Auto racing legend Ralph Sanchez dies at 64

Ralph Sanchez brought Grand Prix races and Homestead-Miami Speedway to South Florida.

04/02/2013 12:01 AM

04/02/2013 1:19 AM

Legendary drivers Mario Andretti, Emerson Fittipaldi and A.J. Foyt raced exotic sports cars along Biscayne Boulevard in downtown Miami because of Ralph Sanchez.

IndyCar champions Michael Andretti, Al Unser Jr. and Danny Sullivan steered to victories on a road circuit laid out in Tamiami Park because of Ralph Sanchez.

Jimmie Johnson has secured each of his five Sprint Cup championships at a Homestead-Miami Speedway facility envisioned, planned, founded and brought to vibrant life by Ralph Sanchez.

That’s a legacy that will live on.

Sanchez died Monday morning at age 64 after a prolonged bout with cancer.

The Cuban exile, who arrived in Miami alone as a child in the early 1960s Operation Pedro Pan airlift, became one of auto racing’s most prominent and respected promoters and established South Florida as one of the sport’s premier destinations.

Derek Bell, the British sports car ace who shared a 1985 Grand Prix of Miami victory with Al Holbert, said Sanchez “stood 10 feet [taller] than anybody else promoting things in those days.

“Miami set the bar for street races. Ralph created that ambience and atmosphere. The Miami Grand Prix was an international event, and it boosted Miami’s image worldwide.”

Sanchez gave up a lucrative real estate development business to invest his money, his business acumen and his boundless passion into the 1983 inaugural Grand Prix of Miami on a demanding street circuit through Bayfront Park and along Biscayne Boulevard.

He often laughed about the “yeah, right” looks of skepticism he received when he first spoke of his aspirations to City of Miami politicians and media members.

Al Garcia joined Sanchez with Miami Motorsports in 1984 and currently serves as vice president of operations at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He said he always marveled at what Sanchez was willing to risk for the love of auto racing.

“But when he had a dream, a conviction, he’d make it happen,” Garcia said. “And when Ralph got that glimmer in his eye, you could tell something special was happening.”

Monsoon-like storms the morning of that 1983 inaugural flooded portions of the course and forced a scheduled 168-lap race to be halted after only 27 laps.

International Motor Sports Association sanctioning officials left up to the devastated Sanchez how much of the purse to distribute. Sanchez told them to pay the entire posted prize money.

That gave him instant credibility, established his reputation in the industry and paved the path to all he achieved from then until the International Speedway Corporation bought out his interest in the Homestead-Miami Speedway operating partnership in the late 1990s.

Sanchez, who always looked as if he stepped off the pages of a fashion magazine, once said of the 1984 Prix won by Brian Redman and Doc Bundy in a Jaguar that he “hit a home run and didn’t know it.”

But every one of the late-1980s events qualified as a double or triple if not a home run.

Sanchez and IMSA conducted the Miami Prix through 1993, with international sports car stars the likes of Redman, Bob Wollek and Geoff Brabham and Juan Manuel Fangio II standing on the victory podium.

When sports car racing ebbed in the early 1990s, Sanchez continued the Grand Prix as a Trans-Am race in 1994 and an IndyCar race won by eventual Indianapolis 500 winner Jacques Villeneuve in 1995.

Sanchez also had built a road circuit through Tamiami Park where the cars and stars of Indy contested season-ending races from 1985 through 1988. Notably, Al Unser edged son Al Jr. by a point for the 1985 title, and Bobby Rahal fended off Michael Andretti for the 1986 and ’87 championships.

Progress in the bayside area that had been depressed when Sanchez began running the Miami Prix eventually spurred development that forced city officials to “evict” the race.

If Brabham darted the Nissan he drove to four Miami Prix victories through the turn off Biscayne Boulevard that existed then, he’d crash into AmericanAirlines Arena.

Sanchez, however, already had solicited governmental support to build a permanent racing facility in Homestead as a significant project toward the devastated area’s recovery from Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Ground was broken in 1993.

The picturesque facility with its 1.5-mile oval sprung up in time for Dale Jarrett to headline NASCAR’s initial venture here with a dramatic Nationwide (then Busch) series victory in November 1995.

Jarrett added to his niche in the speedway’s history when he clinched the 1999 championship in the first Cup race (then Winston Cup, now Sprint Cup) contested there.

NASCAR president Mike Helton credits Sanchez with adapting to the stock car sanctioning body’s needs in various track modifications in the initial years and making Homestead-Miami “a very significant destination for NASCAR and its fans.”

“Ralph certainly believed in the original [relatively flat and rectangular] design of Homestead, but he also was willing to make adjustments to accommodate the sanctioning bodies,” Helton said. “He always delivered on what he was trying to accomplish.”

Sanchez relinquished his interest in what quickly became known as “the track that Ralph built” to allow ISC to accelerate its later expansions. NASCAR made Homestead-Miami Speedway the site of championship season finales in all three of its major divisions in 2002.

Also, Michael Andretti, the late Dan Wheldon, Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti all scored multiple IndyCar victories on Homestead’s oval between 1997 and 2011.

Sanchez is survived by his wife (Lourdes), son (Rafael), daughter (Patricia Abril) and grandsons (Nico Abril and Victor Abril).

Funeral arrangements are pending.

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