Kurts Geschichten

The Gangsters of Motorsport

The IMSA season starts tomorrow with the legendary 24 Hours of Daytona. As connoisseurs know, the abbreviation IMSA stands for "International Motor Sports Association". It used to be mocked as "International Marijuana Smuggler Association". Why? We provide the explanation here.

  • Text
    Kurt Molzer
  • Titelbild
    Marshall Pruett Archive

It was after his victory in the 12-hour classic at Sebring in the mid-1980s – the race was part of the IMSA series, the U.S. sports car racing championship – that I saw Jo for the last time. A few weeks later he was killed at Le Mans. Jo Gartner was a friend of the family. At this last meeting, I talked to him about an unbelievable thing that I had just read in the newspaper: John Paul, a former IMSA driver, winner of the 24-hour race at Daytona in 1982 together with his son John Paul Jr. and Rolf Stommelen, had been arrested in Switzerland and extradited to the United States. The allegation: as the head of a drug trafficking ring, he had smuggled around ninety tons of marijuana from Colombia to the U.S. between 1976 and 1981. I asked Jo what he had to say about that as a current IMSA driver. He grinned: “What does IMSA stand for anyway?” – “International Motor Sports Association,” I replied without hesitation and with a certain amount of pride. “Wrong,” Jo said. “It stands for International Marijuana Smugglers Association.”

The man we see here with beard and glasses wearing racing overalls and happily spraying a bottle of champagne is John Paul, winner of the 24 Hours of Daytona, psychopath, drug lord, suspected double murderer. Standing at the far left is his son, John Paul Jr. Credit: Hal Crocker.
The man we see here with beard and glasses wearing racing overalls and happily spraying a bottle of champagne is John Paul, winner of the 24 Hours of Daytona, psychopath, drug lord, suspected double murderer. Standing at the far left is his son, John Paul Jr. Credit: Hal Crocker.

Jo Gartner was driving the red-and-white Coca-Cola-sponsored Porsche 962C. His co-drivers were Hans-Joachim Stuck and Bob Akin, who was also the racing team’s owner. The upstate New Yorker already had half a century of experience to his name and knew the wildest and craziest stories about John Paul and his son, who was later also arrested. John Paul Jr. had apparently been involved in his father’s drug business from the age of fifteen. Bob Akin told all those stories to Jo.

The biographies of the two John Pauls read like something out of a gangster story. And yet even their exploits are eclipsed by those of another driver: Randy Lanier. Lanier won the IMSA title in 1984 and the Rookie of the Year honor at the Indy 500 in 1986. Yet one of America’s fastest race car drivers was also one of its biggest drug lords, the Pablo Escobar of marijuana, smuggling hundreds of tons from Colombia and the Bahamas to the United States. Not with impunity, however. Lanier served twenty-seven years in prison for his crimes. His double life is one of the craziest stories of rise and fall in the land of unlimited possibilities. Have all the film producers, directors and screenwriters in the world been asleep? If this doesn’t have the makings of a blockbuster, then what does?

Credit: Hal Crocker.
Credit: Hal Crocker.
But there was even more drug trafficking going on at the IMSA. Our little foray into the past wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the three Whittington brothers, Don, Bill and Dale. While Bill and Don raced to first place in their class at Le Mans in 1979 (in a Porsche 935 with German Klaus Ludwig as the third driver), their couriers were busy generating millions smuggling drugs.

Why am I writing all of this down now? Because a colleague of mine called me in early October to tell me that he was flying to Georgia for the IMSA season finale at the Road Atlanta Raceway. My response was brief and blunt: “You bastard!” Envy rose up inside me. I paced in circles, finding no peace, and made myself a strong cup of coffee. That only made me more erratic. But that’s what I needed at the moment. And in that state of mind I said to myself, “Now or never: the piece on the International Marijuana Smugglers Association.”

Here we go:

Randy Lanier was thirteen years old when the family moved from Virginia to Florida. That was in the late sixties. Preferring to hang out with his friends on the beach, he started skipping school and had smoked his first joint even before his voice broke. At fifteen, he began attending classes more regularly again – but mainly to sell marijuana to his classmates. Soon he had dropped out and found himself working in construction, but he continued to sell weed on the side. His clientele grew larger and larger. One day he did the logical thing: he quit his day job to focus on his marijuana business. By the time he was nineteen, he had enough money to buy his own 27-foot speedboat for $18,000. This was the high life! Drunk with power, he had a brilliant idea: Why not use the boat for professional purposes? No sooner said than done. He sailed off to the Bahamas and came back with a boat full of marijuana. Soon he was a regular commuter between Florida and the island paradise, ferrying ever increasing quantities of marijuana on ever larger boats. In 1976 the little man (5’ 3”) married his high school sweetheart Pam. He also established a boat and jet ski rental business. Just for appearances. In case anyone came along asking stupid questions.

On a whim, Randy Lanier decided to become a race car driver. Apart from smoking pot, he didn’t really have a hobby.

In the late seventies, he was visiting a car show in Miami when he happened by the booth of the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA). On a whim, he decided to become a race car driver. Apart from smoking pot, he didn’t really have a hobby. He quickly got his SCCA license and bought himself a run-down, rust-covered 1957 Porsche 356 Speedster for $7,500. He restored the four-cylinder sports car and put in disc brakes and a roll cage. His first race was an amateur competition in West Palm Beach in 1980, and although he didn’t have a clear head – as usual, he had started the day with a fat joint – he ended up on top of the podium. Randy Lanier was a natural, born with a talent for speed. And he had tasted blood. He entered even more amateur events and won one race after another. A whim turned into passion, and he dreamed of becoming a real race car driver. He even quit smoking pot: “I realized pot was going to hurt my racing, and I didn’t want that.”

Although he didn’t have a clear head – as usual, he had started the day with a fat joint – he ended up on top of the podium.

Which doesn’t mean that he stopped selling the stuff. On the contrary. Business was booming and the “company” was expanding. Lanier needed a new, larger and faster boat, 65 feet. Now he went straight to the source, to Colombia, loaded up to eight tons at a time. He teamed up with speedboat driver Ben Kramer, who knew how to outrun the Coast Guard. Soon, even the newly acquired means of transportation wasn’t big enough. The two acquired a sizable armada consisting of tugs, barges and floating containers. They had long since lost count of their money.

In late 1981 Randy Lanier made his first appearance on the big stage, at the IMSA season finale at Daytona. Lanier had bought himself a seat in the cockpit of a Porsche 935. In the end, however, he ( … )

→ Read the full story in rampstyle #30 "Blue Skies".

Kurt Molzer

Kurt Molzer

Freelance Author & Columnist
Kurt Molzer was born and raised in Vienna and worked for years as chief editor for Bild, Penthouse and Bunte. From 2000 he was a writer for GQ magazine, where he had a monthly column. His debut novel "Kurt's Stories" was published in 2006. Now he writes for ramp (again). And he has to drive fast cars for it - although he had actually already sworn them off.
rampstyle #30 Blue Skies

rampstyle #30 Blue Skies

Nach »All Summer Long« jetzt das Folgeheft »Blue Skies«. Schlüssig. Denn wenn man etwas mehr über den britischen Singer-Songwriter Chris Rea weiß, schließt sich damit ein schöner Kreis. »Blue Sky« ist eine von Reas Lieblingsmetaphern. Der blaue Himmel das Bild für einen hoffnungsvollen Blick auf das, was kommen wird.

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