Remembering Kirk F. White, Motorsports Icon and $2000 Challenge Judge

David S.
By David S. Wallens
Mar 24, 2020 | $2000 Challenge

Kirk F. White, the man who owned the famed Sunoco Ferrari 512M driven by Mark Donohue and David Hobbs to third overall at the 1971 24 Hours of Daytona, will always be part of GRM lore: 20 years ago, he served as a concours judge at our $1500 Challenge, the event that gave birth to today’s $2000 Challenge. He reprised that role in 2013. White, a resident of New Smyrna Beach, Florida, passed away March 20.

White had been a fixture in the automotive world for decades–and had been writing his autobiography, “Don’t Wash Mine,” as a web series. (For the meaning behind that phrase, turn to chapter 7.)

An entry details a tenacity that would eventually land him on the worldwide stage. First, he writes, as a preteen with no money, he had to get past the gates at Langhorne Speedway: 

Once I had hitchhiked my way to the track but didn’t have enough money to buy a ticket. Because it was a champ car race, the tickets were more money than I had. I wasn’t about to go home so I bided my time until a family with two boys close to my age approached the wooden booth where the ticket stubs were taken. Just as the father handed in the tickets I joined up with the two boys and earnestly babbled words at them trying to ingratiate myself, choosing the moment "we" were passing, as a group through the gate. As soon as we were inside and clear of the fence I took off like a shot. I ran as far as I could and turned and watched the family move off to their seats which appeared to be virtually at the start-finish line. I’m not sure they ever knew what transpired at the gate.  I made my way into the upper reaches of the stands in the fourth turn area. I loved that track!”

That quick thinking would continue to be his ace in the hole. In 1971, at the age of 33 and by then already a major player in the Ferrari market, he made his first trip to Le Mans. The Penske/White/Sunoco Ferrari 512M was going to Europe. Donohue and Hobbs would again drive. 

Soon after landing, White was given an ultimatum by an FIA official: As Sunoco had no presence in Europe, he was instructed to run the colors of British Petroleum–or not be allowed to race at all. 

A quick compromise settled on a pair of 4-inch BP stickers for the famed Sunoco blue Ferrari. But where to put them? 

My brain was sweeping over the entire surface of our Ferrari trying to come up with a tiny bit of real estate that would be of no consequence,” he writes. “Then, it came to me … that thin back panel at the rear of the car just below the wing and right above the exhaust pipes … Hell, I knew that anything on that panel would quickly be invisible at 50 or so miles into the race from the exhaust rollover and the dirty air back there.”

Roger Penske, who ran the team, would not be amused. 

The team’s Ferrari would take the green flag as a favored winner. After running with the leaders, however, an engine issue sidelined the entry. 

Less than a year later, White would also own the Ferrari 365 GTB/4 driven by Dan Gurney in Brock Yates’s first Cannonball Baker Sea to Shining Sea Memorial Trophy Dash. Yates would be the co-driver and, as he recounted in “Cannonball! World’s Greatest Outlaw Road Race,” Gurney wondered if they could complete the cross-country race in 36 hours. 

Their time of 35 hours and 54 minutes answered that question–and handed them the win in the process. 

And about that Ferrari, again from White’s book:

Well, that brand new 365GTB/4, serial #14271 came in the same sand beige metallic as my 275GTB/4, so it was shipped to Molin Body Shop where all manner of sacrilege was visited upon the poor Ferrari.

The car was refinished in Sunoco blue with the famed Larry Schoppett laying down some “modest” yellow pin striping. 

Wait, there’s more: We radiused (word??)  the leading corner edges of the hood. (If you didn’t radius them, the ninety degree corners would crack.) Then we “Frenched” the radio antenna. 

Lastly, we immediately violated Federal Statutes and wiped away the goofy “U.S. Regulation” side reflectors. And, the smog pump belt just kind of fell off and we never could find a replacement …

The car came from the factory with the silver finish across the nose. We retained that accent.”

While White specialized in Ferraris, all manner of classics passed through his hands. A 1969 story–set at his downtown Philadelphia dealership–involves a Cobra and a Ferrari 340 Mille Miglia. He refers to that particular Ferrari as “absolutely one of the fastest, most responsive competition Ferraris I have ever owned.”

The interaction between those two machines:

Early one morning we were moving cars around at 63rd Street. We had both the 340 and a 427 Cobra out front. It was an irresistible temptation. We simply had to run off a quick drag race. There was always any number of willing wheelmen around 63rd Street. I’ve forgotten the drivers of the two cars.

Remember, we were on 63rd Street, inside the Philadelphia city limits, in a densely populated residential and business area, and we were about to launch a fucking drag race with two of the most potent vehicles on the planet.”

White wasn’t just about fast cars. He knew how to sell them, too. 

In 1970, he came across a rather staid Sotheby’s sale. “Trying to sell giant, tired, old Rolls Royce’s and Bentleys outdoors in the chilly, bustling canyons of the east seventies in Manhattan was tough enough, but then to have your merchandise sitting cockeyed, half in the street, and half on the sidewalk was simply bizarre,” he writes.

He returned home, still in Pennsylvania, with an idea–an idea that would become the modern collector car auction. The recipe, at the time, sounded revolutionary: top-shelf cars, a beautiful location (St. Martin’s church in Radnor, Pennsylvania) and the captivating auctioneering talents of Omar Landis.

The event was considered a success, even despite a few small glitches. From the post-event release: “Security was a bit weak with over 1000 people finding their way in without paying.  Funny stories of the day included the guy who arrived at the lower driveway, set up a card table and began hawking his own tickets.  Heaven knows how long he was there before he was discovered and made off into the bushes.”

Upon his passing, White’s personal Facebook page quickly filled with wishes, memories and tributes. “We are all going to miss Kirk's smile and storytelling skills,” posted Michael Whelan, National Sales Training Manager at Subaru of America and a longtime friend of GRM. “He was my first employer in the car business. He took a leap of faith to hire a 16 year old to drive cars for him, and I honored that faith in me.”

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View comments on the GRM forums
David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
3/22/20 4:23 p.m.

And, if you're reading this via the message board, no, Mr. White didn't write "berkeleying drag race."

bruceman Reader
3/22/20 6:21 p.m.

Wow a great read just what is needed during these times

DeadSkunk  (Warren)
DeadSkunk (Warren) PowerDork
3/22/20 6:55 p.m.

In reply to David S. Wallens :

LOL....I read the entire post and because "berkeleying" is so commonly used around here, never even caught it.

JoeyM Mod Squad
3/23/20 1:46 a.m.
David S. Wallens said:

And, if you're reading this via the message board, no, Mr. White didn't write "berkeleying drag race."

Editorial Director, Grassroots Motorsports & Classic Motorsports


stroker UltraDork
3/23/20 1:12 p.m.

Funny how you can't buy a "replica" 512M but you can a 917...  That's a shame.

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
3/23/20 1:14 p.m.

In reply to stroker :

Yeah, the 512M is a beautiful machine. 

10/26/20 12:00 p.m.

In reply to David S. Wallens :

We, Kirk's family, would like to announce his book has been published posthumously by Dalton Books!

Mandy, Marilyn, Libby, Chris, Geoff and Trip

chandler UltimaDork
10/26/20 6:14 p.m.

Thanks for letting us know, I enjoyed reading it!

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