Ralph Sanchez at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 1995.

Ralph Sanchez at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 1995.

Al Garcia

Al Garcia

As Homestead-Miami Speedway continues to celebrate its 25th anniversary, I have used this space the last two weeks to discuss two of the greatest drivers in NASCAR history and the impact they have had on our track.

While Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart have certainly accounted for a plethora of memorable moments and accomplishments here in South Florida, I would be remiss if I didn’t revisit the rest of our track’s history during this very special year, beginning with our first race weekend in 1995.

When I first started working for the Speedway’s founder, Ralph Sanchez, we were holding the Grand Prix of Miami in downtown. We went through a few variations of the course at a few different locations, but Ralph was always a visionary and wanted to build a permanent racetrack. He knew it wasn’t sustainable to race in the city as Miami continued to grow in the 1980s and 90s.

After the devastation of Hurricane Andrew, the perfect opportunity presented itself to Ralph to build a racing facility. As you most likely remember, Homestead was looking for a way to revitalize the community after Andrew. Building a racetrack was a great way to bring an industry to the area that would go on to have a significant annual economic impact on South Florida, which has grown to more than $300 million each year. So in 1993, ground broke on what was then named Homestead Motorsports Complex.

We had to work very hard to get a point where we have that big of an effect on Homestead, however. In the early days it wasn’t easy getting the facility built and getting ready for opening weekend in 1995.

Ralph was an incredible leader and he pushed us all to make sure the property was ready in time for that first November weekend. I watched him work 18 hours a day, seven days a week to make sure that would be prepared. It was really inspiring to see someone pursuing their passions and dreams in that way.

On that first weekend in November, 1995, all of the hard work paid off as we opened our gates for the very first time. We weren’t quite ready to host a NASCAR Cup Series race, but the weekend included a NASCAR Xfinity Series points race and a NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series exhibition race.

The pageantry was truly incredible as racing fans flocked to Homestead-Miami Speedway and we held all sorts of grand opening ceremonies where Ralph addressed fans and we unveiled all the different parts of the racetrack.

The track was unique in many ways and we were finally getting to showcase it to everyone in attendance and watching on television. The layout was originally flat, and Emerson Fittipaldi helped Ralph design the oval and road course.

Aside from the race course, there were other features that stood out about Homestead from the very first race. One was the abundance of palm trees that lined the backstretch. While drivers initially found the palm trees distracting, Ralph wanted to incorporate the Miami culture and lifestyle into the track.

That’s also why he chose to paint the walls of the track gay greenstone. At the time, nearly every track had red and white walls, but again, Ralph wanted something more symbolic of Miami so he decided to go with a pastel color. Combined with the palm trees, these created a particularly nice visual on television and really showcased the beauty of South Florida.

As far as the racing itself, we got to see some great action that weekend. The truck race kicked off the weekend and was won by Geoffrey Bodine, who narrowly defeated Mike Skinner.

In the Jiffy Lube Miami 300 Xfinity Series race, we saw great drivers such as Michael Waltrip, Mark Martin, Terry Labonte and Kenny Wallace go head to head in the Speedway’s first ever points race.

Dale Jarrett would go on to win the race, passing Kenny Wallace with two laps to go as we got two tremendous finishes that weekend.

We couldn’t have asked for better racing to go along with our grand opening festivities. That weekend really set the tone for Homestead-Miami Speedway being added to the NASCAR Cup Series schedule just a few years later in 1999.

That weekend was really special and is one of my fondest memories of working at the track as I am sure it is for many of our fans who have been attending our facility since the very beginning. Having seen how much our track has changed over the years, it is fun to think back to what it used to be like back in 1995.

I’m proud of how far Homestead-Miami Speedway has come and the impact we’ve had on the community since day one. I can’t wait to return to racing and host our 25th anniversary race as we are sure to make many more memories to go along with all that has happened in the last 25 years.

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