RETRO: The year they all went to jail

Randy Lanier, 1986. Image by IMS

RETRO: The year they all went to jail

Insights & Analysis

RETRO: The year they all went to jail

In the absence of Miller’s Mailbag this week, here’s a classic story from Robin projected through a modern lens.

In the normal telling of the 1980s tale, IMSA is the place where racing’s drug smugglers made their home. It was Miami Vice-era sports car drivers, run amok in the GTP series, evading the FBI and DEA from Daytona to Monterey.

As RACER’s Robin Miller wrote for On Track in 1986, the dubious marijuana-related deeds of Randy Lanier, Bill and Don Whittington, and John Paul Jr. (to a lesser degree), also took a toll on the CART IndyCar Series. The story might have started in endurance racing as the smugglers spent lavish sums on exotic GTs and prototypes that bore no sponsorship markings, but CART is where the ugly end came crashing down.

Although the quartet of owner-driver-smugglers are permanently linked to IMSA, when all four were taken down in 1986, most had become IndyCar’s problem. With the 1984 IMSA GTP championship in hand, Lanier went in search of a new challenge by entering 10 CART races in 1985, and by 1986, open-wheel racing was his primary focus. Lanier, the highest-profile of the lot, was a full-time member of the CART fraternity driver when the feds came knocking during the summer of 1986. Lanier’s close friend and teammate Bill Whittington, a four-time Indy 500 starter through 1984, followed the same IMSA-to-IndyCar path by entering 11 CART races in 1985, and on a less hectic migration, Whittington’s brother Don entered four CART events as well.

Paul Jr., a fixture in IMSA with his father, got an earlier start in CART, winning the Michigan 500 and finishing eighth in the championship as a rookie in 1983. Sporadic CART opportunities came for Paul Jr. through 1985 as he concentrated heavily on GTP, and after finally qualifying for the Indy 500 that same year, he secured a seat to give it another go in 1986.

John Paul Jr. Image by IMS

With sentencing coming in May – the same month as the Indy 500 – Paul Jr. would surrender the ride and his freedom as the Greatest Spectacle In Racing took place. Any IndyCar plans the Whittingtons held for 1986 would also be canceled, as their indictments for smuggling and tax evasion came prior to the season opener in April.

Lanier, having impressed at Indy and taken four top 10s in the first nine races, would break a leg in a bad crash on the Michigan superspeedway. The incident brought about a premature end to his CART campaign, and with the government hot on his trail, the ensuing months would be spent on the run as Lanier fled to Europe, then the Caribbean, where he was eventually taken into custody.

Written just prior to CART’s November 9 season finale at Tamiami Park in Florida, Miller brings us inside the main subject bubbling up within IndyCar’s paddock.

“As an otherwise good season of Indy car racing heads for the finale in Miami, the CART community must address an important, somewhat embarrassing, moral issue. How to deal with drug dealers?” he asked. “The recent arrest of Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year Randy Lanier on drug trafficking charges was the third such black eye CART has received in 1986. Bill and Don Whittington pleaded guilty to similar charges last March and are awaiting trial in federal court.

“John Paul Jr., one of CART’s most promising young talents, is currently serving a five-year prison term for involvement in marijuana smuggling. With baseball, basketball and football scarred by drug scandals the past few years, Indy car racing has now joined the club.”

Mario Andretti, CART’s biggest name, aimed his fury at rivals who dragged IndyCar into their trafficking mess.

Mario Andretti. Image by Marshall Pruett Archives

“It’s appalling, but it’s almost a sign of the times,” he told Miller. “No phase of sports or industry is immune from it. You pride yourself in the image you try and portray, and a couple of rotten apples spoil it. Those people are messing with my livelihood and it’s been clean for 30 years. I resent it, tremendously.”

By 1986, relaxed views on recreational drug use had dramatically changed as crack cocaine made national headlines and First Lady Nancy Reagan was ever-present with her “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign. Harmless stereotypes of stoners passing around a joint had been replaced by network coverage of drug overdoses and death as Scarface-style shootouts in the streets among smugglers and dealers scared the s*** out of average Americans.

From Andretti’s comments to the sentiments offered by others interviewed in Miller’s story, their words are clearly colored by fear of hardcore drugs overrunning CART. Whether they fully grasped the difference between CART drivers using drugs and those who were trafficking hundreds of tons of marijuana is less certain.

