Reliving the Thrill: A Deep Dive into the 1984 IMSA GP of Miami

Reliving the Thrill: A Deep Dive into the 1984 IMSA GP of Miami

Alfonso Muñoz for VÉHICULE

If you were competing in American sportscar racing in the 1980s, there was a good chance one of your competitors on the track was involved in drug smuggling, was a murderer or any kind of outlaw. So many former competitors were eventually convicted of drug running that IMSA earned the nickname of “The International Marijuana Smugglers Association”. The most twisted year in the world of motorsport in the United States was undoubtedly 1984. By the second race of the 1984 Camel GT Championship season on the track you could have found a serial killer, several drug smugglers, and the son of a fugitive accused of murder and drug dealing who to this day is still missing (or hidden).

20 years old Rosario Gonzales was last seen on February 26, 1984, at the Miami Grand Prix racetrack, where she was working at a temporary job distributing samples of aspirin for a pharmaceutical company. Witnesses stated that she left the Grand Prix track between noon and 1:00 p.m. on February 26, 1984, with a Caucasian man in his thirties. Her blue 1980 Oldsmobile Cutlass was found parked near Dupont Plaza.

The suspect was Australian-born Christopher Wilder, a wealthy race-car driver who lived in an estate in Boynton Beach, Florida. Wilder participated in the Miami Grand Prix where he raced in the IMSA GTU class in a Porsche 911.

Chistopher Wilder was put on probation in 1980 after pleading guilty to attempted sexual battery towards a teenage girl. While on a visit home to Australia that same year, he was charged with kidnapping and sexually assaulting two teenage girls. His parents bailed him out of jail, and he flew back to the United States, promising to return for his trial which was set for April 1984. Wilder has been linked to at least a dozen disappearances, rapes, murders and/or attacks of women in the early to mid-1980s. He sometimes attempted to lure young female victims by offering non-existent "modeling sessions" or other tactics.

Chistopher Wilder Wanted Poster

Rosario Gonzales was an aspiring model at the time of her disappearance and had participated in the Miss Florida beauty contest. Her remains were never found, and her case remains unsolved.

Wilder went on a killing spree later in 1984 where he traveled across the United States, abducting, raping, torturing, and killing women along the way. He was killed in a struggle with police officers in New Hampshire in the late spring of 1984. Since his death he has also been considered a suspect in many unsolved murders.

Another driver in this competition was Randy Thomas Lanier. In fact, Lanier won the 1984 IMSA championship representing an independent team, beating factory efforts, seemingly without sponsors. This was because Lanier was funding the team through a sophisticated marijuana smuggling scheme that involved speed boats and a specially modified barge.

At age 15 Randy Lanier was selling marijuana to his classmates and students at his school. He said that it was more about the perks than the profit. “Honestly, I didn’t even think about it as drug dealing,” Lanier says. “It was just a way for me to smoke without having to pay for it.”

Randy In the pits, circa 1984.

He dropped out of school and started working in construction, where he started selling weed to his coworkers. In some time, joints turned into bags, and bags into bricks. Bricks then became bales. The future race car driver made so much money that at age 19, he bought a 27-foot-long Magnum Sport.

At first, he used the boat for fun and pleasure, but it took only a few months for an associate to suggest that the boat could be put to commercial use. And that’s when he went from being a drug dealer to a drug trafficker. The first illicit work on his boat was carried out from the Bahamas, Lanier packed 750 pounds of weed into the boat, motored back to Fort Lauderdale, and pocketed about $5,000 for his effort.

Apparently, Lanier started to like things fast: fast cars, fast boats, and fast money. The only thing he didn't have was time to launder the money. By the year 1982 Randy no longer moved with just a boat, but with an entire fleet. Shipments, Lanier says, would routinely exceed 100,000 pounds.

Press Kit of the Blue Thunder Racing Team

This same year Lanier made a deal with a high school friend named Ben Kramer, who had recently been released from prison for marijuana trafficking. Kramer had introduced Lanier to traffickers in Colombia. The connection meant that Lanier no longer needed an intermediary to make the sale, but rather that he could buy directly from the producer in South America.

In one of the first large-scale transactions, Lanier, and Kramer, in true Miami Vice style, bought a load of 15,000 pounds of marijuana from Colombia, and with a loaded ship in the middle of the Atlantic they coordinated the mission to unload it to many small inflatable Zodiac boats. When the operation was successful and the cargo arrived back on the US coast, a human chain of unloaders moved the cargo to the vans waiting to receive the cargo to Lanier's stash house. The next day, he sold the entire 15,000-pound load for nearly $4.5 million.

The Blue Thunder Marches of Bill Whittington and Randy Lanier, sponsored by Apache Powerboats, dominated the 1984 Camel GT season with six wins, giving the title to Lanier.

Between his millionaire business as a trafficker Lanier began his racing career in 1980. After participating in a couple of amateur races Randy gained enough experience to enter the IMSA circuit. During these same years, Lanier had joined up with a trio of brothers, Don, Bill, and Dale Whittington. Together, along with Marty Hinze, they made up the Blue Thunder Racing Team.

The Whittington Brothers, Don and Bill, were famous for winning the 1979 24 Hours of Le Mans with a Porsche 935 K3. The Whittington’s raced aircraft prior to cars, Bill having won aircraft races at Reno between 1978 and 1983. Turned out that two of the brothers, Bill and Don, like Randy Lanier, were also involved in large-scale marijuana trafficking.

In 1979, the brothers purchased and operated the Road Atlanta circuit, where they allegedly landed planes filled with contraband on the back straight in the middle of the night.

Don Whittington poses with John and Peg Bishop in front of one of the Whittington brother's Porsche 935s and a Mustang P-51 at Brainerd.

