Drug runners, fraudsters, and scammers: The American criminals who raced at Le Mans

Elizabeth Blackstock
The entry sign to Le Mans

It's fair to say some interesting characters have raced at Le Mans.

Countless iconic American drivers competed at and won the 24 Hours of Le Mans — but not everyone could afford a costly excursion to the middle of France. At least, not by any particularly savory means.

Yes; some of the most exceptional American drivers to compete at Le Mans have also been criminals. Today, I’m going to introduce you to some of the most iconic scammers, fraudsters, and drug runners to have ever raced at Le Mans.

The Whittingtons

In the 1970s and 1980s, many Americans discovered that they could very easily set up an international drug-running operation, and brothers Bill and Don Whittington were two of those men. Neither man had much racing experience, aside from a miserable effort at the 1978 24 Hours of Le Mans with a self-named team.

The following year, they each paid $20,000 for the chance to drive a Kremer Racing Porsche 953 K3 alongside driver Klaus Ludwig — but after arriving in Le Mans, the brothers had demands. They thought one of the two should be able to start the race, since they’d paid plenty of good money to be there. Team owner Erwin Kramer joked that he wouldn’t let that happen — not unless they bought the car for $200,000.

The Whittingtons called his bluff. In their trailer, Kramer scooped up exactly $200,000 from a duffel bag. As the 24-hour race came to a close, the brothers were in the lead. They had won.

But the brothers’ big-money spending caught the eye of the Internal Revenue Service and the Drug Enforcement Association, as it wasn’t obvious where all that money was coming from. As it turned out, the two had purchased a for-hire plane company and were using it to shuttle huge amounts of marijuana into America. Their landing place of choice was the back straight of the Road Atlanta race track.

Both brothers pleaded guilty to charges of income tax evasion, money laundering, and conspiracy to smuggle drugs in 1986, landing them in jail.

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John Paul Jr. and Sr.

Around the same time as the Whittington brothers came the father-son duo of John Paul Sr. and John Paul Jr. The elder Paul, hailing from the Netherlands, got his start in club-level sportscar racing back in the 1960s before reappearing on a bigger stage in the 1970s and 1980s. After a first jaunt to the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1978, Paul Sr. recruited his son to join him in his racing exploits — and in his drug running operation.

The father/son duo raced together in key endurance races, but it turned out that John Paul Sr. seemed to have some legitimate racing talent that earned him a spot in the Indianapolis 500 seven times. But that lifestyle came at a cost; John Paul Jr. joined the drug trade at age 15 and was caught smuggling marijuana in January of 1979.

In 1986, John Paul Jr. was sentenced to five years in prison for his involvement in his father’s drug ring, a sentence that was drawn out because he refused to testify against his father. He returned to the racing world after serving 30 months of prison time but ultimately retired with a diagnosis of Huntington’s disease. John Paul Jr. secured a best finish of second overall in the 1984 running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans; his father’s best finish came in his debut year, with a first place in class and a fifth place overall.

As for John Paul Sr., well — no one knows. The elder John Paul disappeared when the government began to close in on him regarding both his drug operation and the mysterious disappearances of his wife and girlfriend. He hasn’t been seen since 2009.

Randy Lanier

Randy Lanier was closely associated with both the Whittingtons and the John Pauls, which should indicate that he was another racer involved in the drug trade. Lanier was first introduced to marijuana at a young age and at age 15, he became involved in Florida’s lively drug trade. Lanier was entranced by the sheer amount of money he could make selling drugs and soon began hunting for ways to cut out the middleman and earn a greater profit.

Lanier’s infatuation with motorsport came from drug running; the high-speed powerboats used in the drug trade were thrilling, and Lanier wanted to find a legal way to achieve that same high. He soon got involved in IMSA sports car racing, which encouraged him to take a chance on the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1982, where he finished 49th overall and 10th in the GTX class. His career was highlighted by a 1984 IMSA championship with his Blue Thunder Racing Team.

After Bill Whittington was arrested, Lanier understood that the government was closing in on him. An Illinois dealer of Lanier’s drugs was arrested and named Lanier; in 1987, Lanier was convicted of importing and distributing over 300 tons of marijuana but disappeared before sentencing.

He lived on the lam for several months before being caught and was sentenced to a life sentence. Randy Lanier was released in 2014; the reasons for his release are still unknown, as they’re the result of several sealed motions.

Scott Tucker

American Scott Tucker seemed to appear in the racing world out of nowhere. He debuted in the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series for a few races in 2007 before expanding to a full season and taking a shot on other series, like the American Le Mans Series and the United SportsCar Championship. He also competed in the 24 Hours of Le Mans four times between 2010 and 2013.

Tucker’s best finish came in 2011, when his team Level 5 Motorsports entered an LMP2 car that fielded Tucker alongside João Barbosa and Christophe Bouchut. The crew finished 10th overall, and third in the LMP2 class — a record that Tucker and Level 5 couldn’t replicate in later events.

But Tucker’s ability to field his own team and race competitively came down to the fact that he was laundering massive amounts of money.

Back in 1991, Tucker was first convicted of mail fraud when it was found that he used the names of big banks to encourage folks to send him their money. He served one year in prison — but Tucker must not have learned his lesson. Ten years later, in 2001, Tucker founded AMG Services, an online business that made payday loans. These high-interest, low-principal loans often take advantage of underrepresented communities, and between 2008 and 2013, Tucker banked a whopping $3.5 billion through the scheme. He was arrested and indicted in February of 2016 before being convicted of racketeering and making illegal payday loans in October 2017. He is still serving out his 16 year and 8 month federal prison sentence.

Michael Avenatti

If you didn’t realize attorney Michael Avenatti was a racer, you wouldn’t be alone; the California lawyer has become more recently known for representing adult film actress Stormy Daniels in her lawsuits against then-President Donald Trump.

He has also gained infamy after being indicted for the crimes of extortion, tax evasion, fraud, and embezzlement.  He has been sentenced to 14 years in prison after embezzling $11 million from four of his clients. He was also convicted of attempting to extort millions of dollars from Nike, as well as stealing around $300,000 from a book advance that Stormy Daniels received for writing about her affair with Trump. Courts dropped 31 additional fraud charges after he plead guilty to a handful of other charges.

But Avenatti did have a brief racing career, beginning back in 2010. He took on several endurance races in America, followed by his 2015 debut at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. He joined the JMW Motorsport team alongside Polish driver Kuba Giermaziak and Saudi Prince Abdulaziz al Faisal; their Ferrari 458 Italia GT2 finished seventh in the GTE Am class, which was good enough for an overall finish of 36th.

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