Here’s a special report originally published in 2014 in which Autoweek looked back on racers who became known for more than just their on-track accomplishments.
People lie, cheat, steal and even kill for a variety of reasons. One of the strangest of those reasons: to go racing.
To remain involved at a high level takes financing. From little Legends cars to Formula One, money makes the wheels go ’round. Sometimes racers who don’t have enough money find, shall we say, “innovative” ways to get it. After all, it wasn’t many years ago that the IMSA sports-car series was referred to often as the International Marijuana Smugglers Association.
We’ve compiled a list, by no means complete, of racers who have used innovative methods to pay the bills. In this first installment—look for part two in an upcoming issue—as you read about some of these names you likely know, and some you don’t, remember: Racing is a drug. The checkered flag’s high is so potent that even in the most legitimate effort, racers are willing to die for it. Why should we be surprised to learn that some are willing to do illegal things for it, too?
Klaus Ludwig and the Whittingtons won the 1979 24 Hours of Le Mans.
This legend has persevered.
Don Whittington, 75, is the oldest of the brothers Whittington. Bill died on April 23, 2021, in a plan crash. Youngest brother Dale died in 2003, reportedly from a drug overdose.
Don and Bill were the more accomplished racers, teaming with Klaus Ludwig in 1979 to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans in a Porsche 935, though Ludwig did most of the heavy lifting. Don and Bill also dabbled in NASCAR.
All three brothers qualified for the 1982 Indianapolis 500, a big achievement for Dale, who had little oval experience. Unfortunately, he was caught up in the Kevin Cogan-caused crash that took out Mario Andretti on the pace lap; Dale never turned a race lap and never made the Indy 500 again. The Whittingtons also owned Road Atlanta for a while.
U.S. authorities accused them of drug smuggling to help support their racing. In 1986, Bill pleaded guilty to tax evasion and smuggling marijuana, was sentenced to 15 years in prison and had to surrender $7 million in money and assets. A year later, Don pleaded guilty to money laundering and got an 18-month sentence. Dale did not go to prison. Bill was released in 1990, Don in 1988.
The trio long declined to discuss their adventures or address intriguing rumors, like one suggesting they owned Road Atlanta so they could land private planes on its secluded back straight; it might or might not have been part of a smuggling operation. Don and Dale especially had aviation backgrounds. Don owned World Jet in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. They had a charter operation and also sold planes. Dale was apparently working for World Jet when he died.
Bill moved west to Pagosa Springs, Colo., where his two daughters owned a vacation spot called The Springs Resort and Spa.
We mention the aviation connection and the resort because in October of 2013, the U.S. District Court in Colorado issued a search warrant at the Drug Enforcement Administration’s 35-page request for records in general, emails in particular, pertaining to financial issues between Don and Bill.
In a nutshell, the allegation in the granted search-warrant request is that Don, at World Jet, was supplying aircraft to drug smugglers, and Bill, in Colorado, was helping launder the proceeds.
The affidavit suggests the DEA has been monitoring a bank account in Liechtenstein that Bill Whittington controlled; it grew from about $1 million to more than $10 million between 2003 to 2012. Liechtenstein, the affidavit says, “is known in financial circles as a preferred financial location for narcotics traffickers.” We’ll go out on a limb and say you were unaware of this Liechtenstein factoid when you woke up today.
The affidavit also tracked various aircraft, mostly into Mexico and Central and South America, that apparently have a connection to World Jet. It even mentions a used-car lot in New Mexico the Whittingtons’ nephews owned; it might have been involved in “multiple suspicious cash transactions.”
Ryan Dalziel, left, and Henri Zogaib.
The man we dubbed the “Madoff of Motorsports” (Autoweek, July 23, 2009) isn’t going to jail for as long as his nicknamesake—New York investment advisor Bernie Madoff, who was sentenced to 150 years for his part in a Ponzi scheme—but on Feb. 27, 2014, was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
“(That sentence) will have to do,” said one victim, sports-car driver Ryan Dalziel, a Rolex 24 Hours overall winner and a class winner at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the 12 Hours of Sebring.
