On October 15, 60-year old Randy Lanier stepped out of the Coleman federal penitentiary in rural Florida, a stranger to the world.
“For the last 27 years I have lived in prison cells with a Natural Death Sentence hanging over my neck like a hangman's noose,” Lanier posted on his Facebook page. “Life Without Parole.”
“This morning Oct 15 I walked out of federal prison a Free Man.”
Free is a relative term. Lanier checked into a mandatory halfway house, where he will spend months reintegrating into society. Still, outside of the prison walls, he finds wonder everywhere he looks, quotidian things that most take for granted. The smell of fresh air, unscented by the sweat of jailhouse criminals. Squirrels playing in the trees, and the trees themselves. There were no trees in the prison where Lanier lived, and he finds profound joy just touching the bark and the moss.
At one time, a sight of Randy Lanier may have called for an autograph signing. But no one is asking in the halfway house. Twenty-seven years is a long time, and back then, the world was a different place. ESPN barely existed. Ronald Reagan was in office, and The War on Drugs was raging. Randy Lanier was a very wealthy man, and a national champion in the most death-defying of sports—professional motor racing. He was also a man with a dark secret, and no matter how fast he drove, he couldn’t shake it.
How had Lanier gotten here? If his story were to get the silver screen treatment, it would strike viewers as too picaresque to believe. But it happened—the fastest rise and fall story ever told. It begins where it ends, under the hot Florida sun. In his own words, “Toes in the water, ass in the sand, no worries in the world…”
* * *
Randy Lanier first came to South Florida at the end of the 1960s, when his father moved the family down from Virginia and started working as a carpenter. Randy was a “mellow kid,” he recalls. As a teenager, he found a home in the party scene.
“I kind of fell into the marijuana culture early, at about age 14,” he recalls. South Florida “was so open, so free. There were parks where we’d have pot festivals, and love-ins. I was right in that mix.”
Lanier had long hair, and as a teenager, he did carpentry on construction sites. Because of the ponytail, people started asking him if he could get them some pot. And that’s where it all started.
At 20 years old, Lanier bought a cheap 27-foot powerboat as a pleasure cruiser for himself and his friends, paid for in part with money he made selling bags of weed. “About six months later,” he recalls, “a buddy asked me if I was interested in going to the Bahamas and putting some grass on my boat. It seemed like an adventure, so I did it.” It also seemed like easy money. When he got a chance to do it again, he jumped on it.
Lanier married his high school sweetheart, started a business renting out jet-skis, and ran a small smuggling business on the side. His future appeared set—loud weekend nights, and long years of quiet obscurity. But inspiration is like love. It finds you when you least expect it. Lanier was 25 when his lightning struck.
“I went to a car show in Miami in 1979,” he told a newspaper reporter in 1984, “and SCCA [the Sports Car Club of America] had a booth. I thought it would be kind of neat to sign up and maybe do a little amateur racing some time. It was just going to be a hobby, you know, something to do around home.”
He bought a rusty 1957 Porsche 356 Speedster. The car was in such bad shape, it was wired with lamp chords, like you’d find on lamps in a house. Lanier stripped out the wiring, replaced the brakes, put in a roll cage, and turned the old Porsche into a racing car. His first competition was an amateur event in West Palm Beach, and he won it. The victory came with its own kind of high. He was hooked, and he wanted to live and breathe racing.
“I wanted it to be my career,” he says.
Motor racing is exceptionally deceiving; while it looks easy on television, it’s exceptionally difficult to master. It requires time, money, machinery, track time, and some natural skills. Lanier found dedication in himself he had no idea existed, and he started to climb the club racing ladder.
In 1982, he was attending the 24-Hours of Daytona, the only 24 hour endurance race in the U.S., when a driver on one of the teams got sick and needed replacement. This wasn’t just any team; it was a team of Ferraris, the king of racing sports cars. And there was this club racing guy named Lanier hanging around, looking for a ride. It was a Rocky-like turn of events. Relatively, Lanier still had little real experience. But when he clocked some laps on Daytona’s banked oval and the infield road course, the team bosses were impressed. Within months, he was competing at the biggest sports car race in the world, the 24 Hours of Le Mans in France, in a Ferrari.
