Hbefore that, the exit hatch that never fails to appear in detective films: a chance to get away, an opportunity to become legitimate. Except when that all-too-real turning point came 37 years ago, Randy Lanier was immersed in an unlikely double life as an endurance racer and marijuana smuggler – and was convinced the federal government was getting closer to him. But to his relief, the suspicious suits that had followed him onto the track at the end of the 1984 IMSA endurance racing season were not FBI agents; they were representatives of Ford. And once they finally approached Lanier, he couldn’t believe what they were proposing: a date in Detroit to discuss his integration into their factory team. In essence, that meant he wouldn’t have to smuggle grass for Blue Thunder – his racing team – to hit way above his weight and knock out some of the sport’s biggest dogs.
But did Lanier take the meeting? “My decision was already made,” says Lanier. “I wanted to keep Blue Thunder together. That’s what friends do.
Lanier drops that bombshell in Bad Sport – a new Netflix docusery that reexamines true past dramas at the intersection of athletics and crime. And while Lanier’s story, Need for Weed, which comes second in the six-part series, has long been the subject of racing lore, it remains as compelling as it was when Lanier first became a fugitive from the law in the late 1980s. “Randy is such a surprising character,” says Miles Blayden-Ryall, the British director of Need for Weed. “Not your quintessential drug kingpin. Just in terms of temper and liking. And then he has this philosophy of non-violence, which you rarely find in traditional gangster-style crime stories.”
Still, don’t confuse Lanier’s kindness with gentleness. Its history is just as exciting as anything you would see on Miami Vice, from speedboat refueling races between South Florida and the Bahamas to champagne and coke nights before the races. All the while, you marvel at how this modest 67-year-old was able to not only keep the candle lit at both ends, but also for a long time and so brightly. After all, Lanier was not a descendant of the Mafia; he was the son of humble Virginia tobacco farmers – then, after leaving home for Florida in the 1960s with no plans, a hippie and pothead teenager. Selling weed was just one way to make a quick buck. The smuggling gave him enough money to buy a Porsche and indulge in a passion for racing that dated from his childhood fascination with the Indianapolis 500.
Before long, Lanier would prove to be a genius either way. He secreted hundreds of thousands of pounds of marijuana into the United States through the barge’s dug ballast tanks while becoming the most prominent young driver in the IMSA racing scene, good enough to beat the IndyCar legend. Bobby Rahal to win the championship in 1984, alongside co-driver Bill Whittington.
The racing side of Lanier’s story alone could have made its own doc. The idea that a top amateur could be so successful so early is still mind boggling. “He was just very cheeky,” says Blayden-Ryall, a true crime connoisseur whose father was an avid motorsports enthusiast. “I remember his wife, Pam, telling me that he was not the most elegant racing driver, but that he would just go. And then over time, especially once he started racing with Bill Whittington – who was a real skilled professional racing driver – he was then able to learn from him and hone his skills a bit. “
When it came to drug trafficking, Lanier was a self-taught man who constantly adapted his methods to suit the US government’s war on drugs. He mastered all the basics of racketeering: keeping the operation in a circle of trusted friends, dealing directly with suppliers, and paying the crowd for port access. In addition, he had a coded. “I made it a point with my guys not to discuss anything illegal on the race track,” he says.
And yet, there was so much more that he was wrong – venting his own supply, flaunting his excesses and, of course, not going legit when Ford gave him the chance.
But perhaps Lanier’s most cheeky idea was to think he could move from the relatively humble world of sports cars to the incredibly powerful and multi-million IndyCar machines. And his first runs in the series revealed the rift between his naive courage and the fearlessness of pro daredevils like Rahal, Mario Andretti and AJ Foyt. When Lanier talks about his first dive into Turn 1 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway at around 200 mph, he makes a strange admission – that he was scared. Even more breathtaking: He actually overcame the fear by placing nine spots behind Rahal in the 1986 Indy 500 race to finish the highest of all rookies. In an extraordinary racing career, this was by far Lanier’s most astonishing achievement.
After that, his life quickly collapsed. Eventually, the law caught up with him. He was sentenced to 27 years in life for drug and fraud-related offenses when the Obama administration took pity on him and released him in 2014 for being a non-violent offender. Throughout the two-hour episode, the War on Drugs is both a direct and faceless antagonist of Lanier. But Blayden-Ryall deftly manages to evoke politics without making his film political. And it’s with maddening Lanier at one point that marijuana is “just a plant!”
The director also continues to turn the camera as Lanier laconically distances himself from rumors of the deaths of two welders in his smuggling operation – as if confirming those whispers, in a twist reminiscent of Robert Durst’s infamously hot mic moment. in The Jinx, could land Lanier in trouble again.
“I thought it was a really bold choice for Miles to let this unfold,” said executive producer Tim Wardle, the Bafta-nominated director behind CNN Films’ Three Identical Strangers. “It’s really embarrassing. I like its ambiguity. I think people can read different interpretations of what’s going on and sit there and understand how much contrition there is. It’s fascinating.”
Lanier’s dual addiction to racing and drug trafficking didn’t end well for him or for the colorful friends, family, and co-conspirators he dragged into his bad decisions. But Need for Weed nonetheless boils down to a heartwarming resolution that finds Lanier seemingly very peaceful. And the fact that he’s coming back to racing a bit, but this time as an ambassador for the legal marijuana industry, shows how mores have changed during his absence. His story – Icarus on Wheels, call it – would be amazing if that weren’t true. It’s an object lesson for quitting while you’re ahead. (“I was a fucking greedy,” Randy admits.) As for Need for Weed itself, you should definitely roll it through.