The 1970s and ‘80s were a wild time in the sporting worlds. Huge rivalries, career-defining moments, and rapidly evolving technologies paved the way for a wild era, but there’s one part of the motorsport world that stands just as prominently in the minds of fans: drug smuggling. Into that chaos came Randy Lanier, who — along with A. J. Baime, of Go Like Hell fame — just published an autobiography titled Survival of the Fastest: Weed, Speed, and the 1980s Drug Scandal that Shocked the Sports World. And if that title tells you anything, 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. From the prologue that details the moment Lanier was caught to the epilogue about his activism now that he’s served his jail time, I never wanted to put this book down. And I didn’t — I devoured it in under 48 hours, sneaking in a little book time in the wee morning hours and on my lunch break just to see what was going to happen next.
Of course, if you’re a motorsport fan, you probably already know some of the broad strokes of Lanier’s story. He started racing in 1978, taking an SCCA E Production class win in the 1980 season. He debuted in the IMSA series the following year, then competed in the 1982 24 Hours of Daytona to replace an ill Janet Guthrie. He competed at Le Mans, then went on to form his own race team, Blue Thunder, in 1984 — dominating the championship as a sponsor-free, independent team. He went on to compete in the CART series, winning Indy 500 Rookie of the Year in 1986. And he did it all while smuggling massive amounts of marijuana into various ports around the United States.
In Survival of the Fastest, Lanier talks about discovering weed when he was 14, going on to sell the plant on the side during his construction job by the time he was 15. By 20, he had the money to buy a Magnum go-fast boat — and quickly realized he could use that as a vessel for smuggling weed. Before long, Lanier had established himself as a formidable kingpin in South Florida drug scene, with his marijuana distribution network reaching across the country.
Despite watching just about every possibly documentary I could on Lanier throughout the years, I didn’t really realize the scope of his smuggling until reading this book, when his operations were laid out in detail. Suddenly, you start to realize that one single smuggling operation is not only the work of several months, but of an entire lifetime. In order to smuggle 165,000 pounds of weed into America, Lanier needed to know people around the world. He needed those people to be both loyal and quiet. He needed them to have the right legitimate connections. He needed to have successfully completed all those smaller hauls.
For me, though, the most interesting thing is the peek behind the emotional curtain. Other stories or documentaries on Lanier have never really captured his headspace in the way that Survival of the Fastest does. When Lanier talks about his youth and his initial smuggling operations, there’s a sense of nostalgia to them — but as both his racing and his smuggling grew in intensity, his emotions got more conflicted. Both motorsport and drug running could be a full-time career; Lanier was trying to do both at the same time, all while managing a family and indulging in the high life his massive amounts of money allowed for.
The highlight of this book for me is Lanier’s Indy 500 debut. He was competing in the biggest race in the world knowing that it would likely be his last chance to do so; he’d already been indicted in drug investigations, and the feds were breathing down his neck. Prison time was imminent, and with the Reagan administration’s push to end the so-called “War on Drugs,” Lanier knew there was a chance he’d never actually live a free life again once he was behind bars. His friends and fellow racers were being arrested left and right. His wife was pregnant with twins, one of whom had died while the other was still healthy enough to carry to term, and she knew nothing about what was going on; meanwhile, Lanier was trying to hide money and assets to set her up with a good life without him. All this while trying to practice, qualify, and compete in the Indianapolis 500.
You really get the bittersweetness that Lanier was feeling. With all this going on, he wasn’t able to enjoy the very race he’d longed to compete in. So much of his smuggling was designed to earn him the money to establish his racing career so he could contest the Indy 500 — and there he was, anxious, jaded, paranoid, and unable to soak up the experience.
It is, truly, an incredible story, especially for the fact that Lanier used his prison time to its fullest. He writes that he regularly volunteered in prison psychiatric units, spending hours speaking to suicidal inmates while learning how to appreciate the little things in life that made he never would have noticed while free but that made prison life bearable. Upon his release, he remarried his childhood sweetheart and ex-wife Pam and has become an activist for the release of nonviolent marijuana prisoners.
Survival of the Fastest is, without a doubt, one of the most incredible motorsport books I’ve ever read. I can’t recommend it enough — but if you’re not totally convinced, we’ve published an excerpt here on Jalopnik. It should be more than enough to change your mind.