was later sentenced to life in prison without parole. He was released from a "living death sentence" in federal prison in 2014 and has since turned to cannabis activism. SURVIVAL OF THE FASTEST goes on sale today and can be purchased at Amazon and other bookstores. -- PG)

Hachette

Sports car racing is the most popular and accessible form of motorsport seen around the world. Other types include stock car racing (like NASCAR), various types of motorcycle racing, and open-wheel racing (which includes IndyCar and Formula 1). Stock car racing on oval speedways is a purely American phenomenon, meant to pit real American customer (stock) cars against each other (although the cars have evolved over the years in NASCAR and aren’t really stock anymore at all). Sports car racing is a far more international game, held on twisty and hilly circuits, using sports cars built in the United States, Europe, and Japan.

I was 23, and I’d been dreaming of motor racing ever since I heard the Indy 500 on that tinny AM radio all those years ago. It’s a sport so remote for most people, simply because of the cost. I never dreamed I’d actually be able to do it. But now, I had cash coming out of my nostrils.

I started scouring the classifieds looking for the right vehicle. I had a buddy named Joe who was the best mechanic I knew, so when I found a 1957 Porsche 356 Speedster in Tennessee, Joe was nice enough to go inspect the convertible and then trailer it back to Florida for me. I paid $7,000 for it. I also acquired a Chevy Silverado dually pickup (two wheels on each side in the back), and I was going to use that to tow the 1957 Porsche on a trailer to races.

When I got the car back to my house, I circled it and literally kicked the tires. It was in rough shape. It still had its original drum brakes from 1957. Someone had reworked the wiring with lamp cord. The floorboards were rusted out so you could sit in the driver’s seat and touch the pavement with your feet like Fred Flintstone.

Time to roll up the sleeves.

I was going to spare no expense to turn this busted old Porsche into a kick-ass race car. And money wasn’t an issue, anyway. I installed several safes in my house and one in my parents’ house and each held as much as $500,000. So whenever I needed money, I just went to my own little private bank.

I rented a single-bay, thousand-square-foot warehouse in Davie, and my friend Joe and I went to work. We’d put Jimi Hendrix on, smoke a joint, and the hours would fly by. We redid the wiring, replaced sheet metal, and fitted the car with modern disc brakes. We welded a full roll cage in, which protects the driver in the event of a crash, and stiffened the chassis to improve the car’s handling. I had a custom trailer made, with a rack up front for tires.

Meanwhile, while I was building the car, Pam got pregnant with our first child. It was an exciting time for our little family. I took the Porsche to the first open track weekend I could, with the Sports Car Club of America, at Sebring International Raceway, two hours from my house. I planned on practicing all weekend long and then testing for my competition license at the end. I did some classroom instruction at the track, most of it on safety but also on proper technique—how to attack a corner (slow in, fast out) and how to find the apex of a turn so you can maximize your speed through it, no matter its shape or the camber of the pavement. The first time I took the car out, I was every bit a novice.

Driving a car on a racetrack is kinda like golf; it looks so easy on TV, but in fact, it requires tremendous skill and endless practice. I started lapping and lapping, taking different lines through turns, exploring the limits of what the car could do. Always building speed, always testing the strength of my own nerve.

Courtesy Randy Lanier

How much speed was too much? Where was the limit? To find it, you have to reach further, take more and more risks. Practice creates confidence. Confidence gives you the ability to tap into your reserves, a place where balance is right on the edge. And when you find that balance, it all comes together and you feel it in your soul. This is when you shine.

At one point that weekend, I blew out my clutch, and I didn’t have the part I needed to fix it. One of the other Porsche drivers, who also had a 356, said he had the part at his shop in Fort Lauderdale. But we were in Sebring, 150 miles away.

“I’ll charter a plane,” I said. “I’ll go get it and be back by tonight.”

“You’re fucking crazy!” he said. “It’s gonna cost you all this money, and this is just a practice weekend. It’s an $80 part. We’ll just come back in a couple of weeks.”

“No way,” I said. “I want my competition license now.”

So I chartered a small plane, flew out of Sebring to Fort Lauderdale, got the part, and flew back that same day. That was my mindset at the time. I had the money; I had the drive. Let’s get this done! By the end of that weekend, I had my license.

I was ready to go racing.

My first real competition was at Palm Beach Raceway, my home track. I loved this place, not just because I’d seen a lot of races here. It was here, back in 1969, where I ate LSD and saw Janis Joplin and the Rolling Stones. Now, in 1978, I was 24 years old. I figured if I could finish the race without smashing the car or breaking any bones, that would be a victory.

Pam and I drove out together in her Mercedes, and Joe trailered my Porsche to the track. My mother, my father, my brothers, and some friends all came. We turned the weekend into a big barbecue party. I was competing in what they called E Production, a class of cars that included vintage Triumphs, Alfa Romeos, and Austin-Healeys. This was sports car racing—basically, vintage street legal showroom cars loaded up with aftermarket speed and safety equipment, on a racetrack with right and left turns and elevation changes, up and down. Palm Beach is a two-mile track with ten turns. It was hot asphalt with a lot of barriers and pine trees around the perimeter, stuff you didn’t want to run into at speed. I qualified in the middle of the pack—nothing impressive.

