With motor sport pretty much done for the year here in the States, it’s bench-racing season, where footloose racers chill in their garages and swap stories about bygone exploits. Here’s a tale about one of the greatest racing pranks ever foisted upon an unsuspecting victim. But first, some backstory:
The Whittington brothers, Don and Bill, burst on the sports car scene in the late 1970s. Experienced air racers who flew World War II warbirds, they were fast and fearless. But they became famous – or maybe that should be infamous – for their widely rumoured association with the then-flourishing drug trade in South Florida.
At Le Mans in 1979, the Whittingtons shared a Kremer brothers Porsche 935 K3 with Klaus Ludwig. During the strategy meeting before the race, Manfred Kremer said that Ludwig, the fastest driver during qualifying, would take the start. When Bill objected, Manfred said that it was his prerogative as team owner to set the driving order. Bill then asked how much it would take to buy the car. After talking it over with his brother, Erwin, Manfred set the price at $290,000. A few minutes later, the Whittingtons presented him with a suitcase filled with the money. Counting the Benjamins, Manfred said later, took a lot longer than negotiating the deal.
The race was run in a torrential downpour. All of the favoured prototypes broke, and the Whittingon brothers K3 romped home to a stunning victory. A second 935 co-driven by movie star Paul Newman finished second. (Interesting footnote: car owner Dick Barbour says Newman’s Porsche carried sponsorship from the Parisian brasserie Fouquet’s thanks to another last-minute cash transaction– this one in francs – put together in the stall of a men’s room.)
In the mid-1980s, Bill and Don were jailed on drug-related charges. (Three other IMSA stars, Randy Lanier, John Paul Sr and his son, John Paul Jr also served time.) The Whittingtons donated their K3 to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum. Fast forward two decades. After complicated negotiations, the museum traded the car to major-league Beverly Hills collector Bruce Meyer for his fabled Kuzma-Offy, which Troy Ruttman had driven to victory in the Indy 500 in 1952.
Meyer sent the car to Bruce Canepa, who’d raced against the Whittingtons in a 935 that he still owns – and vintage-races – to this day. Restored in Canepa’s huge shop in Northern California, the K3 won class honours at the concours d’elegance at Amelia Island and Pebble Beach in 2013. The following January, Meyer planned to exercise the car himself at Speed Days, an exclusive track-day event for high-end vintage race cars at Laguna Seca Raceway.
Around this time, reports began circulating that the Whittington brothers, who’d long since been released from prison, were being investigated again by federal authorities. Wheels started turning in Canepa’s devious brain. He and his bud Albert Arciero, who vintage-races a 911 RSR, formulated a plan to punk Meyer at his garage in Beverly Hills. It didn’t take them long to realise that the upcoming test session at Laguna Seca would be an even better venue for the caper. But staging a practical joke during Speed Days also came with some risks.
“We knew it couldn’t be an Ashton Kutcher-style prank” Canepa says. “There were going to be at least 10 guys there with their lawyers and security people, so we knew we had to do it right.”
First, Canepa enlisted the moral and financial support of two of America’s most prominent collectors, Charlie Nearburg and Chip Connor. Then, he contacted a Hollywood producer, who put him in touch with three ex-police/military types who worked on movie projects as consultants charged with making sure that the law-enforcement scenes seemed authentic.
Come the appointed day, the three uniformed ringers descended on the paddock in a black Suburban and a dark gray Dodge sedan. Besides wearing Drug Enforcement Agency regalia and seriously bad-ass expressions, they were carrying lethal Glock handguns and paperwork signed by a real – but recently retired – federal judge. Meyer was jazzed from finishing his first-ever session in the K3 when he was told that three guys were waiting for him by his car.
“I’m Mr Happy,” Meyer recalls. “I go dancing over there and see them dressed all in black. My first thought was that they were with the Audi team, and they wanted to see the car. But as I got closer, I saw the badges and the way they were standing there. And I thought, ‘What did I do wrong? Did I forget to pay my taxes?’”
A faux DEA agent built like a Coke machine shooed away the growing crowd while a by-the-book colleague questioned Meyer and Canepa. After examining the plate with the VIN number, he announced, “We’re confiscating all of the known assets of the Whittingtons, and we’ve got a federal seizure order for this car.”
Several onlookers – most notably 1985 Indy 500 winner Danny Sullivan – said they thought it was a gag. But the longer it went on, the more seriously it was taken. (It helped that a dress rehearsal had been conducted three days earlier.) A police detective and a district attorney who happened to be there purely as spectators did some checking around before concluding that the seizure was legit. When track manager Gill Campbell angrily tried to intervene, the DEA agents threatened to detain her.
Meyer is the most affable and accommodating of men. But he looked positively ashen as he contemplated the imminent loss of a car valued at nearly $5 million. His son, Evan, who was the only person at the track besides the conspirators who knew what was going on, started to get worried. “I think we could give Dad a heart attack,” he told Canepa under his breath.
“Don’t worry, Evan,” Canepa said. “We have jumper cables.”
What sealed the deal was the arrival of the tow truck – not a fancy big rig but a greasy flatbed better suited to unceremoniously carting away parking violators than transporting vintage race cars. Loading the K3 onto the ramp without damaging the splitter required pushing the car. By this point, Meyer was so flummoxed that Canepa was able to cajole him into lending a hand, metaphorically helping the thieves steal his own car.
“It just made sense,” Meyer says now, laughing about the hoax. “You know the car had been bought with dirty money because that’s the only money [the Whittingtons] had. So it kind of made sense that the government was taking it.”
“It just made sense – you know the car had been bought with dirty money”
It wasn’t until the tow truck trundled out of the paddock that the supremely well-connected Meyer finally snapped out of his trance and called a friend who was a heavyweight at the California Highway Patrol. Just when a fleet of CHP troopers were about to be dispatched to intercept the tow truck, Meyer saw it returning to the paddock with the Porsche still on the flatbed.
“Wait a minute,” he said into the phone. “They’re coming back. They must’ve forgotten something.”
Meyer still didn’t get it until the head DEA dude told him, “Bruce, you’ve been pranked.”
In the end, though, it was Meyer who got the last laugh. Not only did he get the K3 back, but he also got a priceless yarn along with it.