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Survival of the Fastest
Weed, Speed, and the 1980s Drug Scandal that Shocked the Sports World
By Randy Lanier
With A.J. Baime
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- Hardcover $29.00 $37.00 CAD
- ebook $14.99 $19.99 CAD
- Audiobook Download (Unabridged)
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The high-octane, Seabiscuit-meets-Scarface story of how Randy Lanier became a 1980s international sports star, soaring through the ranks of car racing while holding a dark secret: he was also one of the biggest pot smugglers in American history
As a kid, Randy Lanier dreamed of achieving four-wheel glory at the Indianapolis 500, but knew he’d never be able to afford the most expensive sport on earth. That all changed when he bought a speedboat and began smuggling pot from the Bahamas. Fueled by what would become a historically massive smuggling operation, he started racing cars and became an overnight sensation. For Randy and his teammates, money was no object, and bigger hauls meant faster cars. At every event they attended, they were behind the wheel of the best machinery, flaunting their secret in front of huge crowds and live television cameras. But no matter how fast they drove, they couldn’t outrun the law. As Randy came ever closer to reaching his dream of high-speed glory, one of the biggest drug scandals ever to hit the professional sports world was about to unfold.
Set in the 1980s Florida of Miami Vice, this is the unbelievable, unforgettable, unparalleled story of an ordinary guy whose attempts to become famous doing the thing he wanted most—become a world class race car driver—devolved into a you-can’t-make-this-up tale of one of the biggest crime rings and drug scandals of the 1980s. Now, with the help of New York Times bestselling author A.J. Baime, Randy tells the whole truth for the first time ever, a gripping narrative unlike any other, a sports story for the ages, and shocking a true crime epic.
This is a true story.
Some of the names have been changed.
On October 10, 1987, at sunrise, I stepped out of the salon and onto the rear deck of my custom-built sixty-foot Hatteras, a sport fishing vessel that I named Reel Liv-In. I stared out at the Caribbean. The sunrays bounced off the sapphire ocean, like the sea was boiling with diamonds. It was one of those halcyon tropical days where you feel like nothing could possibly go wrong. Slight breeze, scent of salt water, warm humid air.
I was anchored off the leeward side of Barbuda, the sister island of Antigua, and my three-person crew (two ship captains and a girlfriend I had with me) were readying a Zodiac, a motorized inflatable boat, to head for the grassy shallows. We were going to dive for our lunch—fresh seafood. I had my mask, my snorkel, my knife. Suddenly, I heard the sound of an engine buzzing overhead. I looked up.
“What the fuck do you think that plane is doing?” I said, turning to my main boat captain, Slick. “Why’s that aircraft flying so low, so early in the morning?”
“Probably tourists,” Slick said.
The little plane disappeared over a sandy beach and some palm trees on the island. “There must be an airstrip right over there,” I said.
We launched the Zodiac and spent the morning pulling conch off the grassy seafloor and lobster out of the crevices in the coral reef close by. Afterward, we pulled anchor, turned the Hatteras, and made for port in Falmouth Harbor, Antigua.
I’d been on the run from the law by this time for ten months. Aside from the crew on my boat, nobody in the world knew where I was. I aimed to keep it that way. I was a fugitive, separated from my two children and their mother, Pam, my best friend. Up to this time, my life had been all about speed. I was a motor-racing international champion and an Indy 500 Rookie of the Year, crowned the next big thing at the temple of IndyCar racing. Now my life was dictated by a different kind of speed—always moving fast to stay one step ahead of the law.
Falmouth Harbor sits on the southern edge of Antigua. To get into the harbor, you line up with markers to steer safely through an inlet. On one side is a rocky cliff, and on the other, a coral reef that can tear the guts out of your vessel if you don’t approach correctly. I was standing on the enclosed flybridge with Slick, holding binoculars as he steered the boat into this postcard beautiful harbor full of anchored sailboats. I did a full 360 with the binoculars, and that’s when I saw this gray ninety-foot patrol boat by the rocky cliff to our port side. It looked like a navy ship.
“What do you think they’re doing here?” I said, handing the binoculars to Slick.
“Shit,” he said, “they might want to board the vessel and see our paperwork.”