On the eve of the race, Joe and I worked all night long to make the car bulletproof, and it occurred to me that racing a car wasn’t so different from bringing in a load of weed. You’re relying on your machinery to be fast and reliable, and you’re relying on yourself to have the nerve to do what has to be done, to push the machinery as hard as it can go. It occurred to me that the same will to succeed and to take risks in smuggling applied at the track. Which meant maybe I had a shot at this.

When I climbed into the car on race day, helmet on, I strapped my five-point harness over my chest and thighs. My heart was revving harder than the car’s engine. I was nervous, but I knew how to handle it; I was used to the adrenaline—addicted to it, even. I had number 57 painted on the side of my car, a nod to my 1957 Porsche. I heard the announcer call for E Production cars, so I motored out of pit lane and onto the track.

Courtesy Randy Lanier

We did a warm-up lap behind a pace car and then came around the last corner heading for the flag stand. When the steward waved the green flag, all the engines thundered, and the whole pack took off. On the first lap, my rpm gauge cable broke, so I had no tachometer. I had to improvise—just like you do when you’re hauling loads out on the water. Think fast! Problem-solve! I could gauge the revs on the engine by ear and shift gears accordingly.

This was my first time in wheel-to-wheel close combat. It’s all about concentration, supreme focus, and the stamina to remain at that level of focus over a long period of time. All the stresses of life, all the inner dialogue—all of that disappears. This is where my meditation skills came in. I could get in a flow state and stay there. I communicated with the car with my hands and my feet, and the car responded with noises and smells and smoke and speed.

Hit every corner apex the best you can.

Brake late in tight corners. Brake slow and smooth in faster corners. Get on the gas as early as possible coming out of every corner.

Quick gear shifts and smooth clutch work. No mistakes.

Drive with confidence. Believing in yourself goes a long way on the racetrack.

There’s a natural gyroscope inside your brain that guides you so that you can feel the corners rather than just see them. It’s like you’re existing in an entirely separate plane of understanding. The balance in your ears becomes the balance of the car, and all you have to do is stay focused and let your instinct do the work.

This was a sprint race—about 20 minutes long. Nearing the end, I was trailing a Triumph and snapping at its tail.

Turn 10 is a long, fast, sweeping switchback that leads onto the front straightaway. I knew I could take that Triumph if I positioned the car tightly on the inside line coming out of that corner, if I could get on the gas early enough. But if I got on it too early, I’d risk hitting him and knocking us both off track.

I flew into that corner, my nose inches behind the Triumph. I waited . . . waited . . . then made my move, hammering the throttle. When I shot down the straightaway, that Triumph was fading in my rearview.

Two laps later I saw the checkered flag waving in the wind.

The rush was indescribable.

No racer can ever forget the first victory—especially if it’s the driver’s first race. When I made it back into the pits and got out of that car, my whole family was there. The look of pride on my father’s face, the smile on Pam’s lips, the hug from my mother—this was living. It even felt like my kid brother Glen was there in spirit. It was just unreal. I remember thinking: If winning a little race in Palm Beach could feel this good, what would it feel like to win the Indy 500?

After that, I was going to racetracks every chance I could get. I was hooked, and Pam could see it. It was all I wanted to talk about—that and the baby coming. Whether you’re learning to put oil paint on a canvas, ski black diamond runs, or smuggle millions of dollars of illegal cannabis, if you want to be good at something, you have to put in the time and effort, always paying attention to the details.

But racing was also like smuggling in another particular regard. The first time you hold $20,000 in cash, you get a killer rush. The next time? It’s normal, and you want more. Same with speed. You hit 120 mph, and you’re white-knuckling the wheel, your ass cheeks clenched so tight they’re sore for days. The next time you hit 120 mph, that speed feels normal. You start chasing 130 mph, 140 mph. You’re hunting the intangible, breaking the laws that control the universe. That’s the kind of thing that can either drive you to the top or get you in big trouble—or both.

Lanier at the 1986 Indy 500. Getty Images

Even when I wasn’t behind the wheel, I was working on my craft. I could think through a racetrack and drive phantom laps while sitting in a bathtub, thinking my way through a particularly hard corner or thinking about how the weight of a car can be transferred quickly from front to back and side to side, according to where the car is placed at any split second, in a particular part of a turn, or according to the camber of the pavement.

Nothing in a race car at speed is ever stagnant. Everything is always moving, a constantly evolving and limitless set of dynamics. The most important engine in the car is not the one making the horsepower. It’s always the one in your skull, and after that, the one in your chest.

Part of learning anything is making mistakes. Only when you make a mistake in a race car, it can happen in a flash, and the consequences can be your life.

One time, I was at a practice session at Palm Beach, and I pushed hard into turn five. I carried too much speed into the right-hand corner and lost my grip. I was reaching for that limit! But I went too far. The car spun on me, and off I went through a thick patch of saw grass.

