Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Courts and Appeal and Law and Sports Business

Ex-race car driver loses appeal on Porsche ownership

April 13, 2010

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Foundation Inc. is the rightful owner of a classic 1979 Porsche on display at its Hall of Fame Museum.

Affirming now-senior U.S. Judge Larry McKinney in Indianapolis, the three-judge Circuit panel rejected claims by a former race car driver who said that he’d loaned, not donated, the car to the museum and that it should be returned to him. The case is Reginald D. Whittington Jr. v. Indianapolis Motor Speedway Foundation Inc.

Former driver Don Whittington—who comes from a racing family and had participated in five Indianapolis 500s and many other high-profile races through the 1970s and ’80s—sued the foundation over the Kremer Racing Porsche 953 K3 he drove to win the 1979 Le Mans 24-hour endurance race in France.

Whittington delivered the car to the museum in the 1980s for display, but in 2004 he claimed the car should be returned to him because it was only on loan. The foundation refused to return the car because it had recorded the transaction as a donation in kind from Whittington and his brother Bill. Whittington sued.

Though the car insurance was paid by the museum, testimony and documents showed differing accounts about who the actual owner was through the years. Whittington hadn’t maintained much contact with the foundation since the late 1980s, when he pled guilty to federal money laundering charges and spent 18 months in prison. At the time, he was connected to a scandal where many drivers financed their racing activities with drug smuggling proceeds.

In 2008, Judge McKinney held a one-day bench trial and ruled against Whittington. He described the case largely as a battle of witnesses who provided conflicting testimony, finding in favor of the foundation because Whittington failed to prove he owned the classic car.

The 7th Circuit agreed, pointing out that McKinney made a salient and proper note of the fact that Whittington’s post-transaction behavior was inconsistent with the car being on loan—mainly because he made no effort to communicate with the foundation between the 1980s donation and the 2004 demand for the car’s return.

The court decided McKinney didn’t err in finding that Whittington failed to prove a property right for the vehicle, nor did the judge make a mistake in placing the burden of proof on Whittington as Indiana law requires.

“We are handicapped, as is Whittington, by the lack of documentation with respect to the nature of the transaction between him and the Foundation,” Circuit Judge Michael Kanne wrote. “As observed by a member of this court at oral argument, the lesson for Whittington should be that an unwritten contract is not worth the paper it isn’t written on.”

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