“I asked Bill last May about being indicted,” said Frank Arciero at the time, who ran a two-car effort for Lanier and Whittington in 1985 and Lanier on his own in 1986. “And he said, ‘Ah, it’s a bunch of B.S., I make my money selling mobile homes.’ I heard a rumor about Randy halfway through this season and asked him. He denied it, too, saying he was totally against any drug habit.

“I asked him if he was connected with Whittington, and he said, ‘No.’ It was a shock to me when I heard about Randy. I still believe him. He’s not been indicted, but if he is screwing with that stuff, they should put him in jail. If he’s guilty, I don’t even want to see him again.”

Don Whittington mastered the art of sponsor-free racing. Image by IMS

As Robin wrote about the 1986 rules, CART had the latitude to ban smugglers from driving in the wake of their indictments, but such moves would have been little more than ceremonial gestures. Whatever reputational damage was done, and with prison sentences varying from a half-decade for Paul Jr. to life for Lanier, a CART competition license wasn’t much to surrender while stuck in a cage.

A question of how CART should protect itself against future intrusions by smugglers was, at least in late 1986, the new and worthy subject to explore.

“We’re not a detective agency, but we need to police our own actions,” offered three-time Indy 500 winner Johnny Rutherford. “I can maybe see a hardline coming out of this. If convicted, you can’t race.”

Andretti disagreed.

“I don’t think you could ever put it in a rule book to set a guideline,” he countered. “It’s up to us, as individuals: Are we really going to resent these people? They should be totally alienated from future involvement or connection. I can assure you, they won’t be allowed to walk in my pit. There’s nothing those people could say to justify this.”

CART’s rule book at the time provided no specifics on drug usage or distribution. Article X gave its leaders wide permissions to punish or expel those who “perform any act tending to bring discredit or disrepute or CART or its members,” and elsewhere, in Miscellaneous Section 12, someone felt it necessary to include, “All drivers shall remove all dentures before starting an event,” but leafy and powdery substances had yet to make it onto the series’ regulatory radar.

Former CART PR Director John Evenson responded with two angles to pursue during the off-season.

“We’re concerned,” he said. “There could be possible changes in the rules and policies. There’s two things to look at: The problem of drug use and the involvement of importing it.”

After 1986, three of CART’s four smugglers would never return to the cockpit of an Indy car. Only Paul Jr., released halfway through 1988, was able to redeem himself as the man’s driving talent, rather than his prison record, proved too hard to ignore. Andretti’s take on the drug situation, compared to Rutherford’s preference for a lifetime ban, had been adopted.

Relegated to smaller teams, Paul Jr. entered 12 CART races from 1989-1994, earning a best of 10th at the Indy 500 in 1992. With the advent of the all-oval Indy Racing League, his career would receive another boost from 1996-1999.

Well-liked by most on both sides of the CART/IRL split, Paul Jr’s win for Byrd-Cunningham Racing at the 1998 Texas 500 felt like an overdue reprieve for the Indiana native. Most reckoned his father was responsible for the majority of the smuggling and skullduggery, anyways.

Don Whittington, the next to be freed, went back to more comfortable racing circles in 1999 when he took part in a few sports car events. His brother Bill, out in the early 2000s, poured his energy into the family-owned Springs Resort & Spa in Colorado. With old habits proving hard to kick, the 68-year-old was sentenced last month to an 18-month prison stay for tax evasion.

Bill Whittington’s legal problems have continued to the present day. Image by Marshall Pruett Archives

Lanier, unexpectedly released from his life sentence late in 2014, has kept busy with amateur racing and driver coaching in Florida.

CART’s big smuggling fright of 1986, as the coming years would demonstrate, was an isolated affair. IMSA, not CART, has taken all the reputational hits that Miller’s interviewees feared. But if you step back in time and marvel in the closing comments provided by Arciero 32 years ago, his concerns over a drug-fueled future for CART were warranted.

“They say you don’t know a man until you’ve slept with him, but I don’t plan to sleep with my driver,” he said, delivering one of the best quotes of the decade. “My driver next year will be Jeff MacPherson. He was in my Super Vee for three years, he’s driven a couple of Indy car races this year for me and I know his family. He appears to be a clean-cut kid. But I’m starting to ask myself, ‘How the hell can you tell anymore?’”

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