Hurricane Andrew, small in size but ferocious in nature, barrelled in from the east. “A Mike Tyson storm,” one veteran National Hurricane Center specialist called it. “It has a hard blow, but it’s not very big.”
By the standard of other terrible storms it actually looked like a 90-pound weakling, with a compact eye only 8 miles wide—compared to as much as 30 miles in other storms—and tropical storm force winds that extended only 85 miles from that eye.
For more than a week forecasters and Floridians alike watched it trudge across the Atlantic from its beginnings as a tropical wave off Africa’s west coast, growing stronger and stronger until it reached Category 5, the highest on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale.
As it became evident Andrew and its 175-mile-per-hour winds would slam head-on into the south Florida peninsula like a tightly balled fist, more than 1 million residents in the Miami-Dade County area fled.
In Homestead, home to approximately 25,000 people and the Homestead Air Force Base, considered a jewel among United State Air Force facilities, residents who remained awakened on Sunday, August 23, 1992, to the first hurricane warnings issued for southeast Florida. As is strangely the case just before the arrival of many hurricanes, that afternoon saw blue skies and green landscapes, though in the Eluthera and Berry Islands in the Bahamas, Andrew had reached those sustained winds of 175 mph as it made its first landfall.
Just before 5 a.m. on Monday, August 24, Andrew slammed ashore in southern Miami-Dade County. The winds climbed to 177 mph before the monitoring instruments failed. The storm now known as “The Big One” came and went, leveling virtually everything in its path before heading out into the Gulf of Mexico, reforming and churning on to another landfall west-southwest of Morgan City, Louisiana, on August 26.
One storm. Two haymakers. And a lasting effect still felt to this day. In Homestead, the beautiful greenery was gone. Homestead Air Force Base was gone. Houses, buildings, virtually any structure for as far as the eye could see were gone, leveled by Andrew’s surprising might and fury.
But Andrew had not long breathed the last of his hot, angry breath on the area when Cuban-born real estate salesman and land developer Rafael “Ralph” Sanchez looked at the devastation and determined that a new track lay ahead for Homestead—literally. In the weeks that followed, Sanchez, who brought the Grand Prix of Miami to the city’s downtown streets in 1983, watched as the Department of Defense gave Homestead a $75 million grant for economic development after it closed Homestead AFB and moved 13,000 military families elsewhere. With an eye towards the future, he convinced city leaders to invest that money in a new racetrack as the centerpiece of Homestead’s rise from the ruins.
In an interview earlier this year in Business View Magazine, Homestead-Miami Speedway Vice President of Operations Al Garcia, who started working for Sanchez more than 25 years ago, reflected on his old boss’ foresight.
“He saw the need for for a permanent facility because he knew that the downtown was going to be developed and that, one day, it wouldn’t be able to host major league auto racing,” Garcia said. “And that coincided with the rise of NASCAR. So he talked to the city fathers and they decided that a speedway was the best thing that they could do to stimulate the economy and create jobs.”
On August, 24, 1993, exactly one year to the day that Hurricane Andrew had in many ways wringed the life from Homestead, it was renewed with the groundbreaking for a 434-acre, 46,000-facility that, 25 years later, is one of NASCAR’s true palaces. From its formation in the footprint of a monster, the 1.5-mile track and surrounding facilities have been shaped and reshaped into what it is this weekend, home to NASCAR’s Ford Championship Weekend.
Since 2002, the track has been the site of NASCAR’s season-ending coronation, where the champions in its top three series—Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, Xfinity and Camping World Trucks—are crowned.
“I couldn’t think of a better place or a better racetrack to end the season,” driver Denny Hamlin told motorsports.com in the midst of the 2017 NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series playoffs. “The racing has always been phenomenal here, and we just love coming to Miami. It’s just the perfect place for us to end the season and crown a series champion.”