At least 33 other investors, many in the motorsports community, were affected similarly.
The deal supposedly involved European-mined iron ore that Zogaib had an “inside track” on, thanks to connections made when he attended a Swiss private school. This even though he is listed as an ex-Seabreeze High School student in Daytona Beach, Fla., when he was still “Henry,” not “Henri.”
Zogaib was apparently born in Lebanon, but grew up in Daytona Beach. He attended Skip Barber Racing School where one instructor remembers him as a bit pretentious and cosmopolitan, impressing fellow students during lunch breaks by lining up multiple cellphones in front of him and frequently taking secretive calls supposedly regarding high-level finance.
By 2007, Zogaib was involved in the Grand-Am Rolex Series, financing Daytona Prototype teams as a gentleman driver. Soon he starred in a Daytona press conference, announcing he’d sponsor Michael Shank Racing’s car and co-drive with A.J. Allmendinger, Paul Tracy and Ian James.
J.C. France, Grand-Am founder Jim France’s son, apparently helped introduce Zogaib around the pits. To what extent they remain friends is unclear, as court documents reveal J.C. France is one investor Zogaib bilked after France invested a six-figure sum. Allmendinger was also an investor but he demanded his money back early on, and might have been the only investor who didn’t lose out. “I’ll be honest; he’s a smooth guy,” Allmendinger recalled. “He talks a big talk and basically puts on a great show.”
Zogaib’s racing highlight came in spring 2008, when he and co-driver Dalziel finished second in Virginia International Raceway’s Rolex Series race, and then a few weeks later won at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. They drove owner Peter Baron’s Samax Motorsports Riley-BMW Daytona Prototype.
Dalziel invested $550,000 with Zogaib, who claimed to be able to generate his investors an almost-40 percent return. Dalziel won a $600,000-plus civil judgment against Zogaib but has been able to collect only a small percentage. Even Dalziel’s father invested, losing his home as a result.
Baron was an investor, too, and essentially lost his team, making ends meet as a wrecker driver until he could rebuild it into Starworks Motorsport. Zogaib may have taken in at least $6 million, spent on racing, sports cars and private jets. Dalziel believes the figure is closer to about $30 million.
Zogaib pleaded guilty to a first-degree felony regarding white-collar crime. Lisa Acharekar, the Florida Office of the Attorney General’s assistant statewide prosecutor, said the criminal suit against Zogaib involved 33 investors, but Dalziel is convinced the number is higher than that, with some investors too embarrassed to come forward.
“I just hope he gets what he deserves,” said Dalziel. “He ruined a lot of lives.”
On Feb. 27, 2014, Zogaib faced a Florida judge for sentencing. He offered no apology, blamed his former clients and claimed to have wealthy friends who would pay everyone back if only he could stay out of jail. The judge was unmoved, saying, according to Dalziel, who was present, “I don’t care whether you paid everyone in full prior to today—I’d still be sending you to prison for your crime.” He got 15 years, followed by 15 years probation, and is required to make restitution; that seems unlikely unless he really does have wealthy friends. He did at one time—until they met Henri Zogaib.
Gary Balough supposedly won over 1,000 races over the course of his career.
To many who knew—or even knew of—racer Gary Balough, a conversation about him now often as not contains the phrase, “He could have gone all the way.”
Balough was a legend on short tracks, from his home tracks in Florida to the northeast’s Modified circuits. Lean, cocky and talented, he wore the 1980s-mandatory mustache about as well as anyone. Sort of a half-mile cross between Dale Earnhardt and Tim Richmond, Balough had a presence suggesting everyone else was running for second place, an assertion he sometimes announced out loud at drivers’ meetings.
Balough supposedly won more than 1,000 races, most in Late Models on southern tracks. He was the two-time winner of the Snowball Derby, the still-prestigious winter race in Pensacola, Fla. He won Nashville’s prestigious All-American 400 twice and was the All Pro champion in 1986.
