When the lights turn off and the 20-car Formula One field hammers its way into the first turn of Sunday’s Miami Grand Prix (2 pm ET, ABC), it will mark the official South Florida debut of Earth’s biggest motorsports series.
But it will not be the first race with “Grand Prix” and “Miami” in the same title. Not even close. Prior to this weekend, nearly 30 events have been run under the name Grand Prix of Miami across five different series.
So, yes, F1 will make a little history as it races around the Hard Rock Stadium this weekend. But there is little else that could be described as little about Miami’s auto racing roots. From the Alabama Gang and the Andrettis to an Indy 500 founding father and a famous televised racing death that wasn’t real, South Florida’s road to Formula One has had more twists and turns than the 19-corner, 3,363-mile Miami International Autodrome, fake parking lot marina and all.
You like fast cars? Do you like history? Then put on your pastel-painted helmet and race ahead.
Mr. Fisher’s beach and track
At the end of this month, they’ll run the 106th edition of the Indianapolis 500 in Speedway, Indiana, located 1,200 miles northwest of Miami Beach. But the same man was hugely instrumental in both of those locations becoming American institutions.
Carl Fisher was a Hoosier demigod, one of the four founders of Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He sought to construct a proving ground for his Indianapolis-based automotive interests, from the first patented headlights to his automotive salesroom, widely recognized as the first-ever car dealership.
IMS opened in 1909 and hosted the first Indy 500 in 1911. Fisher also built America’s first coast-to-coast road, the Lincoln Highway, and then decided he also wanted to build a north-to-south highway (which became the Dixie Highway ) that connected the Midwest to Florida. Why? Because he loved to vacation in Miami. He loved it so much that he dedicated himself to converting a mangrove-and-snake-snarled island into a vacation oasis. He called it Miami Beach.
Fisher conjured up ways to attract vacationers to his new oceanside paradise, including the construction of a 1.25-mile wooden oval with Everest-like 50-degree banking. The Fulford-Miami Speedway set in North Miami Beach and announced a 300-mile event on Feb. 22, 1926. Fisher called upon his friends from Indianapolis, and they showed up. Two-time Indy 500 winner Tommy Milton won the pole while reigning 500 champ Peter DePaolo won the race and the aptly-named Carl G. Fisher Trophy.
Sadly, the track was destroyed seven months later by the Great Miami Hurricane. Happily, the wood from the flattened speedway was repurposed by Fisher to help rebuild the town.
The Miami Gang?
Open wheel racing vanished from Miami along with Fisher’s track and wouldn’t return for another six decades, but there was certainly no shortage of race cars in South Florida. Sports cars rumbled over the roads and runways of towns and airports from Singer Island to Boca Raton while sprint cars and stock cars slid around a half-mile dirt track north of Miami, the Palm Beach Speedway, built in 1949 and lasting until 1984. That’s where Indy 500 racers like Al Keller worked out before heading north each May and where seven NASCAR Grand National events were run and won by, among others, NASCAR Hall of Famers Tim Flock, Herb Thomas and Lee Petty.
Palm Beach Speedway was also where youngsters Bobby and Donnie Allison first fell in love with stock car racing and turned their first laps. That’s right: The founders of the Alabama Gang were born in Miami.
“Yeah, that always blows people’s minds, that we were all born in Miami, and we didn’t move to Alabama until we were grown adults and married,” Bobby Allison recalled in 2019. “Red Farmer wasn’t born there, but he grew up there. We were surrounded by really, really great racers our whole lives growing up, all right there in South Florida.”
Taking it to the streets
The first Grand Prix of Miami, held in 1983, had its roots in those sports car racers from Boca and Singer Island. The event was the brainchild of Miami entrepreneur Ralph Sanchez, who was born in Cuba and, like the Allisons, fell in love with auto racing as a child.
He was lured by the romanticism of the inaugural Cuban Grand Prix, a 1957 Formula One event run through the oceanside streets of Havana and won by Stirling Moss. Sanchez was 8 years old. Only four years later, he was evacuated to Miami with other Cuban children as Fidel Castro’s revolution overran the island country.
Decades later, with Miami suffering from a drug-tainted reputation, Sanchez followed in the tire tracks of Carl Fisher, seeking to attract visitors and businesses to his city by way of auto racing. Inspired by the race of his childhood, he mapped out a 1.85-mile course that ran through downtown Miami’s Bayfront Park and right up Biscayne Boulevard, a road that briefly runs along the path Fisher paved to the beach.
