Le Mans 1979: it wasn’t all about Paul Newman

This year’s Le Mans marks the 40th anniversary of film star Paul Newman coming second in the race. People often compare Newman to Steve McQueen, perhaps in the mistaken belief that they were the only Hollywood superstars of their era to race. On the contrary Gene Hackman is on the record as saying aged 17 he’d have chosen racing cars over making movies and was good enough to race at the Daytona 24 Hours for Dan Gurney, while James Gamer was an enormously talented driver who acquitted himself with honour in long distance rally raids like the Baja 1000. He not only did all his own driving in the film ‘Grand Prix’ but also doubled for other actors less talented than he. As for McQueen vs. Newman, my admiration as both a man and a driver lies entirely with Newman. But their story is worth an entire column in its own right and I’ll get around to telling it soon.

For now though I was to focus just briefly on the drivers of the Porsche that actually won, two of whom will be unknown even to most Porsche-philes. But Don and Bill Whittington did achieve fame, just not in quite the way you might expect or, indeed, they would have wanted.

I’ll deal with the third driver first because ‘King’ Klaus Ludwig will be known to many of you. A triple Le Mans winner, triple DTM championship, and possibly the most successful driver at the Niirburgring, I shared a car with him in a race there a few years back and remember clouds of people just following him around the paddock. If he’d decided to jump off a cliff, they would surely and happily followed him straight over. He did much of the work at Le Mans that year because the weather was filthy and the Whittingtons far less experienced when it came to racing at night and in the rain.

But the two brothers did their fair share of the racing and fair play to them because the car they were driving would not have been easy, even in ideal conditions. It was called a Kremer K3, even if it was actually evolved from the same kind of Porsche 935 raced by Newman. But with extensive modifications to its structure, aero, suspension and intercooling, it was in a different league to the 935 as witnessed by it taking third place on the grid during qualifying compared to 16th for Newman’s car despite having ex-F1 superstar Rolf Stommelen at the wheel. The only quicker cars than the K3 were Porsche’s two 936 prototypes and, after one broke and the other was disqualified, an easy victory for the Whittingtons and Ludwig was in sight.

Except that with four hours to run and with Don Whittington at the wheel, the K3 shed the belt that drove its mechanical fuel injection.

It took him nine laps to get the car running again, ingeniously modifying and substituting the alternator belt, figuring correctly there’d be enough life left in the battery to supply sufficient sparks to allow him to get back to the pits. But his 15 lap lead was cut to just six and Stommelen was closing him down rapidly.

In the end the world was denied a true Hollywood ending when the Stommelen/Newman car had problems of its own, giving the Whittingtons the win with a seven lap lead.

Job done, the Whittingtons returned to their native America and that might have been the last we heard of them had they not been charged in 1986 with defrauding the US Government of $20 million and running a global drug smuggling business. Yes, really. Don pleaded guilty to money laundering and was sentenced to 18 months inside, while Bill was charged with income tax evasion and conspiracy to smuggle cocaine into the US and got 15 years for his troubles.

So Le Mans 1979 was not only the last time the race was won by a car based on a road car but, so far as I’m aware, the first time that two thirds of a three man crew would end up doing time. As for the car, it went to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum from whence Don Whittington tried to reclaim it in 2009. He claimed it was there on loan, the museum said it had been donated. Not for the first time, Don found himself in court and once more he was on the losing side of the argument. The K3 stayed put.

Le Mans 1979

Paul Newman with 1979 Le Mans winners Bill (middle) and Don Whittington. A colourful pair, if ever there were

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