But the car died on him. And after Le Mans, Ferrari didn’t call. Still, Lanier was staying busy. His other vocation, smuggling, was taking up more of his time.
* * *
In the late 1970s and early 80s, the popularity of pot smoking exploded in the U.S.. South Florida had hundreds of miles of coastline in close proximity to the Caribbean islands and Central America, where a good portion of the country’s marijuana habit was being grown. South Florida became the era’s Silicon Valley of pot smuggling. The ports and boat marinas were hotbeds of activity—innovative captains with their hopped up speedboats, and all-manner of creative plans to bring in product under the itchy noses of Federal drug agents.
“Running dope back then was almost like a public service,” says one lawyer who lived much of the 1970s and 80s in South Florida. Lanier was a local with deep connections. The trade required fast vehicles, good mechanics, and balls; it attracted all the kinds of people that Randy Lanier knew.
He started working with a partner named Ben Kramer, a fellow speed-thirsty racer, of Hollywood, Florida. Kramer was a year younger than Lanier and a fearless throttleman in the offshore powerboat competitions, during a time when these races saw the death of its competitors almost routinely. Once, commenting on a night race, Kramer said, “There’s tremendous mental pressure. It’s like driving down the turnpike at night and putting adhesive tape over your car’s windshield. You can hardly see anything.”
With Kramer onboard, Lanier’s smuggling operation moved onto bigger stakes. It started with faster and bigger boats, then a 65-foot wooden trawler, then a fleet of tug boats. Soon, the tug boats were pulling barges.
They figured out that if they hid the marijuana in the ballasts of the barges, custom agents wouldn’t find it. “The ballast normally has salt water pumped in or out of it, to make the barge ride high or low depending on the cargo on board,” Lanier explains. “We could put a million pounds of concrete on the barge. We welded compartments into the ballast so the weed was underneath the salt water.”
It was all very illegal. “But let me make something clear,” Lanier says. “Back then, there was a whole lotta people smuggling grass in Florida!” Besides, he justified to himself, it seemed like a victimless crime. No one was getting hurt. No one was getting killed. It was a high-stakes game that required nerves of steel—just like motor racing.
To bring in a load successfully, right under the noses of custom agents? Says Lanier: “It felt like winning.”
* * *
In 1984, Lanier formed the Blue Thunder Race Team. He acquired two Chevrolet-powered March cars and hired a crew chief, whom he ordered to recruit the best mechanics in the business, no matter the cost.
For a driving teammate, Lanier brought in Bill Whittington, a friend who was also based in South Florida. Whittington’s past was like a road map for success for Lanier. Whittington had never entered a race of any import until the late 1970s. In 1979, with his brother Don as his teammate, he miraculously won the Le Mans, and a host of other big races. “In an era that has given us instant coffee, instant potatoes, instant divorce, and the Instamatic camera,” a Los Angeles Times reporter wrote in 1980, “motor racing has its Instant winners: Don and Bill Whittington.”
“Bill was like one of my brothers,” Lanier recalls. And if Lanier wanted to get to the top fast, Whittington was a good teammate to bring on board. Besides, the pair had something else in common. Like Lanier, Bill Whittington had plenty of experience smuggling volumes of marijuana into South Florida.
(The two were not partners. “Bill had nothing to do with any of my smuggling,” Lanier says. “Whatever he did, he did on his own.”)
When Blue Thunder showed up for the season opener in the IMSA Camel GT series—the era’s top sports car competition in the U.S.—the team appeared just like any other new outfit on pit road, destined to run out of money, and to fail against the big guns from Porsche and Jaguar.
From the first green flag, however, Blue Thunder was a spectacular success.
The team placed second in the 12 Hours of Sebring in March, a major international event. The first checkered flag came a month later, at the Los Angeles Times Grand Prix at Riverside. Then, to the disbelief of the fans and the press, Blue Thunder won half of the season’s remaining races, defeating deep-pocketed teams and major names like Derek Bell and Brian Redman.
