Broke Ballin'

To hell with the economy! South Florida's lawless exotic-rental-car industry keeps rolling.

 Correction: A previous version of this article contained factual errors that have since been removed.

Raul Regalado, the wide-eyed, 25-year-old son of a Venezuelan textile executive, turns to a passenger as he pilots a $235,000, pumpkin-orange Lamborghini Gallardo south on Ocean Drive. "If I pick up a bitch," he declares, his voice wheezing with excitement, "you need to get out!"

He pushes a button controlling the vehicle's hydraulic system and jolts with surprise as the car lifts a few additional inches off the street. "Gangsta!" he declares.

Noah Lehmann-Haupt is the MIT-educated wunderkind CEO of Gotham Dream Cars.
Laura Massa
Noah Lehmann-Haupt is the MIT-educated wunderkind CEO of Gotham Dream Cars.
Luis Elera claims his exotic shop was the first on the crowded airport strip.
Ian Witlen
Luis Elera claims his exotic shop was the first on the crowded airport strip.

But Raul is about as gangsta as Enrique Iglesias. He's a prep-school product who spent his childhood in English-speaking private academies in Caracas. On this Friday afternoon, he's in Miami to celebrate his graduation from a Venezuelan university with an engineering degree.

Wearing an Ed Hardy T-shirt and moon-faced DKNY shades, hair gelled into tight curls above a high forehead, he's trolling for beautiful women on the neon-and-salt-air post card that is South Beach's Ocean Drive. Lil Wayne, piped in from 99 Jamz, drones ubiquitously over rattling bass. Welcome to Raul Regalado's own personal rap video, paid for with Dad's American Express.

Raul and older cousin Juan spent all last night at the Seminole Hard Rock's blackjack tables. Today, the two have rented the Lamborghini for $1,250 plus tax. While Juan sleeps it off upstairs at the Ritz-Carlton, Raul ventures through South Beach, jerking the car like a go-cart as he struggles with the paddle-shifters.

But in this gaudy gridlock, quarter-million-dollar rides are common, and Raul catches only a few glances from female pedestrians. Seeking liquid courage, he maneuvers the car into the valet spot at Mango's Tropical Café.

As barely dressed salsa dancers do their best to enliven the half-empty club, he sips a Corona near the bar, smiling lavishly at every woman he locks eyes with. Mercifully, after half a beer, a light-skinned young Latina bursting from a tight pink dress smiles back. A Louis Vuitton clutch bag rests on the bar next to her.

Raul approaches and speaks in rapid Spanish, at least once nodding solemnly at the Lamborghini visible at the curb. Her name is Nicole. She's 25, from Mexico City, and in town with friends for a week.

Soon, she gives Raul her room number at the Raleigh, and they make plans to go clubbing. Steering the car back to the hotel, he's ecstatic. "Did you see her face when she saw the Lambo?" he demands.

What Raul doesn't know is that his rental — like many in South Florida's exotic-for-a-day trade — is probably illegal. The car's real owner, a financially stretched West Palm Beach music executive, struck a deal with a Miami broker several months ago: sacrifice a few weekends a month with the Lamborghini to make the almost-$3,000 monthly payments.

Of course, the broker doesn't have proper rental insurance, so the deal constitutes insurance fraud — a felony that investigators say is rampant in South Florida's renegade exotic-rental-car industry.

The music honcho can only beg of the broker: "Make sure they take care of my baby."

When shopping for a vehicle that costs more than your average recession-era house, if even for only a day's use, you might expect the white-glove treatment. But Orlando Medina — a gigantic, desk-bound Big Pun doppelgänger and manager of American Luxury Auto Rental at NW 25th Street and Le Jeune Road in Miami — runs the business as if he were hawking used electronics.

"Oh, you want to rent from us when you haven't paid for the last car?" he booms into the phone at a delinquent customer. "How do you say it in Creole? 'Pay me my money!' "

Then he changes his tone, laying a trap. "OK, OK, just come in," he coos. "We'll see what we can work out."

Medina's favorite at-work activity is shooting the shit about his 11 years in the industry. There was the time owner Luis Elera tracked a stolen Ferrari with a built-in GPS to a container about to be flown from Miami International Airport. Or how about the rented $45,000 Cadillac CTS impounded as evidence after it was used in a murder? Or the stolen Hummer, recovered by authorities in Haiti but now stuck in limbo at the Port-au-Prince airport.

The rental lot outside this no-frills, glass-walled office is jammed with about 300 luxury (think Lexus) to exotic (Ferrari) vehicles. It anchors what is known as "the strip," Miami's vehicular version of New York's Diamond District: a scattershot of high-end rental-car shops. Since the vehicles are usually delivered to clients who find the businesses online or in the phone book, little care is put into the lots. Bentleys, Rolls-Royces, and Ferraris are strewn among potholes, orange cones, and modest storefronts.

This is the epicenter of an industry that has found a natural home in South Florida, the nation's capital of shameless excess. The area's exotic-rental-car market is rivaled only by Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco.

Carefree Lifestyle, a boutique on Fifth Street in South Beach, deals in what might be the quintessential local cottage industry: It rents not only cars but also mansions, and it gets clients past the velvet ropes at exclusive nightclubs. "Miami is the ideal place for a business like this," says Matt Fouhy, a former professional poker player turned Carefree manager. "I don't think there's a better city in the world for it."

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