You drive down the long, narrow, flat road clotted with crushed clumps of soil blown off the farms, and for miles you see acres of lush royal palm nurseries mixed among acres of sandy fields that yield potatoes and corn. It looks like Illinois transported to the tropics. You smell the musty, acrid aroma of South Florida farmland as you keep driving, and then, abruptly, there it is: the Homestead Motorsports Complex, a racetrack and towering grandstand rising amid the crops. You wonder who ever imagined that people would trundle to the sparsely populated tip of this peninsula to watch a sport better seen on TV?
Ralph Sanchez did. The story of this place begins in 1980, when Sanchez first dreamed of a big-time car race through the streets of Miami, his adopted city. Within three years he had created the Miami Grand Prix. In 1986 he was dreaming again—this time of a permanent world-class track somewhere in South Florida. Local officials, including the Dade County commissioner, said it was impossible, but 10 years later the much-acclaimed 63,000-seat complex in Homestead is about to celebrate its first anniversary.
"You dream, you paint the picture, then you start to develop the steps to get to that reality, that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow," Sanchez says, gesturing from behind his desk at Miami Motorsports, his race-promotion firm, which is now located at the speedway. He is a tall, lean, handsome man who talks passionately about his ideas, his family, his childhood. And racing. "When you're around me," he says, "you hear one word a lot—focused. Always stay focused. Keep your eye on the ball."
Emerson Fittipaldi, the two-time Indy 500 winner, says, "I've known Ralph for 15 years now, and he's always been someone who thinks big and makes things happen." Sanchez coaxed the former Formula One world champion out of retirement for the second Miami Grand Prix. "Most people in race promoting know only half of what Ralph does," Fittipaldi says.
The dreamer and the doer in Sanchez spring from the wounds of an impoverished youth. He was born in Sancti Sp�ritus, Cuba, in 1948 and baptized Rafael August in Sanchez. The family lived on a small farm where young Rafael, fascinated with toy cars, steered imaginary Ferraris into imaginary victory lanes. It was a tranquil life.
When Rafael was 10 years old, everything changed. Fidel Castro seized power, and the Sanchez extended family was split; half were strongly pro-Communist, half anti-Communist. In Cuba's towns and in the mountains, revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries battled for people's allegiance. And children often were drawn into the struggle.
"At 12 years old in Cuba, you were already a man," Sanchez says. "If you went to public schools, it was Communist indoctrination. If you went to Catholic schools, it was the other way, and you heard bad things about Castro."
Rafael attended a Catholic school, where the brothers who taught by day printed subversive leaflets by night. He was secretly recruited to distribute the flyers and deliver supplies to opposition forces. It was risky work, and children who were caught by the police were often thrown into jail. When a relative warned Rafael's father that the boy was in danger, the family arranged a seat for Rafael aboard one of the airlifts from Havana to Miami.
When Rafael landed in the U.S., poor and unable to speak English, he moved in with an aunt and uncle in Miami. Bui just 18 months later the couple moved to Nicaragua, and Rafael was placed in a Catholic orphanage in Miami, where he stayed until he was required to leave after he turned 18. "When I walked into that orphanage, I didn't know if I'd ever see my parents again," Sanchez remembers. "It was a rough place. You had to learn how to defend yourself."
The other boys at the home were all Cuban exiles, orphans of the revolution. But Rafael never really adjusted. He always felt like an outsider, whether in the orphanage among his fellow Cubans or in Miami among the Anglos. The sting from that lonely time is still with him, Sanchez acknowledges.