Randy Lanier won the 1984 IMSA Camel GT title for the independent Blue Thunder Racing team, a team who financed themselves thanks to marijuana smuggling, the reason that led Lanier to prison in 1988. Lanier and his partner Ben Kramer received life without parole sentences on October 4, 1988, under the newly enacted Continuing Criminal Enterprise statute (also known as the "Super Drug Kingpin" law), owing to their refusal to cooperate with the prosecution. The Whittington brothers who were also involved received a lighter sentence.

The ’84 champ was eventually released in 2014 for reasons undisclosed under sealed motions. Lanier stated that he had a job awaiting him at a classic car museum in Florida, said to be for Preston Henn, owner of Fort Lauderdale Swap Shop. He spent his time in prison exercising, playing chess, answering letters sent by race fans and taking long walks in the prison yard with fellow inmate John Paul Sr., reminiscing about their racing days.

Now you may wonder who John Paul Sr. is. This guy was infamous within the racing community for his unlawful drug trafficking services and later became the most wanted man in racing history after being implicated in the disappearances of several people.

Hans Johan Paul who emigrated from the Netherlands to the U.S. with his parents in 1956. He changed his name to John Paul, married and had a son in 1960 that he also named John.

After graduating from Harvard, he became a successful mutual fund manager and began to amass considerable wealth.

John Paul Sr. began his racing career with local SCCA events in the 1960s, winning an SCCA Northeast Regional Championship in 1968. Domestic strife derailed his racing career and estranged him from his son for a few years, but he resumed racing in the early 1970s, entering a Corvette in IMSA races.

When he came back to racing, his son had also taken an interest in the sport, and the father- son team began winning races left and right.

John Paul Sr., left, and John Paul Jr, right, celebrating a podium.

Despite Paul Sr.'s success as a hedge fund manager, he certainly didn't have the funds to pay for his place in the race car driving. The obvious solution to this was to involve himself and the entire Paul family in the drug trafficking business.

The legal issues began for John Paul Sr. in January 1979 when he was caught with $10,000 cash and more than 1,500 pounds of marijuana in the bayous of Louisiana. Remarkably, he got away with just a fine and three years of probation after pleading guilty to marijuana possession. Not many in the IMSA paddock knew about his brush with the law, but whispers began circulating about the source of the money that supported his increasingly large racing budget. The light blue cars ran without sponsorship, because sponsorship money was not necessary, at least until 1982 when Miller beer jumped on.

John Paul Sr. Porsche 935 with Miller sponsorship.

The 1980 season turned out to be his best. By this time, John Paul Jr. had begun racing in lower formulas and demonstrated a keen natural talent. Together, father and son won the 1980 Lime Rock Camel GT race. Remarkably, it was the younger Paul’s first-ever IMSA race and the first time he raced the 935. They added a win at Road America and Paul Sr. went on to score another ten Top 5 finishes and ended up second in the Camel GT championship. He also won the 1980 FIA World Challenge for Endurance Drivers, which compiled points from selected long-distance races, five on the IMSA schedule and five FIA events at Monza, Silverstone, Nurburgring, Le Mans and Spa.

Out of sight, federal authorities had spent a year carefully building a case against Paul Sr., ultimately indicting him for marijuana smuggling. After being caught and essentially let off with little more than a $32,000 fine, John Paul Sr. became concerned about his associate Stephan Carson. He would later track down Carson at a marina in Florida, he shot him once in the back from about 10 feet away, then in the hip from about 20 feet away, and finally three more times at nearly point-blank.

John Paul Sr. and Jr., pictured here at an IMSA race in the Eighties.

Carson survived the encounter, and John Paul Sr. pleaded guilty to attempted first-degree murder. This led to a 25-year sentence which he nearly eluded in a prison escape attempt involving a mixture of hot sauce and sawdust.

John Paul Sr. third wife Colleen Wood disappeared on a trip with him on his boat "The Island Girl". She has never been found. The last person to go missing with John Paul was eventually himself as he vanished in 2001 with only rumors to give information on his whereabouts. Some reports have said that he is in the Bahamas or another island nation.

John Paul Jr. on the other side was an extraordinary talent behind the wheel of a race car and was recognized by team owners such as NASCAR’s Junior Johnson as one of America’s top young drivers. His IMSA success gave him choices. He moved to cart racing in 1983 and in only his fourth start passed Rick Mears on the last lap to win the Michigan 500, justifying predictions of future success. Continuing in IMSA on board the potent Phil Conte-owned RC Cola Buick March, Paul Jr. eventually got caught out by his father’s illegal activities and was indicted while the manhunt for his father was ongoing.

John Paul Sr's car, only with one sponsor, himself (JLP, John Lee Paul Racing)

John Paul Sr's car, only with one sponsor, himself (JLP, John Lee Paul Racing)

After pleading guilty to federal racketeering charges in 1985, he spent more than two years in prison. Upon his release in 1988, the racing community opened its arms to him. He had done his time, and many felt his father had bullied him into the drug trafficking trade against his will. Paul Jr. resumed his racing career, scoring seven IMSA wins and an Indy Racing League victory at Texas in 1998 – 15 years after that inaugural Indy car win in Michigan. He competed in seven Indy 500s with a best finish of seventh in 1998.

John Paul Jr died on December 29, 2020, in Woodland Hills, California. Paul had been in a long battle with Huntington's disease for more than two decades.

Please remember, if you must learn something about these stories, think twice before starting in the drug business with your father, or your brothers... and if you do and it goes well, remember to camouflage your activities with sponsors.

Read more about the Miami Grand Prix 1983

Back to News