Over the next 11 years, Porsches, Nissans, Jaguars and a Ford Mustang won IMSA and Trans Am events, hopping from Bayfront Park to nearby Bicentennial Park.
At the same time, IndyCar racing returned, now under CART sanctioning, and at another location, 15 miles inland on a 1.78-mile road course that slashed through Tamiami Park. That Victory Lane, which is now somewhere under the Florida International University Panthers football stadium, was reserved for legends only, with two wins scored by Al Unser Jr. and one each for Michael Andretti and Danny Sullivan.
Speaking of Sullivan…
Crockett and Tubbs meet Danny Tepper
Sullivan won the inaugural CART version of the Grand Prix of Miami on Nov. 10, 1985, only six months after taking the Indy 500 via his legendary “Spin and Win.” No racer on the planet was a hotter property.
So, when “Miami Vice,” the planet’s hottest TV show, was looking for a guest star to step into a racing-themed episode being shot in January 1986, they called Sullivan. He played Danny Tepper, a Porsche-driving racer accused of killing a prostitute named Florence Italy.
Spoiler alert: Danny Sullivan wasn’t a great actor, but he held his own as Danny Tepper was proven innocent by Sonny Crockett and Rico Tubbs, who realize the real murderer is Tepper’s father. Danny wins the race (of course he does), but his father takes the Porsche and leads Crockett and Tubbs through an impromptu street race and dies in a crash.
“I have done some cool stuff and if I am being honest with you, I have always considered myself a pretty cool guy,” Sullivan, who won 17 IndyCar races and also made 15 F1 starts, said in 2018. “But there was never anyone cooler in the history of mankind than Don Johnson was on the set of ‘Miami Vice’ in 1986.”
Welcome Home … stead
Sanchez was the mastermind behind both the sports car and CART events but fell out with the open wheel folks when they wanted to change their rain-plagued season finale race date to earlier in the fall, right smack in the middle of hurricane season.
After a seven-year absence, future F1 world champ Jacques Villeneuve won Champ Car’s return race in 1995, run on a revised version of the Bicentennial Park street course. It was never meant to be more than a temporary solution while Sanchez’s dream facility was being finished 35 miles south of Miami, a rectangular mini-Indianapolis known as the Homestead-Miami Speedway.
CART christened the track in 1996 and raced there until 2000, when IndyCar took over the event. In 2002-03, CART held a pair of street events on the Bayfront Park course but folded soon thereafter. From 1998 until 2012, Grand Am raced on the Homestead-Miami Speedway road course, most events under the Grand Prix of Miami name.
Since 2013, Homestead-Miami — and the entirety of South Florida’s major racing — has belonged exclusively to NASCAR. The sanctioning body’s track ownership arm long ago purchased the racetrack from Sanchez and held its season finales there until 2019.
Every other series moved on. The only exception was March 14, 2015, when F1’s electric cousin, Formula E, ran the Miami ePrix on yet another street course that ran along Biscayne Bay, the fastest lap and race won by F1 bluebloods in Nelson Piquet Jr. and Nico Prost, sons of former world champions.
Sanchez died in 2013, and many believed that his real racing dream — F1 in Miami — likely had died with him. But now a new Miami Grand Prix is rolling into his city.
“There has been an amazing and unsolicited outpouring of memories and support this week, from all over the world,” Patricia Sanchez Abril wrote in an email on Wednesday morning. Ralph Sanchez’s daughter, who grew up attending Formula One events with her father, is now a business law professor at the University of Miami. “He passed away nine years ago now and memories tend to be short, so we were so happy to see that his legacy endures in such a meaningful way.”
Tuesday, Abril stood alongside Miami Beach mayor Dan Gelber and Emerson Fittipaldi, Indy 500 winner, F1 world champion, and a longtime Miami resident. They cut the ceremonial ribbon to launch Miami Race Week.
“Going back to the ’80s, father always wanted this for Miami,” Abril said. “He loved this town and envisioned racing putting it on the map in a positive light. Even then, he knew F1 would happen in Miami. He didn’t know it would take 35 years, but he was definitely the one who set it in motion. We are so proud of his enduring legacy, and we can see his signature smile as he beams with pride that F1 finally made it here.”
Abril said just this week she was looking through her father’s memoirs and found a quote.
“I’m very proud of what I’ve done. I brought racing to South Florida,” Ralph Sanchez said in his memoirs. “I’ve built something that I’ll leave behind. Whenever people talk about racing in South Florida, I’m the culprit.”