The tumultuous life of Bill Whittington came to a fiery end Friday afternoon in a private airplane crash outside Winslow, Ariz.
Whittington, 71, and another passenger perished but details were still sketchy on Sunday as local officials and the National Transportation Safety Board have yet to officially confirm his death. Some of Whittington’s closest friends, however, are grieving after receiving private news of his passing.
“I just spent three days will Bill here in Florida last week, then he went to the Bahamas, then went back to Arizona,” Whittington’s former co-team owner and co-driver Randy Lanier told RACER. “He took a friend out in a Merlin (plane) there. It was a friend with terminal cancer who lost his pilot’s license, so he took him up flying.”
Amid stops to wipe away tears, Lanier said they last communicated Friday morning.
“We were close. He was my brother,” he said. “He sent me a message yesterday morning, it was scripture: ‘Put on the full armor of God, so that you can make your stand against the devil’s schemes.’ And he said he was going to get ready to take his buddy up. His final act was taking up someone with terminal cancer.”
Along with brother Don, the Whittingtons became a fixture in American sports car racing in the late 1970s and early 1980s after they teamed with Klaus Ludwig to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1979. That was the same year they purchased Road Atlanta.
They came to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the first time in 1980 and both qualified five times for the Indy 500 during the next six Mays. Bill qualified sixth fastest in 1982 but lost an engine in the race and his best finish was 14th in his swan song in 1985. But their cars seldom had any sponsorship or advertising displayed and the rumor was funny money financed the operation.
Best known for his exploits in sports car racing, Whittington was one of IMSA’s most famous marijuana-smuggling drivers who fueled his participation in the sport from profits earned in the drug trade. From his debut in 1978 through 1985, Whittington was a regular presence in victory lane, driving high-power Porsche 935s and early GTP cars.
His best season came in 1984 where he and Lanier’s Blue Thunder Racing team won the GTP championship; Lanier was credited with first and Whittington took second in the standings due the two driving separate cars at some rounds. Altogether, Whittington earned 14 wins and 29 podiums over an eight-year span in IMSA.
In 1986, Bill pleaded guilty to income tax evasion and conspiracy to smuggle marijuana into the USA from Colombia and was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison and ordered to surrender $7 million in property and other assets. A year later, Don pleaded guilty to money laundering in association with his brother’s activities.
Bill served five years in jail before being released in 1990 and Don spent 18 months behind bars.
Then, in 2018, Bill was charged with tax evasion for failing to report a $10 million investment generated through two off-shore bank accounts and also under-reported income from a Colorado resort owned by his daughters. He paid $1.8 million restitution to the IRS as a condition of his plea bargain and was sentenced to 18 months in jail.
Upon his release, Whittington’s name and his Florida-based World Jet Inc. company appeared last year after it was awarded nearly $20 million in purchase orders from the state of Oklahoma to provide masks and PPE needed during the height of COVID-19. With World Jet’s failures to provide the PPE, the purchase orders were cancelled.
For Lanier, who was released from prison in 2014 after similar drug-related convictions that began in the mid-1980s, the chance to reconnect with Whittington was an unexpected gift.
“I got out about six years ago, and was pretty high-profile and couldn’t see him for a lot of reasons,” he said. “And then, just last week, all that changed and it had been 34 years of racing since we’d seen each other. It was like God brought us back together before he transcended.”