Once you’ve lost control of a car, and you know there’s no chance of getting it back, time slows to a crawl and all you can do is pray that you’re not going to hit something hard. On the other side of the saw grass was a lake. I didn’t even know it was there because I couldn’t see through this thick overgrowth.

Splash!

Now I was sitting in my Porsche, in the middle of a lake. The car was filling with water, and I got myself out of there as fast as I could.

Embarrassed? You bet. I made sure to get a picture of the car in the lake, sunk up to the top of the doors, before the tow truck hauled it out of there. The look on Pam’s face when she saw that photo? Un-fucking-believable.

One evening, we were preparing for a race at Palm Beach International Raceway. I was taking Pam out to dinner and on the way, we stopped by my race shop to make sure everything was ready to go. Joe and I had put in long hours to rebuild the Porsche after its unfortunate lake swim. The car was really coming together.

I was wearing a suit and tie, and Pam was in a nice dress, as we were headed to a fine French restaurant. She was very pregnant with our first child. I’d bought us a blue Mercedes 380 SEL, a big sedan for our growing family. I was proud of that car; it screamed success. At the race shop, I stepped out of the Mercedes to talk to Joe while Pam waited in the car. (I’d hired Joe by this time, so he was actually working for me as my mechanic.)

The dually Chevy Silverado was there, hooked up to the trailer carrying the Porsche 356. The tire rack was full of racing tires, giving off that wonderful fresh rubber smell. Joe had loaded it all up, and he was spraying down the shop floor with a hose. Out in front of the shop was another Mercedes. He was in the process of rebuilding this car for a friend.

“Everything’s ready to go,” Joe assured me, then added, “Hey, would you give me a hand with this Mercedes?”

He wanted me to help him push it into the race shop, to lock it up for the night. He opened up the driver’s door and put his hands on the steering wheel. I reached under the rear bumper to push.

What I didn’t know was that he had the back of the car up on jack stands, and the back wheels were off. Joe must have just forgotten. When we started pushing, the car fell off those jack stands and crashed down on my right hand, on the middle two fingers. I felt instant panic and searing pain.

“Oh fuck! I cut my finger off! I cut off my fucking finger!”

Joe said, “No, you didn’t.”

I held up my maimed hand. Blood shot up three feet in the air.

“Shit! You did!”

I started dancing around, trying to figure out what to do with my hand. Joe yelled, “We got to go to the hospital!”

I ran over to my car. Pam was in the passenger seat. I opened her door.

“What happened?”

“I cut my finger off!”

I held up my hand to show her and blood sprayed all over the inside of the windshield. She let loose a shriek and then started crying. “Get out of the car!” I shouted. “Get out of the car! You got to drive!”

So she got out and waddled over to the driver’s side as fast as her pregnant body could take her. I got in the passenger seat and heard Joe yell, “Hold on! Wait!” He came running over and opened Pam’s door. He handed her my severed finger, and Pam let loose that shriek again. She wouldn’t take the finger.

“Put it on the back seat, Joe!” I yelled. So he threw it on the back seat. I realized that Pam was in no shape to drive. “Get in the car!” I told him. “You drive!”

Driver Randy Lanier, left, of Davie, Fla., talks with two-time World Champion Emerson Fittipaldi of Sao Paulo, Brazil, during a break in the action at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, May 5, 1986. (AP Photo/Jerry Mouser)

It was like the bloodiest game of musical chairs in history. Pam got back out and waddled over to the passenger seat. Joe got in the driver’s seat, and I got in back. Joe hit the throttle hard, and my finger rolled from the back seat onto the floorboard, right between my feet. When Joe hit the brakes at a stop sign, the finger rolled under the front seat. When he hammered the gas, it rolled back between my feet. I watched that finger roll back and forth all the way to the hospital.

When we got to the emergency room, the inside of the car looked like the set of a Hollywood slasher film. I marched into the ER, wearing my nice suit. We finally got to see a doctor, and Joe handed him my severed digit. Talk about giving someone the finger. He scrutinized it closely and said, “I’m sorry, there’s no saving this thing.” So now I was missing half of my right ring finger.

I never did make it to the race in Palm Beach that weekend. Instead, I got a bottle of Quaaludes and I hit the couch. I could never imagine how that missing finger would later play a role in my ultimate arrest and demise, years in the future.

As soon as I could, however, I had the bandages off and I was back with Joe in the shop, working on the Porsche, and back at the track, doing laps. Holding the wheel with a hand with four fingers took some getting used to, but I made it work. The 1979 season was ending, but I was already looking forward. The SCCA had regional championships and a national championship. I had enough laps under my belt by this time that I felt comfortable on the track, and I was ready to start winning at a higher level. I wanted that national championship in 1980. I was also thinking about the next car.

I was spending thousands and thousands of dollars on racing. But what might my situation look like, I wondered, if I spent tens of thousands? Or hundreds of thousands? If I needed more money, I knew how to get it. The more I grew my business, the faster I could go.

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