“I don’t like this. Let’s pivot the boat. Let’s get the fuck out of here and head back out to sea.”
The moment those words came out of my mouth, the patrol boat made its move. It motored toward the opening of the inlet, blocking the only way out of the harbor.
“Hell no!” I screamed. “They’re here for me! Get the Zodiac in the water!”
I was wearing baggy shorts, no shirt, and no shoes. I had no identification on me. I didn’t know where I was going. But I knew I had to get off this vessel, and there was no time to spare. I had a hundred grand in cash and a fake passport in the ship’s stateroom, but I was in too much of a hurry to get it. My crew winched the Zodiac into the water, and I climbed down into this rubber vessel. I took off, weaving through anchored sailboats. When I made it to the harbor dock, I tied up the Zodiac, climbed out, and started running, down to the end and onto a dirt road.
As I barreled forward, I saw a cloud of dust in front of me, and through it came three Jeeps at high speed. I could see that the Jeeps were full of islander police officers with big guns. My heart started to beat so fast I felt like it was going to explode.
Turning right, I ran up a hill, clawing at the ground for traction. The rough terrain ripped the skin off my bare feet, and the sharp points of the palmetto bushes punctured my hands. I heard the words, “Halt! Or we’ll shoot!” I was close to the peak of the hilltop. When I turned around, I saw police officers kneeling and aiming gun barrels at me.
“Don’t shoot!” I shouted, lifting my hands up. “Don’t shoot!”
I walked back down the hill, and the island policemen threw me against one of the Jeeps. One said, “You’re under arrest, mon.”
“What’s this about!?!” I shouted. “You got the wrong guy!”
One of the cops grabbed me by my right wrist and held it up. He looked at my right hand, which was missing a finger.
“No, mon,” he said. “We got the right guy. You’re Randy Lanier. You’re going to jail, mon.”
They handcuffed me and pushed me into the back of one of the Jeeps. It was a madhouse inside. These guys didn’t put their guns away; they all kept the barrels pointed at me. As we motored back to the end of the dock, I said, “Who’s in charge here?”
“I am,” said the guy driving.
“See that sixty-foot boat out in the harbor?” I said. “The Hatteras? You can have it and everything on it! Just let me go!”
He didn’t say anything. Just kept driving.
When we reached the dock, I saw them: two white guys wearing sports jackets and aviator sunglasses, with clean-shaven pale faces. They stood with feet apart and hands clasped in front. “Oh shit!” I said. These guys were central casting law enforcement USA.
That little airplane I’d seen at sunrise, buzzing by overhead? FBI.
Thirteen months later, after a three-month court trial, with sixty-four witnesses and ten thousand pages of testimony transcript, I awoke on the morning of my sentencing in a cell at the supermax prison in Marion, Illinois. It was December 21, 1988. Marion was, at the time, the only supermax prison in the country, designed to hold the worst of the worst. The federal government opened this nightmare place when they shut down Alcatraz. It was home in the 1990s to the likes of John Gotti and various al-Qaeda operatives.
I was wearing a suit and tie when the US marshals came to get me that morning. They put me in a van and drove 100 mph with a squad car in front of us, its lights flashing. We were heading to the federal courthouse of the Southern District of Illinois. When we got there, I noticed officers standing on top of the building and officers surrounding the outside, all of them armed. I thought: What a fucking waste of taxpayer money.
When the marshals brought me into the courtroom, I already knew what I was facing. I’d been convicted of all three counts charged against me, all of which carried mandatory sentences. So there was no mystery around what was about to happen. I just had to go into the courtroom to hear the judge say the words out loud. I had asked my family—Pam, my kids, my mom—to remain absent. I did not want my loved ones to have to witness this.
“All rise,” announced the bailiff.
My lawyer, Bob Ritchie, and I got up on our feet as James L. Foreman, United States judge of the Southern District of Illinois, walked into the room and sat down behind the bench, his silver hair side parted. He asked my lawyer if he had any final words, and my lawyer rose to address the court. All these years later, the words in the court transcript still ring in my ears.