“These were fabulous racing days,” Lanier remembers. The Blue Thunder cars were fast, and Lanier and Whittington had the talent and skill to put the cars in front. Lanier moved from racetrack to racetrack, living with his wife and young daughter out of their motor home much of the time. His wife loved it. “She made it a family deal,” he says. “It felt awesome. Every day I woke up knowing that I was going to a racetrack, going to a race shop, or climbing in a race car. I was at the peak of my life, I thought. I felt so blessed.
“And I knew then,” Lanier continues, “I was capable of competing at any level.”
This was an era when auto racing was major news, and it was a good year to see your name in the headlines. Nineteen-eighty-four saw McEnroe vs. Connors at the US Open and Wimbledon. The Celtics vs. the Lakers (Bird vs. Magic) in the NBA Finals. Doug Flutie’s Hail Mary. For fans of sports car racing, there was Lanier and his Blue Thunder racing team.
“Little-known Randy Lanier shocked the sports car racing world by winning the Camel GT Championship in 1984,” the Hartford Courant gushed when Blue Thunder took the title that year.
Who was Lanier? According to the newspaper reports, he was normal guy with a wife, a kid, and a moustache, who supported himself renting out jet skis in Florida. He seemed like just another guy online at the grocery store. But sports car racing was, and is, a vastly expensive game, requiring seven figure sponsorship deals. The travel expenses, the personnel, the equipment—and so much of that equipment needing fixing and replacing after every race. As the saying goes, the only way to make a small fortune in car racing is to start with a big one.
Where, so many in the racing world wondered, was Blue Thunder getting its money?
“I had no budget,” Lanier recalls, “because of course I was doing the smuggling, running the grass. To compete against the Porsches, the Jaguars… I figured out I had to spend as much as them.”
And so he did.
* * *
In 1986, Lanier attempted to take his game to the next level—in both racing and smuggling.
“My eyes were set on the 500,” he says, talking about Indianapolis, open-wheel racing at its fastest, the biggest race in the country by far. “I wanted to win it.”
Lanier signed a contract with Frank Arciero, a legendary team owner who had a reputation for finding the next champion driver. Lanier would run the whole IndyCar season, competing against icons like Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt, and Bobby Rahal. As the season got underway, however, the walls started closing in.
On March 11, just weeks before the Indy time trials, Lanier’s former teammate Bill Whittington was arrested and charged with tax evasion, fraud, and smuggling “multi-ton quantities of marijuana,” according to news reports. In the press’s coverage, Lanier’s name was mentioned, merely by association.
“Randy Lanier is…in an awkward position,” one reporter wrote in a story about drug money fueling motor racing operations, “having teamed with Bill Whittington to win the 1984 IMSA championship.”
Lanier denied any knowledge of Whittington’s smuggling activities. At the same time, his own operation continued to swell, and he could only have wondered whether his racing life and his secret life would someday collide.
“Each year it grew a little more,” he says. “I planned my last load for the fall of 1986. It was going to be my biggest load. Then I planned on retiring. I told myself, I’m getting outta the game. I just want to race…. I had the feeling that maybe I could get out of it without being caught.”
Lanier was one of four rookies training to race at the 1986 Indy 500. He practiced the entire month of May. “The first time you see those two straightaways in person,” he said at the time of the 2.5 mile speedway, “you can’t believe how long and narrow they look.”
When he took to the track for the time trials, his fame in racing circles skyrocketed. Lanier clocked 209.964 miles per hour average around the Brickyard—the fastest time for a rookie ever.
The event on Memorial Day promised to draw unprecedented amounts of viewers. There were new state-of-the-art Gasoline Alley garage buildings at Indy, and for the first time, the race would be broadcast live from flag to flag (rather than in clips; even at 200-plus miles per hour, it’s a long afternoon). On race day, Lanier was overwhelmed by the spectacle of a quarter of a million roaring fans in the stands, with “Knight Rider” star David Hasselhoff singing the National Anthem and Chuck Yeager driving the Corvette pace car.
“Once the stands are packed, and you’re strapping into your car… As a driver you try to control your emotions,” he remembers. “But that first lap or so, man, it takes a little bit to settle down.”
Indy is a ruthless place, and Lanier battled in close combat. But no matter how close his competitors were on his tail, the Feds were even closer.