The track, initially patterned after famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway as a rectangular oval with four turns, officially opened in November 1995 when it hosted a Busch Series race (the predecessor to the Nationwide Series which preceded the Xfinity Series) won by Dale Jarrett. It was the final race on the 1995 Busch schedule, and has remained so every since. It was also a forerunner of even bigger and better things to come.
Since then the track itself has undergone reconfigurations in 1997 and 2003 and now sits as a testament to Sanchez’s unwavering conviction that if it was built, they would race. In fact, in 2009 Homestead-Miami Speedway became the first racing venue ever to host all of North America’s premier motorsports championships in a single year when The IndyCar, Grand-Am and Firestone Indy Lights Series championships were decided in October and NASCAR’s three premier events held in November.
Along the way, some pretty incredible racing history has been made on the track as well including:
- Jimmie Johnson officially capping off each of his record-tying seven NASCAR championships, including five in row from 2006-2010. Those seven titles tie him with legends Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt for most in NASCAR history.
- Dario Franchitti winning consecutive IndyCar championships in 2009 and 2010.
- Austin Dillon becoming the youngest NASCAR Truck Series champ in history at 21 when he claimed the 2011 title with a 10th-place finish in the Ford 200.
- Chase Elliott becoming the youngest driver ever to win a NASCAR national series championship when he won what the Nationwide Series title in 2014 at the age of 18 years, 11 months and 18 days.
- Kevin Harvick becoming the first driver to win a championship under a playoff-style elimination format when he was crowned the 2014 Sprint Cup Series champion (Sprint was the series’ title sponsor before Monster Energy.)
- Mexican-born Daniel Suarez becoming the first Latin American driver to win a NASCAR series championship with the 2016 Xfinity Series title.
- The last rides of NASCAR greats like Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Rusty Wallace, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards.
While Homestead-Miami hasn’t been around as long as other tracks on the NASCAR circuit like Martinsville Speedway (1949), Darlington Raceway (1950), Daytona International Speedway (1959), Charlotte Motor Speedway (1960), and Talladega Superspeedway (1969) it has already seen its share of milestones and drawn millions of race fans and even more millions of dollars to the area just as Sanchez envisioned.
“When he had a dream, a conviction, he’d make it happen,” Garcia said in an April 2, 2013, Miami Herald story detailing Sanchez’s passing after a long bout with cancer. “And when Ralph got that glimmer in his eye, you could tell something special was happening.”
Sanchez, who arrived alone as a child in Miami as part of the Operation Pedro Pan airlifts in the early 1960s, probably also took great satisfaction in knowing that Homestead took Andrew’s best punch and got off the mat to emerge as the racing paradise it is today.
After the 1992 season ended, the powers that be at the World Meteorological Organization retired the name Andrew, meaning it will never again be used for another Atlantic hurricane.
IndyCar driver Sam Hornish Jr. set the track record speed record of 218.539 mph in qualifying for the 2006 Toyota Indy 300.
Tony Stewart’s won the first NASCAR premier series race run at the track on November 14, 1999. The race was called the Pennzoil 400 and the series was still known as the Winston Cup Series.
- Races run: 19
- Most wins: Greg Biffle and Tony Stewart, 3
- Most Top 5s: Jeff Gordon, 7
- Most Top 10s: Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, 12
- Most starts: Jeff Gordon, 16
- Most poles won: Four drivers, 2
- Most laps completed: Tony Stewart, 3,739
- Most laps led: Carl Edwards, 560
IN GOOD COMPANY
Three of this year’s MENCS Championship 4 contenders, defending champion Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch, look to add their names to one of NASCAR’s most prestigious lists. If either of them win it will be their second career NASCAR championship and make them the 16th driver to win multiple championships in their careers. The others are: Richard Petty (7), Earnhardt (7), Johnson (7), Gordon (4), Darrell Waltrip (3), Cale Yarborough (3), David Pearson (3), Lee Petty (3), Tony Stewart (3), Herb Thomas (2), Tim Flock (2), Joe Weatherly (2), Ned Jarrett (2), Terry Labonte (2), and Buck Baker (2). H&A