“Who is this man?” he asked the judge. “Who is this man that the court is called upon to sentence? It’s a complex picture. He has acknowledged his wrongdoing. He has acknowledged… that he went down a road he shouldn’t have gone.… But you know, this court knows that there is another side to Randy Lanier that has not been fully addressed. He had, obviously, a strong bond between himself and his daughter, Brandie, now eight years old.…
“I’m not going to stand up here and say because he was a race car driver that that entitles him to any leniency.… But I think the court can also look to see if should anything happen in regard to this matter which would remove from him the specter of coming out of the penitentiary in a pine box, that there is a man here who is susceptible to rehabilitation, and susceptible to making a contribution, a positive contribution to society.… He went in the field of racing because of courage.… He had dedication.… He had things that could carry him far.”
When he finished his appeal for mercy, Judge Foreman spoke, as my lawyer and I stood before him. “You are a very young man now,” the judge said. “You are only thirty-four, isn’t it? I guess?”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
“You and Ben Kramer are almost identical in age,” the judge said, referring to my lifelong business partner, now one of my codefendants. Judge Foreman moved his glasses to the end of his nose, so he could peer over them into my eyes from across the room. “The real basic purpose of punishment is the age-old, century-old idea of deterrence,” he said. “We do have a war on drugs in this country.… The best answer that anybody has been able to come up with has been severity of punishment. Whether that’s going to solve the problem or not, I don’t know. But that is what Congress has spoken to. It’s the law of the land.” It didn’t sound like he was swayed by my lawyer’s plea.
He then read my sentence. Count 1, Continual Criminal Enterprise B: “Imprisonment for a term of life.” Count 2, Conspiracy to Distribute Marijuana: “Imprisonment for a term of forty years.” Count 3, Impeding the IRS: “Imprisonment for a term of five years.” The jury determined that my partners and I were to pay a forfeiture of $150 million. It was the largest forfeiture ever ordered in an American courtroom at that time. My share was $60 million.
The judge peered at me again over the rim of his glasses and said that if he could give me a harsher sentence, he would. Therefore, he said, my sentences would run consecutively rather than concurrently. Meaning, technically, I was to serve the rest of my life in prison without a chance of parole, and if my sentencing was to be followed literally to the word, they were to leave my dead body behind prison bars, for another forty-five years.
I began my sentence in the St. Louis County Jail. The guards led me to a small cell with no bed, just a bench and a blanket. When I heard the steel door to my cage slam shut behind me, I felt myself shatter into a pile of pieces for somebody to sweep off the floor. The thought of failure in my family’s eyes and the failure within myself—it was beyond heartbreaking. And I’d brought it all on myself.
My life was no longer going to be about being a father to my two children or a husband to the love of my life. It was no longer going to be about worshipping at the altar of speed. Now my life was going to be stripped down to the bare essentials of daily survival. I was left to wonder: Would I ever find a way out, legally or illegally? Would I ever breathe a single breath of freedom again?
I was a South Florida hippy kid who grew up with a dream. A construction worker who wanted to be a race car driver so bad I was willing to take incalculable risks. A guy who came from nothing and beat the Porsche factory racing team from Germany, the Jaguar factory team from Britain, and the Ford factory team from the US. A businessman who created an international empire outside the law because that was the only path I could find that would lead me to the place where my heart and soul told me I had to go: the winner’s podium.
For the rest of my life, I’d hear one question over and over. Did I have any regrets? If I could do it all again, would I do it differently? To answer that one, I have to go back to the beginning, to the day I heard the sound of the Indy 500 for the first time on an AM radio. The sound of those roaring engines haunts me still, to this day.
Coming of Age
Virginia and Florida, 1950s and 1960s
South Florida came to define my life, but I didn’t start there. I was born in Virginia in 1954. My family had a small house in a small town called Madison Heights, where my parents grew what we ate. A far cry from private planes and luxury yachts. We had chickens, and some of my earliest memories are of going to collect the eggs. I had three brothers and one sister, and we spent lots of our time running through the miles of woods behind the house, building forts, and having battles throwing mud balls across rambling creeks. We had swings on the front and back porch, and a clothesline in the back where we would hang our laundry to dry.
