Greg Cote

Greg Cote: Saving a city is the legacy of Homestead-Miami Speedway

NASCAR’s 2015 season-finale Sprint Cup championship race marks the 20th anniversary of Homestead-Miami Speedway.
NASCAR’s 2015 season-finale Sprint Cup championship race marks the 20th anniversary of Homestead-Miami Speedway. hgabino@elnuevoherald.com

American auto racing and sports at large mark a milestone Sunday when all-time great driver Jeff Gordon runs for the last time in NASCAR’s season-finale Sprint Cup championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Among the full field competing only a quartet of drivers qualified to run for the title, and it’s the perfect final four, the perfect mix.

Gordon delivers the historic heft and sentimental nod.

Kevin Harvick is the defending series champion.

Kyle Busch is the bad-boy here despite breaking a leg early in the year.

And Martin Truex Jr. is your requisite Cinderalla in a racing suit.

“If y’all can’t find a good story on this stage,” as Harvick told the gathered media this week, “you should be fired.”

The good stories down at Homestead, though, don’t just involve who will win the championship Sunday or whether Gordon can fashion a storybook ending.

There is another milestone in play, one more personal to South Florida and to the city hosting NASCAR’s “Super Bowl” for the 14th consecutive year.

This race marks the 20th anniversary of Homestead-Miami Speedway, and locals can’t help but cast their minds back to how this racetrack came to be.

And how it helped quite literally to save a city from ruin.

John Alger, a local third-generation farmer who grows sweet corn, snap beans and palm trees, remembers well the day Hurricane Andrew hit. It was Aug. 24, 1992.

“It was a horribly scary night,” he recalled this week. “One where you worried about your children.”

His family and several workers from Alger Farms — 22 people in all — hunkered into one bathroom, praying it would be a safe room, praying the screaming winds that reached 177 mph would spare them.

Alger’s home would suffer minimal damage, but his nearby farm would lose five buildings to the devastation. In all, in and around Homestead, Andrew destroyed 63,000 houses and left 175,000 people homeless. The hurricane killed 44 in the state and caused $25 billion in damage — at the time the costliest Atlantic hurricane in U.S. history.

This left the communities an hour south of Miami reeling. Many residents and businesses used their insurance money to move elsewhere rather than rebuild as Homestead’s population shrank by half. Because of Andrew the Cleveland Indians canceled plans to move their spring-training operation here, and Homestead Air Force Base downgraded from active to a reserve facility, taking away thousands of jobs.

The city was sinking when a racetrack helped save it.

With intentional symbolism the massive facility broke ground exactly one year after Hurricane Andrew made landfall, a rising beacon in a city still trying to fight its way out from under the rubble.

The visionary builder and Miami Motorsports founder Ralph Sanchez, who passed away in 2013, chose Homestead as the site. He had come to America from Cuba as a child in the exodus of Operacion Pedro Pan in the early ’60s. He gave back.

“Homestead needed an economic generator,” said track vice president of operations Al Garcia, one of Sanchez’s right-hand men and a track fixture all 20 years. “Aside from the tangible effects — 3,100 permanent jobs — the track was a sign of hope at a time the community needed that. This was a phoenix rising out of the desert.”

Said Alger, 56, the farmer: “After Andrew we were looking for something good to happen. This was our shining star.”

Alger would sell some of his neighboring farmland to the track. He isn’t a racing fan — “After the jets fly over, I pretty much go home and watch football,” he said, smiling — but he knows what the track symbolizes. Its economic impact to Miami-Dade County is estimated at $301 million in annual revenue.

“We had so many knockdowns. It put us back on the map,” Alger said. “Now you see Homestead on the TV broadcast.

“ The Goodyear blimp is overhead. The track meant, ‘We’re back. We’re still here.’”

The track’s profile grew by leaps when NASCAR began running its final championship race here in 2002.

Greater Miami is forever chasing Super Bowls to host, but this race ranks among our biggest major annual sporting events, in the company of the Orange Bowl college football game, PGA Tour golf at Doral and pro tennis on Key Biscayne.

There are cities far more associated with racing — Daytona, Indianapolis, Charlotte — but Homestead and its proximity to Miami made the choice to host the final race a natural one. Drivers love the track, its design and banking, and also love the area.

“Great location,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said.

“You just can’t beat going to South Florida in November,” added Carl Edwards.

Now, as if it were a 20th anniversary gift, NASCAR gives Homestead-Miami Speedway and South Florida the perfect finale of Gordon, Harvick, Busch and Truex.

Will Gordon write the perfect ending to his career? Will Harvick win back-to-back titles? Can Busch win his first career Sprint Cup crown the season he broke his leg? Or will Truex shock us all?

Gordon, Harvick and Busch together have won 157 Sprint Cup races. Truex has won three. Gordon, Harvick and Busch’s teams — giants Hendrick Motorsports, Stewart-Hass and Joe Gibbs Racing, respectively — together have won 15 Sprint Cup season championships. Truex’s little-known sponsor, Furniture Row, seeks its first.

It should be a pretty great story no matter which of the four lifts the trophy Sunday.

But it won’t be a better story than how, 20 years earlier, the racetrack hosting them pulled a devastated city out from under the rubble and helped it heal.

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