Federal appeals court rules against ex-race car driver who wanted Ind. museum to return car

By Charles Wilson, AP
Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Ex-driver loses suit to force return of car

INDIANAPOLIS — A former race car driver has lost his lawsuit to force the return of a car displayed at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum.

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago said Tuesday that the museum doesn’t have to give the Porsche 935 K3 back to Reginald “Don” Whittington.

“We’re thrilled that we won the case and that the car will be able to remain in our collection for all the visitors to see,” said museum Director Ellen Bireley.

Whittington’s attorney expressed dismay.

“We would have liked for it to have turned out differently, but that’s the way things go sometimes,” lawyer Bill O’Connor said Wednesday.

The Associated Press left a message seeking comment at Whittington’s business.

Whittington, a five-time Indianapolis 500 starter who also raced vintage P-51 Mustang World War II aircraft, won the grueling 24 Hours of Le Mans in the car along with his brother Bill and Klaus Ludwig in 1979. In the early 1980s, he either gave or loaned the car to the museum in a handshake deal, court records said.

Everything was quiet until 2004, when Whittington, who runs an aircraft leasing and sales operation in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., asked the museum to return the car for a vintage Porsche event. The museum said no.

Whittington said the car was a loan. The museum said it was a gift.

“In essence, the only details about the transfer on which the parties can agree is that no records of the transfer exist and that the transaction was a ‘handshake’ deal,” the judges wrote.

But the sides differed on who made the deal and when it was made, as well as what the deal was.

Whittington said he had maintained ownership of the car through a company he owned with his brother until it was dissolved shortly before he was sentenced to 18 months in prison in the late 1980s following his conviction on charges related to marijuana smuggling. He said he listed the car as a personal asset on paperwork he filed with the government before going to prison.

But Bireley testified the car was listed as donated in documents on file at the museum, and court records said it wasn’t listed as a gift on tax forms.

Whittington’s initial complaint listed the car’s value as more than $75,000.

Without clear records of the deal, the appellate court upheld the lower court’s decision holding that Whittington’s behavior after the transaction “was more consistent with the car being a gift rather than a loan.”

“The lesson for Whittington should be that an unwritten contract isn’t worth the paper it isn’t written on,” the judges wrote.

will not be displayed