By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
During a racing career that began with marijuana-smuggling money and later ran aground for that same reason, Bill Whittington was always looking for the next thrill ride. He was gonzo. Sports cars, IndyCars, P51 Mustangs—it didn’t matter.
At age 71, Whittington was taking a friend on an airplane thrill ride that turned out to be the last for both of them after a crash in the Arizona desert last week.
People in racing liked Bill, whose personality was more easy-going than his business-like older brother Don. Bill’s knack of jumping into any car and driving the wheels off it helped make friends in racing in addition to the large volumes of at-the-ready cash he used to pay his bills. Bill once gave a paper bag of money to IMSA founder John Bishop to pay the sanctioning fee from a huge pile stacked in a credenza behind his desk at Road Atlanta, according to Mitch Bishop’s book about his father, “IMSA 1969-1989.”
In a similar vein, a cash transfer to the team owners preceded a victory by Bill, Don and Klaus Ludwig in a Kremer Racing Porsche 935 K3 at Le Mans in 1979. The Whittingtons, who had bought their rides in the Porsche of Irwin and Manfred Kremer, were insistent that Bill start the race. The Kremers, who wanted hired gun Ludwig to start, replied that it was their car, but if the Whittingtons purchased the car itself they could choose who started. Bill and Don had the cash needed to buy the Porsche in the form of dollars sewn into spare overalls and closed the deal on the starting grid.
That was the year the Whittingtons burst onto the sports car scene with victories in Porsches across the globe, including a six-hour race in El Salvador. By 1986 it was all over due to hefty fines, including the Porsche that won Le Mans, and prison sentences for the smuggling that led to a hard-to-miss lavish lifestyle of Lear jets, P51 Mustangs for air racing, a bevy of Porsche 935s and racing trophies, including one from Road Atlanta.
Looking back from the present time when cannabis is legal in 16 states and recognized by the medical community for its benefits to those suffering from cancer, it seems laughable that so much ruckus might be raised by the criminal pursuit of those who would smuggle marijuana. Alas, the illegal status produced a lot of money and kept members of law enforcement busy tracking down the smugglers and collecting multi-million-dollar fines. Including similar illegal activities by John Paul Sr. and Randy Lanier, marijuana smuggling helped pay a lot of bills in racing about the time IMSA’s growing popularity was taking off with the arrival of the GTP category.
I knew Bill tangentially as an owner of Road Atlanta, where I produced programs for race weekends, and as a reporter for On Track magazine. I say tangentially, because I never saw him in the offices of Road Atlanta and rarely talked to him at race tracks. Unlike a lot of drivers looking to promote their sponsors as well as their careers, Bill was very low profile at IMSA races. He liked the driving and didn’t need the publicity, although one got the feeling that he took pride in his status as a lawbreaker who lived life on the outer edges of conventional limits, sometimes paying his racing bills from a huge wad of cash he carried in his driving suit.
The Whittingtons played their cards close to the vest in order to promote the image they wanted to project. They were the sons of a father who had pursued USAC Champ Car racing without much success and a religious mother. The brothers considered religion to be an important part of their identities despite their illegal pursuits.
To me, they seemed like ever-confident guys determined to find an edge that others couldn’t see or handle, then exploit it to maximum advantage as a way to elevate themselves. They were early adopters to what is now popular—dissing the federal government. In their case, it meant ignoring the government’s laws on personal consumption while taking the risk of getting caught. They brought a whole new dimension and meaning to the phrase “speed merchant.”
I might not have established a career in racing as a journalist, starting with On Track magazine, if not for the Whittingtons’ operation of Road Atlanta. I got lucky when a printing salesman discovered I knew something about racing from my days as a reporter in North Carolina and hired me to lay out the Road Atlanta programs at my graphic arts studio in Atlanta. Each year, there was more work, which continued under a succession of owners. Once hired by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to cover motor racing, I gave away the program business. But early on, I was part of a cadre in IMSA who found the presence of the Whittingtons uplifting for my own purposes, joining those like IMSA owner Bishop, plus team owners and co-drivers who did not feel inclined to act as judge or jury. I might have even inhaled along the way.
