Randy Lanier was the former Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year—whose promising auto racing career scandalously careened into oblivion, when he was sentenced to life without parole for his role as an international drug trafficking mastermind. And next week, Autoweek has learned, he will shuffle out of prison a free man.

For the first time in a quarter of a century, Lanier will be able to drive again—at least on civilian streets—when he is scheduled for discharge Oct. 15 from a high-security federal penitentiary in Florida, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons website. Now 60, graying and deteriorating physically with a bad hip, the once-boyish, bright-eyed South Floridian competed aggressively in the 1980s alongside the likes of racing greats Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt.

When he was 14, Lanier's family moved from Lynchburg, Va., located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains to South Florida. His interest in sports-car racing was stoked in his early 20s after he attended a 1978 auto show in Miami and wandered over to the Sports Car Club of America booth. He quickly obtained his competition license and purchased a 1957 356 Porsche Speedster.

Two years later, he won the SCCA's Southeast Division E-Production class. By 1982, he had filled in for an ill Janet Guthrie and drove for the North American Ferrari team. The following year, he drove for multiple IMSA teams, finishing second at the 24 Hours of Daytona behind that victorious team that included Foyt.

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Then, seeming to rise from the vapor of Florida's muggy air, Lanier formed Blue Thunder Racing in 1984. The team had no major corporate sponsor. Eyebrows furrowed along pit road. Lanier could not have been bothered less by suspicions or whispers trailing his team. (Years later, Lanier acknowledged that the illegal proceeds fueled Blue Thunder's bold championship run.)

Lanier teamed with daredevil Whittington brothers (Bill and Dale) of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to win the GTP drivers' championship as their Chevrolet-powered March 83G regularly whipped past Al Holbert's Porsche 962s and the Group 44 Jaguars. The upstarts took checkered flags at Laguna Seca, Charlotte, Michigan and Watkins Glen, among other racetracks.

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After his IMSA achievements, Lanier shifted into high gear with an aggressive foray into CART IndyCar racing. Driving for Arciero Racing, he made 18 open-wheel starts from 1985-86, and counted among his friends former Indy 500 winners Al Unser Jr., Arie Luyendyk and Foyt. He regularly chatted with them, among other veteran drivers, to pick their fertile racing brains. He was an IndyCar novice and he was smart enough to know it.

In 1985, United States Auto Club officials rejected Lanier during his initial 500-rookie test. A year later, he again failed to pass his rookie test, but a second attempt yielded him a qualification run. Lanier blistered the 2.5-mile oval with a 209.964-mph average speed. He started a lucky 13th on the 33-car grid. Lanier finished a respectable 10th behind Danny Sullivan, Johnny Rutherford and Emerson Fittipaldi.

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While he struggled at other times during his rookie season, Lanier improved in 1986. He finished in the top 10 in four of the last five IndyCar races he completed (Milwaukee, Meadowlands, Cleveland and Toronto).

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Lanier's swift rise to notoriety in big-time racing was just as quickly derailed when his life, and career, swerved off course with the scent of pot and quick success.

He was reflective of the times: In the 1980s, the South was a breeding ground for some of the biggest stars in road racing. They piloted swoopy, exotic prototype sports cars and engaged in fast-lane lifestyles. Pundits called IMSA an acronym for "International Marijuana Smuggling Association" for its scandalous drug reputation.

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Another Florida-based IMSA driver, Marty Hinze of Fort Lauderdale, who also teamed with Lanier, served time after admitting guilt in a conspiracy to import marijuana from 1977-1981. Hinze worked for the Whittington brothers. Bill and Don Whittington pleaded guilty to a $73 million marijuana-smuggling operation. (A third brother, racer Dale Whittington, 43, died of a drug overdose in 2003.)

John Paul Sr., IMSA's most intimidating presence on the circuit as a championship owner-driver, operated his underground marijuana plantation out of Georgia before being busted. His young, talented son, former IMSA GTP champion John Paul Jr., also was sent to prison after being convicted in his father's operation.

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Lanier's dramatic podium-to-prison topple was triggered when the U.S. Department of Drug Enforcement charged him in a complaint filed in October, 1986. That was less than six months after he smashed Michael Andretti's Indy 500 rookie qualifying record and two months before Lanier fractured his right leg in a nasty crash at the Michigan 500.

Concurrently, the FBI was investigating Lanier and his partners. In late 1987, he was indicted for distributing more than 600,000 pounds of marijuana that had been imported and concealed on barges sailing from Colombia. He was given a superseding indictment in January, 1998.

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In 1988, Lanier was convicted in federal court of operating a continuing criminal enterprise under the government's Racketeer Influenced and Corruptions Originations Act. Lanier also was found guilty of conspiracy to distribute marijuana and conspiracy to defraud the Internal Revenue Service.

Federal prosecutors said Lanier enriched himself, and funded his Blue Thunder Racing road-racing team, by scooping up $68 million in profits.

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Lanier, then 34, and Kramer were sentenced concurrently to 40 years on the distribution charge, and Fischer was given a 35-year term. Lanier also was slapped with another five years to run consecutively for violating IRS law.

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The former International Motor Sports Association GTP sports car champion and IndyCar driver, who bankrolled his career with illegal drug proceeds, can see freedom's checkered flag. But a caution flag still waves over him as he confronts a court-ordered laundry list of do's and don'ts—including spending his first six months in a halfway house. Lanier's mandated three-year supervised release is designed for his careful re-entry into society.

Nonetheless, those close to him say that Lanier is higher in spirits than ever at his sudden, if inexplicable to the public, reversal in fortune. He told people earlier this year he might get out of prison. He already has a job lined up at a South Florida classic-car museum. Lanier formerly lived in Davie, Fla., in Broward County.

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"Randy has a high-pitched voice," a friend who speaks to Lanier told Autoweek. "When he's happy, it goes even higher. He was so happy, it was really high."

If Lanier's family is as overjoyed as he is about his pending freedom, it had no interest disclosing it.

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Lanier, who usually awakes before dawn, took up oil painting, yoga and tai chi in prison, according to his Facebook page. He enjoys playing chess. He used to like to run but no longer does so because of cartilage deterioration in his right hip.

Clearly, he has had a long time to ponder the meaning of his transgressions, and what might have been. In a 2012 interview with IndyCar Advocate, Lanier was asked about his motivation for getting involved in drug trafficking's seedy, dangerous underworld.

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"Faulty thinking and having my priorities in the wrong place is one reason," he said. "Growing up in the '60s and being around the marijuana culture could have had some influence on me. Money was also a contributing factor, along with the thrill of that sort of lifestyle. "

With more than a hint of melancholy, Lanier concluded, "Accomplishments and achievements are not what life is all about."

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Read more about the case of Randy Lanier at Autoweek.com.

Imagea via Autoweek Archives, Flickr (1, 2)