- According to friend and fellow convicted smuggler Randy Lanier when contacted by Autoweek, Whittington was giving a plane ride to a friend who had terminal cancer.
- FlightAware.com shows the flight pattern of the plane taking off from Scottsdale, and flying northeast to near Winslow when it crashed north of Interstate 40 on a desert road in Navajo County, Arizona.
Former IMSA and IndyCar racer Bill Whittington was killed when a plane he was piloting crashed in the Arizona desert, according to multiple reports. Whittington, along with brothers Don and Dale are the only three brothers to qualify for the same Indianapolis 500.
Whittington was 71.
Bill and Don, along with Klaus Ludwig, won the 1979 24 Hours of Le Mans. Soon after, Bill and Don were convicted of drug smuggling and other charges and served time in prison.
According to friend and fellow convicted smuggler Randy Lanier when contacted by Autoweek, Whittington was giving a plane ride to a friend who had terminal cancer. While both Don and Bill raced P-51 Mustangs, it was a conventional 1981 Swearingen Merlin that Bill crashed, a twin-engine, 11-passenger plane registered to Global Air of Scottsdale, Arizona.
“His friend was terminally ill with cancer and had lost his pilot’s license,” Lanier said. “So Bill wanted to give him an experience of flying again. This is the kind of man Bill is. Bill was more than a teammate at the track. He is my brother. He was a damn good man. A man who loved Christ and his family.”
FlightAware.com shows the flight pattern of the plane taking off from Scottsdale, and flying northeast to near Winslow when it crashed north of Interstate 40 on a desert road in Navajo County, Arizona. The Navajo Sheriff’s Office helped extinguish a fire in the wreckage and found two deceased males. The Sheriff’s department declined further comment, as did the NTSB, which is investigating the crash.
Names of the deceased have not formally been released, but multiple reports say the pilot was Bill Whittington.
FlightAware shows the plane made several abrupt maneuvers including a figure 8 before crashing. At times during the brief trip, the plane flew higher than 17,500 feet, and speeds in excess of 300 mph before the one-hour, seven-minute flight ended. Some of the questionable maneuvers occurred over the Winslow Lindberg Regional Airport, just southwest of Winslow. The flight track appears to show the plane heading back toward the field when it crashed.
The Whittington brothers—Bill and Don in particular, Dale never did prison time nor raced airplanes—were always close to aviation, especially after their auto racing days ended. Don once got lost in the fog in his P-51 Mustang and ditched it in the Gulf of Mexico. He was rescued by the Coast Guard. He also crashed a helicopter registered to racer and Rolex 24-winning car owner Preston Henn, a longtime friend and racing buddy.
Don and Bill raced P-51 Mustangs at the Reno air show, with Don finishing the eight-lap race around pylons in third place at 404.701 mph, and Bill in fifth at 358.888 mph.
The Whittingtons were part of an era when IMSA, the sports car sanctioning body, was jokingly referred to as the International Marijuana Smugglers Association, as were Lanier and father-son racers John Paul Sr. and John Paul Jr.
One of the best Whittington legends has it that the brothers would rent out motorhomes, concealing pot in the floorboards as the renter unwittingly delivered the motorhome to a preferred destination, where a “mechanic” would cheerfully offer to do a mechanical check on the vehicle while the renters waited.
Another colorful legend: The brothers bought the Road Atlanta speedway—allegedly giving them long, isolated straights where drug planes could land.
In 2013, the Associated Press reported that the Federal drug agents were investigating the Whittingtons’ aircraft leasing business in Fort Lauderdale, World Jet, on suspicion that they were “providing airplanes to South American drug traffickers, according to court documents and interviews.” Said the AP: “According to the DEA, World Jet leases or sells aircraft to drug traffickers in Colombia, Venezuela, Mexico and Africa at inflated prices, keeping the plane under the Whittington name or that of a third party and maintaining a U.S. tail number. After a certain period, the aircraft is returned to World Jet.”
The brothers apparently stayed out of trouble until 2018 when Autoweek reported that Bill was charged with tax evasion related in part to a Colorado resort owned by his daughters, including money deposited in banks in Liechtenstein. He was sentenced to 18 months in jail. Reportedly, Whittington made it easy for investigators by sending incriminating emails that were later traced to him. The family later sold the resort and Bill moved to Scottsdale.
In 1982, Bill, Don and Dale Whittington, who had little oval experience, entered the Indianapolis 500, becoming the only three brothers to qualify for the same race at Indy. On race day, as the front of the field was taken out by the infamous Kevin Cogan crash, Dale locked his brakes and spun into Roger Mears, a driver in the sixth row. Dale never took the green flag, and the three never all qualified for the race again. Bill raced in five Indy 500s, with a best finish of 14th. Dale died in 2003 from a drug overdose at the age of 43. Don Whittington is 75.
The Whittingtons had a colorful past, that’s undeniable, but they were likable, and still have many friends in motorsports. Perhaps Chip Ganassi said it best:
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