Across the street was a place called Bryant’s Market where the old-timers sat out front chewing tobacco. At age five, I started going over there to help pump gas, at the only pump there was for miles in either direction on the main road. I couldn’t wait to get out of bed in the morning so I could run across the street and get started. Sometimes I’d wait hours for a vehicle to pull up to the pump. I loved how every car was different. I’d observe the way they looked and smelled, delighting in the shiny chrome and the stink of the engine fumes. I was only a kid, but every time I filled a tank, I felt like a man.
Even then, cars were at the center of my dreams.
My mother was the most compassionate woman I’ve ever met. Her name was Elsie Maude Elliott Lanier, and she worked at a state institution for mentally and physically disabled people. Sometimes we would pick her up from work, and I would see these young people struggling to walk. It was hard for me to understand why they were the way they were. My mom cared so much for these people, and they loved her back. All her life until she retired, that’s what she did: be in service to others. My mom taught me that the greatest form of knowledge in our lives is empathy.
My dad, Noel Edward Lanier Jr., had no formal education beyond the sixth grade, but he could read and write blueprints, and he had a job at a pipe foundry. People called him Junior, and he could build anything. All over our house, there was stuff that he made out of wood with his hands—couches, potato bins, tables, and chairs. He had a Harley-Davidson with a suicide clutch—a shifter near the tank and a clutch pedal by his foot. On Saturdays, he would take one of us kids on a ride. I would get so excited when it was my turn. The motorcycle looked so huge, and the engine was so loud. He would pick me up and put me on the back and away we’d go, riding along the Blue Ridge Parkway in the Shenandoah Valley.
It felt like heaven, holding onto my dad and riding through this valley. Speed, open air, family. What else do you need?
My father had a dark side, however. He would drink, and a couple times I saw him beating my mother. I’d hear the screaming and run down the stairs, trying to stop him, and he would chase me back up. I’d huddle in my room with my younger brother Glen, trying to distract him so he wouldn’t hear.
But mostly it was good times. Idyllic, even.
Every Sunday we’d go to my grandparents’ house. Going for a car ride was a big adventure. Us kids would stand up on the floorboards looking over the driver’s seat and out the windows. At my grandparents’ house, we’d make homemade ice cream in the shade of a walnut tree. Unlike our home, my grandparents’ house had no running water. They had a woodstove and, instead of a toilet, a well-beaten path outside with wooden planks leading through the overgrown weeds to what we called the johnny house.
My grandparents grew tobacco. Tobacco fields spread out as far as the eye could see. They had a big tobacco house where they dried the leaves, and this place was spooky. To me it was like a medieval castle. My senses were always alert when I went in there.
This one time, I walked inside and saw my uncle on a homemade bench, and there were some people around him. I saw a lot of empty beer cans. He had this AM radio, and the guys were listening to something turned all the way up. I was six years old at the time. I approached them, and the closer I got, the more I could hear what was coming out of the radio speaker. The announcers were calling the Indy 500. I believe it was 1961, the first year that A. J. Foyt won.
I’d never heard of the Indy 500 or any motor race. The announcers so excited, it sounded like they could barely catch their breath, and you could hear the engines thunder as the cars shrieked past. It was like the air in that tobacco house was electrified, and as I listened, I started to fantasize about what it would be like to drive a race car. It was a world so far away from mine, it might as well have been another planet. That I’d ever get to sit in one of these cars, or even meet A. J. Foyt—let alone race against him and beat him—seemed as likely as me landing on the moon. Still, I sat on a piece of wood holding my arms up with my hands clenched, clutching a phantom steering wheel, imagining myself piloting down a straightaway at terminal speed.
For me, that was the day the future was born.
One day when I was twelve, I was in the backyard working on a homemade go-kart when my father came to me, telling me to come inside the house for a family meeting. I thought I was in trouble because I needed wheels for my go-kart and so I’d taken my sister’s roller skates apart without asking. Instead, at the dinner table, my father explained that we were moving to South Florida. He never told us why. He just said we were going.
Everything was changing, and I was nervous. My oldest brother, Steve, had gone off to Vietnam. I was going to have to leave my friends and my baseball team, which felt like my entire existence.