* * *
Randy Lanier won Rookie of the Year honors at the 70th Indianapolis 500, finishing 10th. Soon after, his biggest smuggling load made it safely into South Florida.
Then things started to unravel for him, quickly.
At the Michigan 500 on August 2, Lanier blew out a tire at speed and broke his right femur. “I hit a wall at about 214 miles per hour,” he says. Doctors used a metal rod to put his leg back together.
Soon after, he was arrested as part of a major international smuggling ring. Said a spokesman for the Justice Department: “Here we have a complete, classical drug scheme in which, as the indictment alleges, 11 people conspired and for four years carried out a large-scale operation.” According to the charges, the enterprise had paid for eight motorboats and 17 properties, including apartment buildings and a shopping center.
Lanier posted bail. To escape the heat, he took off to the Caribbean on his boat, and he didn’t come back. He was fishing one morning—a bit after sunrise, early in 1987—off a patch of palmetto bushes in Barbuda, when he saw a small airplane land nearby on a grass runway. It struck him as strange to see a plane landing so early in the morning, in such a desolate place.
“Unbeknowst to me, that was two FBI agents that had been assigned to my case,” he remembers.
He was arrested that day, and this time, there was no escape from himself.
His partner Ben Kramer had just won a national offshore racing championship, on a 38-foot Cougar catamaran. The entire sport of powerboat racing was under clouds of scandal due to the drug-running arrests of its competitors. Now it was Kramer’s turn. He would be a co-defendant with Lanier.
When the pair had started together, South Florida was a smuggler’s paradise. Now, Reagan’s War on Drugs was taking the smugglers down in one high profile case after another, sparking a feeding frenzy of expensive attorneys.
“Once I got arrested,” Lanier remembers, “and I talked to the lawyers, they let me know I was facing a life sentence. I knew what I was facing when I went to trial.”
Lanier was given the opportunity to shorten his prison term by informing on others, but he refused. He was found guilty for his part in smuggling 600,000 pounds of cannabis into the U.S.. When Judge James Foreman sentenced him to life in prison without parole under the “Super Drug Kingpin Law” in a Federal courtroom, Lanier said: “A person should not have to spend the rest of his life in prison for marijuana.”
* * *
As fast as Randy Lanier motored into the sporting limelight, he disappeared. His partner, Ben Kramer, refused to go quietly. Kramer tried to escape by having a helicopter land in the prison yard of his Florida correctional institution; the chopper crashed on the getaway, with Kramer aboard. (Kramer was also later convicted of hiring a hit man to kill Don Aronow—the creator of Cigarette, Formula, and Donzi boats, gunned down in Miami in 1987.)
For 27 years, Randy Lanier was not heard from again. He was a model prisoner—practicing yoga and meditation, running marathons, and painting canvases. In prison, the word car took on a different meaning. “Cars are groups of inmates…[who] stick together, look out for each other, and protect each other in the case of gang conflicts,” he wrote in his prison diary. “If you are in a car and the car has a problem, you are expected to ‘ride’ with them.”
Then this summer, after 27 years, Lanier learned that the Justice Department was going to let him walk. He left the Coleman federal facility in Florida on October 15, and headed for the halfway house, where he now resides. While he admits that he has remorse over the past (not regret, but remorse; “there’s a difference,” he says), he considers a life sentence for marijuana-related charges to be cruel and unusual punishment. “In a country like this one, it’s hard to believe that due to violations of marijuana, you can get a natural death sentence,” he says.
Lanier is already dreaming of climbing back into a racing car someday. But for now, he’s “living in the moment”—a skill he learned from years of meditation. The glory he once knew as a racing champion, he now finds “in the newness of every moment that presents itself.” And more importantly, in reuniting with his friends and family. When he speaks, he can’t help but say the words “I am so blessed”—an interesting choice of words for a man who just spent 27 years without the freedom to touch a tree.
On Sunday, October 19, Lanier posted a picture of himself on his Facebook page. He’s on a Florida beach, holding his hands up under a big sky. Under the picture, he wrote the following words:
Toes in the water
Ass in the sand.
No worries in the world.
Trees, birds, and cars.
No prison bars.
Life is good today.
Photos by Randy Lainer