Longtime South Florida businessman and Homestead-Miami Speedway founder Rafael “Ralph” Sánchez died Monday morning. Sánchez, who was born in 1948, had been in declining health for much of the past year. He is survived by wife Lourdes, daughter Patricia and son Ralph Jr.
“I am saddened to learn of Ralph’s passing and offer my condolences to Lourdes, Patricia and Ralph Jr,” said Homestead-Miami Speedway President Matthew Becherer. “Whether it’s the championship races that receive worldwide attention, the economic impact, or the countless memories made by fans that attend track events, it’s directly attributable to Ralph and his foresight. The team at Homestead-Miami Speedway and racing fans in this region are indebted to Ralph. South Florida has lost a true visionary.”
Sánchez, who founded and managed the Grand Prix of Miami starting in 1983, led efforts to bring the motorsports facility to Homestead. He worked with City of Homestead and Miami-Dade County officials to make the track a reality. Groundbreaking ceremonies for the track took place on August 24, 1993 -- exactly one year after Hurricane Andrew wiped out much of Homestead. The track is credited with being a major catalyst for redevelopment following the category five hurricane that leveled large portions of Miami-Dade County.
Businessman H. Wayne Huizenga joined Sánchez as a track partner before the facility opened two years after construction began with a NASCAR Busch (now Nationwide) Series race in November 1995. In 1997, Penske Motorsports (PMI) and International Speedway Corporation (ISC) became partners with Sánchez and Huizenga. Less than one year later, PMI and ISC purchased Sánchez’ remaining interest in Homestead-Miami Speedway. ISC became the sole operator in 1999. The facility will host season-ending championship races in NASCAR’s top three touring series for the 12th consecutive year in November (15-17).
Al Garcia, the vice president for operations at Homestead-Miami Speedway and the longest tenured track employee, worked for Sánchez starting in 1984. Garcia remembers him fondly: “He was charismatic, yet tough as nails. Above all, Ralph was very loyal. You have to give him credit for pursuing his dreams in racing and foregoing what had been to that point been a lucrative career as a developer. I am very proud to have known Ralph and to have worked alongside him.”
Sánchez was born in Sancti Spiritus, Cuba in 1948, more than a decade before Fidel Castro assumed power. He was placed aboard an airlift from Havana to Miami after his father became fearful for his son’s safety because Ralph had been recruited to distribute opposition flyers and deliver supplies to forces fighting the Castro regime.
Upon his arrival in Miami, he lived with an aunt and uncle before the couple moved to Nicaragua. Sánchez then resided in a Catholic orphanage until he turned 18. Eventually, Sánchez’ parents, his brother and grandmother joined him in Miami via freedom flights in 1966 and 1967.
Sánchez earned an accounting degree from Florida Atlantic University, became a real estate salesmen, before moving on to become a land developer, and then a motorsports promoter.
Plans for memorial services have not been finalized.