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When Reality Is Better than Fiction: How the Whittington Brothers Funded Their Racing Careers

Posted on February 15, 2018 – Car History


Cars have often hit the headlines due to the role they played in crime. In 1963, a 15-men crew attacked a Royal Mail train in the UK, getting away with a fortune in a car that acquired instant fame, a 1962 Brabham BT2.

In 1979, the 24-hour Le Mans race was marked by two memorable events: Germany-based Kremer racing team became the best-known name in endurance racing, and two of its drivers, the then-unknown Whittington brothers, were propelled to stardom. Incidentally, this is also the race where American actor Paul Newman placed second.

The sudden rise of relatively inexperienced sportsmen is not uncommon, but what is less well-known is how Don and Bill Whittington funded their careers.

Brothers Don and Bill arrived at Le Mans after making a deal with Erwin Kremer to drive the Kremer Racing Porsche 935 K3 alongside driver Klaus Ludwig. However, on arrival, they were told that they would drive after Ludwig which wasn’t what they had in mind. Having paid NZ$28,000 for the right to drive the Porsche, which was no small sum at the time, it is easy to understand why they wouldn’t be happy about not driving first.

Determined to get their way, they asked Kremer what he would need to let them take the lead. Expecting them to decline, the latter jokingly suggested that they bought the car for NZ$280,000. The car was indeed up for sale, but for a much lower figure and this inflated price was intended to deter the drivers. However, to his utter schock, the brothers instructed him to go to their trailer and take that amount from a duffle bag full of cash.

Although this was obviously most suspicious, Kremer didn’t ask any questions and took the money, and the Whittingtons got to drive first.

Although history has chosen to remember Don and Bill as those who won the race, it has to be said that it probably wouldn’t have happened without Klaus Ludwig’s experienced driving: because of heavy rain that day, he actually did most of the racing as the siblings wouldn’t have been able to cope with those difficult driving conditions. But the world loves a good underdog story and the Whittington brothers were the reason why orders for the Kremer 935 K3 suddenly took off.

The duffel bag must have been a pretty big one as it yielded enough money for Don and Bill to purchase a few themselves!

The siblings returned home to purchase the Road-Atlanta racing circuit before getting involved with IndyCar, NASCAR racing and even aircraft racing. They raced themselves with mild success, participating in five Indianapolis 500, with Don finishing in 6th position and Bill in 14th position. Don qualified fort the 10 NASCAR starts, Bill making two, both completing the event with unimpressive results.

In 1984, the brothers partnered with racing driver Randy Lanier to form Blue Thunder Racing. To everybody’s surprise, this team became hugely successful, winning race after race at Watkins Glen and Laguna Seca fore example, earning enough points to be IMSA champions that year, the top sports car racing title in the US.

However, all these exploits had to be funded, and how they managed it became a subject fellow racers got increasingly curious about. Clearly, a lot of money was coming in at the rate they were spending it, but nobody knew where it came from. Eventually it drew the attention of the Internal Revenue Service – the American tax agency – and the Drug Enforcement Agency.

The investigation revealed that the brothers had been running a lucrative drug-smuggling business. It was alleged that their purchase of the Road-Atlanta circuit had been motivated by the fact that it included secluded tracks at the back which could be used as an airfield. At the same time, they had also bought a plane rental company and, under the cover of night, would run two flights. One would fly from the airfield unregistered while the second one would have logged a flight plan and would land at at regular airport so that the illegal flight would go unnoticed.

The historian that researched this story also alleges that the access to some parts of the track was forbidden, as it was kept to store marijuana.

The Whittingtons were quite creative in the way they tried to convince the world that the funds for their racing endeavours came from a legitimate source. They would, for example, create fake sponsor companies and fake corporate labels that would be affixed to the cars. They would go as far as hiring models to spray perfume on fans, pretending it was being promoted on behalf of one of their sponsors, or even go as far as creating a shell company for a fake suntan lotion distribution company which, in fact, had been a front for over NZ$400,000 worth of drug smuggling.

Their love of racing was also questioned when a team undertook to restore the Le Mans-winning Kremer and found an unexplainable empty cavity in the driver's side. The only possible reason for this, according to experts, would have been the addition of a nitrous oxide kit to boost the horsepower from its normal 750hp to well over 1000hp. This would certainly explain some wins, but in the process would destroy the engine.

Eventually, the brothers would be arrested in 1986 on charges of income tax evasion, money laundering and conspiracy to smuggle cocaine. They pleaded guilty and forfeited NZ$10 million worth of property including the Kremer Porsche that had won the Le Mans race. Don Whittington was sentenced to 18 months in prison; Bill to 15 years. Other IMSA drivers had also been seduced into the drug ring and were all sent to prison for their involvement.

The Whittington brothers are now out of jail and running an aircraft company… which has been under investigation on suspicions of drug trafficking… Some people never learn!

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