Many dedicated fans best remember him, though, as driver of the ultralegendary “Batmobile,” a dirt Modified car he and visionary driver and car builder Kenny Weld brought to Syracuse Super Dirt Week in New York in 1980. Supposedly a Lincoln, the car was so advanced, it absolutely humiliated the field and especially the officials, who had to admit Weld and Balough interpreted the rules creatively and built a legal car. The Modifieds, for instance, couldn’t use sprint car-like top wings for downforce, so Weld and Balough put an enormous flat roof on the car, and angled it forward exactly like a wing.
There were massive air tunnels on both body sides with inlets Balough could control from inside the car. The black No. 112—a number long associated with Balough—is now a museum piece, and to see it is to behold brilliance.
In February 1982, Balough appeared to have finally made it to NASCAR’s Cup Series. He had a ride with the respected RahMoc team and enough sponsorship from Domino’s Pizza to be able to run at least 25 races.
But then came what National Speed Sport News dubbed “Black Thursday” and a front-page headline reading, “Racers Are Ringleaders of Drug Ring, FBI Says.” Balough, of course, was one of them. As respected NSSN writer Keith Walz recounted in a historical piece, “five prominent members of the South Florida auto-racing community, including NASCAR Winston Cup driver Gary Balough, were indicted on drug-trafficking charges. The five were among 66 people charged in what FBI agents described as a multimillion-dollar drug ring stretching from Florida to North Carolina.
The indictments followed a long probe of alleged drug smuggling and other illegal activities among the Bahamas, several foreign countries and the Carolinas. Other racing figures charged were Billie Harvey, Bruce “Pee Wee” Griffin, Herbert Tillman and Pete Pistone. There were allegations some racers used their cars and car transporters to move drugs.
Balough was released from a Miami jail, Walz said, on a $100,000 bond and drove the RahMoc Racing Buick in that weekend’s Richmond Cup race. He crashed and finished last in the 32-car field. “Hot Shoe” Balough’s NASCAR career was effectively over.
Still, Balough was out of jail and winning again by 1986, including the All Pro championship. But then he went back to jail. And then went back again. He was released for the last time in 2010, and, now 73, has returned to the short tracks and to legions of loyal fans.
Evan Knoll was sentenced to 14 years in jail at just 52 years old.
In a July 25, 2012, story on a Grand Rapids, Mich., website, the first sentence summed it up: “Once known as ‘the king of drag racing,’ Evan Knoll—former Torco Racing Fuels owner—pleaded guilty this afternoon in a $100 million fraud.” He was sentenced at age 52 to 14 years in jail.
Knoll’s legal problems stemmed from allegedly misusing the 18.3-cents-per-gallon tax levied on fuel to help fund road construction. But when the fuel isn’t used for regular road-going vehicles, such as dragsters, you can apply for a refund. According to prosecutors, Knoll got about $87 million in refunds, but the claims he made were reportedly fictitious.
Knoll’s friends speak of a man who loved racing and meant no harm, but had trouble saying “no” when racers asked him for help or sponsorship. He was a popular figure at U.S. drag strips, supporting teams with backing from what they thought was a successful company.
Knoll signed a plea agreement requiring he pay the U.S. Treasury $86.9 million in restitution and $13 million to Chemical Bank and Comerica Bank, since he obtained loans using the improper funds as collateral.
That’s a long way from 2005, when Drag Racing Online named Knoll “Man of the Year.” He owned or sponsored about 50 teams, hopping from race to race in private planes. He might have spent $40 million on drag racing in two years.
In 2007, the wheels began to come off. Teams awaited checks that never came. Creditors began filing lawsuits against Torco and Knoll. Torco told teams it was “taking a year off” from sponsoring, but by the end of 2008, it was pretty much over. Few in the industry were totally stunned: They wondered for years from where all the money came.
Torco’s website, torcoracefuel.net, has an “about us” section detailing the company’s historic tale. Torco was founded in 1948 by Bob Lancaster, who invented the first 20w50 racing oil. The website details past Torco teams, but Evan Knoll is not mentioned.
Editor’s note: This story appeared originally in the April 14, 2014 print edition of Autoweek.
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