We sold our house for $6,000 and drove all the way to South Florida. In 1967, outside of Miami and Fort Lauderdale, South Florida was rural. But that was about to change. The whole peninsula was about to blow up with what would later be thought of as the great South Florida building boom. Everyone wanted to be in South Florida, and why not? All the rich people from New York came down to drink champagne and see Frank Sinatra at the Fontainebleau in Miami, the city that was the gateway to the Caribbean islands. Others came because there was work. Home developments were going up all over, and the boating industry was exploding.
I couldn’t know it at age twelve, but South Florida would become as much a part of me as my own skin. Looking back, I can’t imagine what my life would have become if we hadn’t moved there.
The first place we lived was a trailer park in the town of Hollywood, which bordered Fort Lauderdale to the south, at the corner of Johnson Street and US 441. There was a bowling alley, an A&P market, and honky-tonk cowboy bars. I’d watch my father down whiskey while he played poker with the guys in the trailer park. After a year or so, we moved into a nicer home. My father got a job doing home construction at Pasadena Lakes, a development west of Hollywood. My first job was washing dishes at an Italian restaurant, where I made $1.10 an hour. The summer after ninth grade, my father got me a job digging foundations for new houses. I started out at $1.65 an hour, shoveling dirt in brutally hot weather.
South Florida in 1968 was a wild place to come of age. Almost all the people that I met had families who had come here from somewhere else. There was an indescribable draw to this place, which lured creative, strange, edgy people. People with pasts they couldn’t talk about. People who didn’t care about tomorrow, only about today. People with no money. People with endless money. People who didn’t give a shit about the way life was supposed to be lived; people who chose their own path. When I look back on it now, it was like coming of age in 1960s Haight-Ashbury—hippies everywhere. Only unlike San Francisco, the sunshine blazed, and there were beaches and boats everywhere, girls in bikinis, honky-tonk bars, and outdoor parks full of palm trees and rock ’n’ roll bands jamming.
By that point, a lot of the kids at my school were already smoking weed, as most people called it back then. The first time I smoked a joint, it didn’t do anything. Then one day a friend of mine told me that he knew two sisters who had some hash. We smoked some of it out of a pipe behind a farm supplies store. This time I did get high, and I liked it.
I had long hair, and I kept it in a ponytail. My dad was on me to cut it off. He was a country guy, and it drove him crazy. After a while, all he could talk about was that ponytail. So one of my closest friends, a guy named Alan Hollingsworth (with whom I’m still friends today), and I decided we were going to take a vacation. Without telling my parents, we met up and got a ride to the I-95 on-ramp. We had twenty dollars between us, a cardboard matchbox full of weed, two hits of LSD, and a bunch of clothes in a pillowcase. We stuck our thumbs out and hitchhiked all the way to Canada. We slept underneath bridges. We had no food, so we had to steal it.
So many crazy things happened that summer. The moon landing, Nixon and Vietnam, the Manson murders, the Miracle Mets. On the way to Canada, we heard about this rock ’n’ roll festival happening in upstate New York. It was Woodstock, but we didn’t stop; we kept on going.…
At one point I called my parents. They were furious. But my brothers had told them where I’d gone, so they hadn’t called the police. When Alan and I finally got back to Florida after about three weeks, my mom was thrilled I was back, but my dad wouldn’t even look at me. That was punishment worse than being whipped. But you know what? They forgave me. I still refused to cut my hair, though. I held my ground.
I went back to school and to working construction on weekends. Because I had a ponytail, all the construction workers were always asking me the same questions:
Did I smoke weed?
Did I know how to get it?
One of my friends had a neighbor who had gone to Vietnam, and he was sending weed back. He would grind it up, put it between two postcards, and glue the edges. It was that easy. When this guy came back from the war, he had a source who started sending weed in bigger quantities. So now I had a way to get my hands on some.
I started selling four-finger lids (close to an ounce) for fifteen dollars to the construction workers so I could smoke for free and make money at the same time. This was mostly Mexican weed and sometimes Jamaican weed. Big, dried, brown and green buds with tons of stems and seeds, not as good as the stuff we got from Vietnam. I was still fifteen, and I was already making more money selling weed to the workers on the construction site than I was for the job itself. I didn’t even need the job anymore, but I kept it because that’s where I got my clientele.
