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Racing High as a Kite: the Don & Bill Whittington Story

Fast car and fast money reigned supreme at Le Mans in 1979, but the Whittington Brother's downfall was inevitable.

| By Robin Nooy | 6 min read |

Now, quite a while ago we shared a story about racing drivers and teams crossing the line. Not in the sense of crossing an actual finish line, but more in the vein of crossing moral lines. There have been plenty of examples where criminal activities entered the world of motorsports, and I’m sure that there will be instances in the future as well. Shady deals between teams and sponsors are no stranger to the world of racing after all. One of the most fascinating stories however, is that of Don & Bill Whittington, two brothers from the US who smuggled their way (sort of) to the top step of the world’s most famous endurance race; the Le Mans 24 Hours.

The 1979 Le Mans winning Kremer Porsche 935 K3, driven by Don Whittington, Bill Whittington and Klaus Ludwig – Road & Track

The Whittington Brothers

Reginald Donald Whittington and his brother, William Marvin Whittington are better known by the names of Don and Bill Whittington. Born in Lubbock, Texas, the two men carved out quite the racing career for themselves, following in the footsteps of their father, Don Whittington Sr. Don and Bill raced in several categories throughout the late 1970s and most of the 1980s, entering NASCAR, the Indy 500, the International Race of Champions, and even the 24 Hours of Le Mans multiple times. Both were also quite capable pilots, entering the Reno Air Races multiple times. Their biggest claim to fame was the surprise victory in the 1979 Le Mans 24 Hours race, alongside racing legend Klaus Ludwig and piloting a very potent Kremer Porsche 935 K3.

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The story of the Whittington Brothers though, has a few twists and turns that could come straight out of a novel. For instance, they owned the Road Atlanta race track in America at one point and used the back straight as a landing strip for small aircraft. This starts to make some sense perhaps, if you consider the fact Don & Bill Whittington were charged and eventually convicted for drug smuggling, and money laundering! So in hindsight, this high-risk-high-reward business of the brothers financed, or fueled if you will, an average-at-best racing career culminating in that surprise 1979 Le Mans win.

Cash is king

But how did the Whittington Brothers manage to get their hands on that coveted trophy? Well, for starters they bought their way into the Kremer Racing team, one of the most famous names in sports prototype and endurance racing. The brothers would have a first crack at the famous 24-hour race in 1978 under their own team and entered with a Porsche 935/77 hired from Joest Racing, another big name in racing. An accident in the 9th hour put a stop to their ambitions.

A year later, Don and Bill would try again, this time splurging out 20k USD each to drive for Kremer Racing. Kremer agreed and teamed the two Americans up with Klaus Ludwig, a multiple Le Mans winner and racing legend. The team’s owner, Erwin Kremer, stated that Ludwig would be the starting driver for the race but the brothers wouldn’t have it. Reportedly, they asked Kremer what it would take to get first dibs behind the wheel, to which Kremer replied; “You can buy the car…. for USD 200,000.” The two men simply said “OK”, went to their trailer and got the money from a duffle bag and bought the car then and there.

The 1979 race would go down in history as the first race where a rear-engined car won, with Porsche coming in 1st through 4th as a constructor, with the #41 Kremer Porsche 935 K3 on top despite competing against a number of more powerful sports prototypes. Second place that year went to Paul Newman (and his team, while third place went to Laurent Ferrier and Francoise Servanin; names that might ring a bell. Torrential rain for most of the race slowed down speeds considerably, which brought the Kremer car into contention for a very good result. Troubles for the much faster Porsche 936s and Mirages also helped the team, which at one point had built up a 13-lap lead! It wasn’t all plain sailing though as a broken drivebelt caused a considerable time loss, followed by a faulty wheel nut costing yet more time. In the end, the Kremer team regained the lead in the final hour of the race and won the race!

The Porsche 935 entered by Don & Bill Whittington in the 1979 Daytona Finale 250 Miles race – Revs Institute

The inevitable downfall

Now, all this came to an abrupt end in the 1980s. By then, the two brothers were co-owners of the Blue Thunder Racing Team, together with Randy Lanier. This was at a time when multiple individuals and teams were involved in drug smuggling, even leading to the IMSA racing series humorously being called the International Marijuana Smugglers Association. Lanier was involved in a drug smuggling ring that was accused of bringing 300 tons of marijuana into the United States, making him tons of money and funding his high-profile racing activities with it.

Don and Bill Whittington were involved in the ‘business’ as well, and were eventually convicted of their crimes. Randy Lanier was sentenced to life without parole in 1988, whereas Bill Whittington served a 15-year sentence and was ordered to hand over 7 million USD of his assets, and Don Whittington served an 18-month sentence after pleading guilty to several charges. Bill Whittington died in a plane crash in 2021, while his brother Don is still alive today. In 2009 Don Whittington attempted to retake ownership of the Le Mans winning #41 Kremer Porsche 935 K3, which was entered into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum in the early 1980s, but a court ruling mandated the car was donated to the museum and Don had no ownership rights over it any more.

To this day, the story of Don and Bill Whittington remains one of the most fascinating stories in racing, for the wrong reasons obviously. In no way, shape or form should drug smuggling ever be considered a valid solution to fund a racing career or other business activities. But as time passes on, stories like this do shape the mythical allure of events like the Le Mans 24 Hours race, and to an extent cars like the incredible Porsche 935.

Editorial Note: The images portrayed in this article are sourced from Road & Track and Revs Institute unless stated otherwise. The white #41 car seen in this article is Kremer’s Le Mans-winning Porsche 935 K3 from 1979, with the yellow #94 car being raced by Bill Whittington in the 1979 Daytona Finale 250 Miles race.

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