The Whittingtons were passionate, determined and not inclined to violence. But Don on at least one occasion after a race that I witnessed kept a snub-nosed .38 revolver on a desk in the Road Atlanta offices. Bill sometimes took risks to the point of danger, which according to computer-derived flight data included an intentional (and successful) 300-mph dive in the plane during that last ride with a friend whose illness had forced him to give up his pilot’s license. It was all part of Bill’s low-key, but big-balled and quietly swashbuckling persona that included five Indy 500s despite no previous experience in open-wheel racing—three starts for the Whittington Brothers and one each with Kraco Racing and Arciero Racing. He ran the better part of one full CART season for Arciero in 1985.
In the IMSA season finale in 1984, the year he helped fellow smuggler Randy Lanier win the Camel GT championship at tongue-in-cheek Blue Thunder Racing, named for offshore power boats used in smuggling, Bill came close to causing a very nasty crash at the Daytona International Speedway in the season finale, a three-hour race. Due to an ailing gearbox in Whittington’s leading March-Chevy, Derek Bell caught him in the banking of the trioval and pulled down into the low groove to make the pass on board the Porsche 962 of Holbert Racing. Suddenly the March-Chevy juked low, forcing Bell onto the apron at full chat. Whittington soon retired with a broken transmission, leaving the victory to an unamused Bell.
The Whittingtons were smart and apparently lawyered up. Despite the millions of dollars that they brought in through smuggling, each spent relatively little time in prison after a plea bargain—18 months for Don and four years of a 15-year sentence for Bill. Interestingly, the reported fine of $7 million paid by Bill to the federal government, a record at the time, was close to the amount earned by the sale of Road Atlanta. (This according to the mortgage taken out by Al and Art Leon when those brothers bought the track, which later underwent bankruptcy proceedings.)
It has come to light that Lanier, following his release after 26 years in prison for smuggling hundreds of tons of marijuana, was a partner with the Whittingtons in the purchase of Road Atlanta in 1979. (Lanier was convicted under the “drug kingpin” law, hence his harsh sentence.)
It’s all right out of a Hollywood movie—or a backbar discussion at Studio 54. In fact, there is a movie afoot with a screenplay undertaken by Vinnie Wilhelm, who counts “Castle Rock” among his credits, and Anonymous Content has been named as the studio by an industry publication. Longtime IMSA and international road racing crew chief Gary Cummings has posted on Facebook that he will be a consultant on the technical side.
Legal question marks have continued to follow the Whittingtons, who were investigated in 2013 for supplying aircraft from their World Jet company in Ft. Lauderdale to South American smugglers, who deal with considerably more heinous cargo these days. According affidavit filed by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and a media investigation, the ownership of a plane carrying nearly 4 tons of cocaine that crashed in the Yucatan state of Mexico in 2007 was linked to World Jet. According to the Enid (Okla.) News and the DEA’s affidavit, $10 million in a Liechtenstein bank account had originated from World Jet’s leasing of planes and had been laundered through a resort business in Colorado operated by Bill Whittington’s daughters. Bill was again convicted of tax evasion in 2018 and spent 18 months in jail.
True to the brothers’ often mysterious personnas, Don, who was not charged in the more recent tax evasion case, allegedly agreed to a mission for the CIA—the transportation of Cuban terrorist and ex-CIA agent Luis Posada Carriles to stand trial in the U.S. in 2010. The Miami New Times checked on the tail numbers of the plane hired to ferry Carriles in court documents and traced the plane to World Jet, although the prisoner transfer was eventually cancelled. Don Whittington denied any involvement. The Enid newspaper also reported that the Whittingtons formed a company during the pandemic to sell medical safety equipment, which included multi-million-dollar contracts offered to a hospital administrator in Oklahoma.
The story that comes to my mind about Bill, who raced planes off and on at Reno for twenty years, concerned his flying. According to unconfirmed scuttlebutt, if he was uncertain of his position while piloting one of the Lear jets, he would drop to a lower altitude until he spotted an Interstate. Then he would strafe the roadway low enough to read the large green traffic signs. Apocryphal? Quite possibly. Sounds like Bill? Always.
(Editor’s note: Jonathan Ingram’s book “CRASH! From Senna to Earnhardt – How the HANS Helped Save Racing” is an eye-opening look at the safety revolution in racing. Published by RJP Books, signed copies of “CRASH!” are available at www.jingrambooks.com.)