And that’s how it all started. It was innocent enough, it seemed to me. Smoking weed was a way of life. It bonded people together. It was a connection to nature. It was an instant cure for boredom, a party in my pocket. When I looked at a map of the United States on the wall of my history classroom, the whole South Florida peninsula looked like a giant joint waiting to be torched.
Nobody was getting hurt, and nobody was getting arrested. It actually felt like I was helping people, turning them on, being of service—just like my mom had taught me.
My two biggest passions were weed and cars. All my heroes were race car drivers: A. J. Foyt, Gordon Johncock, Mario Andretti. So on my fifteenth birthday, I got my mother to drive me to the Florida Department of Motor Vehicles office early so I could be the first in line to get my driver’s license. In Florida, at that time, you could get a restrictive license at fifteen. That meant you could drive, day or night, if you had an adult with you. I walked out of the Florida DMV that morning not just with a driver’s license but with a whole new outlook on life. I was mobile.
That night, I asked my mom if I could use the car to go to a movie with a neighborhood friend.
“I’m picking up a friend who’s eighteen so it’ll be legal for me to drive,” I told her.
She said yes. I had some friends—two sisters, plus one other guy—meet me at a movie theater. We were all lying to our parents. We weren’t going to see any movie. We were heading to the beach with a six-pack, some Mexican shake, and rolling papers.
Later that night, I was lying on a blanket smoking a joint with one of the sisters, and I noticed headlights flashing. So I got up and went to check it out. A cop had pulled up, and he’d found one of the sisters with my other buddy in the back of my mother’s car, parked under some pine trees. This officer saw me. He asked if this was my car, and I told him it was my mother’s. He ordered my buddy and the two sisters into the back of his squad car. Then he turned back to me.
“Put your hands on the hood of the squad car, kid.”
This was my first interaction with a police officer, and I was nervous as hell. I did what I was told. The red-and-blues were flashing, and I could hear the waves crashing on the sand, nearby. I had the bag of weed in my jockeys and was doing everything I could to hide my nerves. The cop searched me, but by some stroke of luck or providence, he didn’t find it.
- “Flooring his racer on the back straight of the Indy 500 at the same time that his barge with 80 tons of pot bucks up waves along the California coast, Randy Lanier didn't let me go until the last page of his ripping, true saga.”—Bruce Porter, New York Times bestselling author of Blow: How a Small-Town Boy Made $100 Million with the Medellín Cocaine Cartel and Lost It All
- "Like any self-respecting outlaw, Lanier has a hell of a time breaking the law, even as knuckleheaded hubris promises ruination, but you can't help but cheer for him as the glory and despair of the checkered flag of his rookie Indy 500 finish line and clanging prison doors loom on the horizon."—Guy Lawson, New York Times bestselling author of War Dogs: How Three Stoners from Miami Beach Became the Most Unlikely Gunrunners in History
- “Tell me you're not going to read this whopper of a true-life tale. Buckle your seat belts. This is one terrific ride.”—Leigh Montville, New York Times bestselling author of The Big Bam
- "As the test pilot for the world's most dangerous amusement park, I was thrust right back into those harrowing days as I read the story of Randy Lanier and his wild ride of a life from drug smuggler to race car driver. It’s non-stop action and a thrill a minute. Strap in and blast off!" —Andy Mulvihill, Author of Action Park: Fast Times, Wild Rides, and the Untold Story of America’s Most Dangerous Amusement Park
- “A great read, equal parts true crime, business story, and Shakespearean tragedy as Lanier’s compulsion to learn how good he could be on the track led him to clandestine offshore meetings, Swiss banks and the jungles of Colombia….It reads like a carefully researched novel, packed with confrontations, incredibly detailed capers and hair’s-breadth escapes….From its peaks to devastating lows, Lanier’s story is an enthralling tale of love, dreams, a family torn apart, devastation and redemption.”—Detroit Free Press
- “Survival of the Fastest is the motorsport and marijuana-smuggling story you've been waiting for. You already knew Randy Lanier's life was unbelievable. You probably just didn't know how unbelievable – until now….this book is a stellar one….The mark of a great book is its ability to reel you in and never let you go, and Survival of the Fastest does exactly that….without a doubt, one of the most incredible motorsport books I’ve ever read.”—Jalopnik
- On Sale
- Aug 2, 2022
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Hachette Books