Eventually his parents, his brother and a grandmother joined him in Miami, having left Cuba on U.S. freedom flights in 1966 and '67. They all squeezed into a one-room apartment while Ralph—by this time most of his friends used the English version of his name—attended Miami Dade Community College and Hipped Royal Castle burgers to bring in desperately needed money.
"We had doctors' bills. My grandmother was sick," Sanchez says. "When I tell you we didn't have food to eat, I'm not kidding. Every time we had to pay the bills, there was uncertainty."
The years of poverty ended after Sanchez earned an accounting degree from Florida Atlantic University. He had been selling real estate for two years when he borrowed money to build small housing projects in Miami. By the time he was 34 he was a wealthy developer. Then he took a huge risk on one auto race in Miami. And lost.
After wrestling with reluctant politicians for authorization to stage a Grand Prix event along the city's streets, Sanchez had secured the necessary permits for February 1983, in the middle of Florida's dry season. Dry except the weekend of the race. Spectators stayed away, the race was cut short by rain, and Sanchez lost almost $1.3 million of his own money. But he paid out the entire $250,000 purse to the drivers, who raced only 50 of the scheduled 310 miles. Sanchez was nearly bankrupt, but he won the everlasting gratitude of the drivers. And despite a daunting mass of debt, he planned the second Miami Grand Prix. And prayed.
His wife, Lourdes, apparently prayed more effectively. Right before Grand Prix II, another storm engulfed Miami. It was worse than the one of the year before, with water rushing over the course in a cascade. Another rainout would mean financial disaster for the family. An exhausted Sanchez fell asleep in a downtown hotel room as his wife cried. "I will never forget that afternoon," Lourdes says. "I prayed, 'Oh, God, if this is not the way for us, let me know. And if it is, give me some sign. Show us this is the right way.' "
The rain stopped. The clouds parted. The race was run on dry streets. And to this day Lourdes believes God smiled on her husband.
She has been married to him for almost 27 years, and they have a 21-year-old daughter, Patricia, who is finishing law school at Duke University, and an 18-year-old son, Rafael, who has Down's syndrome. And though Ralph and Lourdes could move in the fast, exclusive circles of Miami's glitterati, they socialize little, preferring quiet evenings at home. Lourdes says that Ralph is a private, nervous man with no truly close friend except her. Over lunch he swallows pills to control his ulcers. And if he is outgoing and charming before the TV cameras, inside he remains the shy orphan from Sancti Sp�ritus, still an outsider with something to prove. "There's a lot of kid in him," says Lourdes. "When you're a very mature person, you're very rational, and you put obstacles in your own way. But being a little kid, he doesn't see the obstacles. He only sees the light."
The Homestead Motorsports Complex was constructed despite some real obstacles, including a prolonged permit-seeking process. The $82 million track is owned by the city of Homestead—Sanchez holds a 37-year lease to operate the facility. But everyone knows it's the Track That Ralph Built, and it's hailed locally as a miracle that rose from the ruins of Hurricane Andrew. Two weeks after the storm flattened Homestead on Aug. 24, 1992, Sanchez and the city manager worked out the details and shook hands on the deal.
Top drivers such as Fittipaldi and Bobby Rahal have raved about the track, which sold out for Indy Car's 1996 season opener. Big crowds have also come for the NASCAR Craftsman truck series and motorcycle racing. NASCAR Busch Grand National and Indy Car events are scheduled at Homestead for this fall and winter, and the track has become a popular site for club races. The Skip Barber Racing School holds classes and races at Homestead. Sanchez also envisions attracting the Winston Cup and the Formula One World Championship.
As you drive away from Homestead, a South Florida sunset glows golden behind a dramatic arc of storm clouds that skirt the track, carrying the autumn rain somewhere else. You wonder if God really does smile on Ralph Sanchez.