Racer/kingpin Randy Lanier is a free man

In less surprising news, Hell expected to freeze over.

Racer/kingpin Randy Lanier is a free man
Randy Lanier
Randy Lanier

Randy Thomas Lanier lived in the biggest house in Sumter County, Florida. The problem is, he had to share that house with 3,100 other men. Until today, Randy Lanier’s home was the Federal Correctional Complex of Coleman, one of the largest federal prisons in the country. All told, there are about 7,200 inmates, but less than half of those are, like Lanier, living in maximum security.

Sometime today, Lanier, 60, is walking out of Coleman, a chilly city of concrete and steel, wrapped in razor wire. It’s a frightening place. At night, from miles away, you can see the orange sodium-light glow, and countless children have been encouraged to behave by parents suggesting that if they don’t, they’ll have to go live over there where that glow is coming from, in Coleman.

Lanier, the 1984 IMSA Camel GT champion, and 1986 Indianapolis 500 rookie of the year, was never supposed to leave, except for occasional transfers to the prison in Springfield, Missouri, which has the best medical facilities – Lanier has a bad hip.

But on September 15, a judge in the U.S. District Court in Southern Illinois, J. Phil Gilbert, signed a release order for Federal Inmate number 04961-069, commuting a sentence of life without parole, to time served, effective today – October 15.

What happened?

Why? We don’t know. According to Autoweek magazine, it’s apparently part of some sort of complicated trade – freedom, for information. There’s no doubt Lanier knows a lot: Not just from soaking up knowledge from being in prison since 1988, but from his years as an accomplished marijuana smuggler, which is what he was convicted of: Being part of a "continuing criminal enterprise," which smuggled and sold in excess of 1,000 pounds of marijuana.

By many accounts, it was far in excess of 1,000 pounds, but that was enough to get Lanier sentenced under the new “Drug Kingpin” law, a headline-grabbing product of the Reagan administration.

Now, the idea of spending the rest of your life in a maximum-security prison (though a cloudy, never-explained accusation that Lanier may have been involved in some sort of jailbreak plan may have contributed to the assumption he'd never go free) over marijuana seems bizarre, especially to anyone who has recently visited Colorado and noticed the marijuana stores springing up. Pot? Really? Jail, forever? A U.S. Department of Justice study once suggested that only about 25 percent of people convicted of murder get either life in prison, or the death sentence. The other 75 percent are apparently less a threat that an illegal marijuana salesman, kingpin or not.

Life for selling pot?

That was the argument Lanier and his supporters – and he became something of a behind-bars poster child for the legalize-pot movement – were making, and at one point, signatures were being gathered at a now-defunct web site to ask for a Presidential pardon.

So now Lanier is free, sort of: The three-page decree places him under “Supervised Release” for three years, with an interesting laundry list of requirements: He must give his DNA when his probation officer asks; he can be tested for drugs as many as 52 times in one year, and he must spend the next six months in a Residential Reentry Center, or a halfway house, which according to Autoweek will be in Miami.

Which, incidentally, is where he was living when he first became interested in racing. At the Miami Auto Show in 1978, he picked up a pamphlet for the Sports Car Club of America, and soon began racing a 1957 Porsche 356. That led to rides at the 24 Hours of Daytona, at the 12 Hours of Sebring, at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. And eventually to Arciero Racing, with which he was planning to run the entire 1986 IndyCar season when the police disagreed.

"One of the best students I ever had," said Terry Earwood, longtime chief instructor for the Skip Barber school. And, by all accounts, a nice guy, unless you made him angry. Lanier was not the first racer to fund his career with drug sales -- this was, after all, the era when IMSA was nicknamed the International Marijuana Smugglers Association -- and he won't be the last.

Reaching out to Randy Lanier

A few years ago, I was working on the 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500, when every living driver was invited back to the track for the 2011 race. I was wondering if Lanier got an invitation, and I looked for a way to contact him.

The federal prison system did have email, albeit rudimentary and highly vetted. Lanier and I began communicating, though it was tedious – you couldn’t send attachments, only body-of-the-message stuff. And, of course, it was all read, coming and going.

I tried to arrange for an in-person interview, which he was eager to do, but I had to send, by formal registered mail, a request to a warden, which I did. Weeks later, Lanier emailed to say the request was apparently never received, or that was the official story; I wondered.

Coleman, located roughly between Orlando and Ocala in the middle of nowhere, is not known for a cordial relationship with the media, and it is far enough away from cities with aggressive newspapers and TV stations that very little information escapes its walls, despite some high-profile inmates like Leonard Peltier, the American Indian Movement activist convicted of shooting two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge reservation in 1975. (In incredibly stark contrast, Martha Stewart was almost sent to Coleman, but ended up at a prison closer to home.) So despite me re-sending my request to interview Lanier in person, it never happened, though I admit to being troubled by some of the requirements, such as no pen, paper or recording devices allowed.

So Lanier and I corresponded for several months, with big gaps between (“Sorry to take so long in responding, but we were in lockdown, and I couldn’t get to a computer.”) We talked of modern motorsports, and he asked me to give his regards to a few old friends he felt treated him with respect, such as Emerson Fittipaldi. Then Lanier was transferred to Springfield for medical reasons, and we lost touch.

Now, with Lanier apparently coming to live in Miami, perhaps he’d like to drop by the Motorsport.com offices. He has a lot to catch up on.

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