Above: Scott Tucker, middle, hired top-notch talent to race with him, including Ryan Briscoe, left, and Marino Franchitti, right.
The green flag flies for the Ferrari Challenge race at the Yas Marina Circuit in December 2014, and along the inside of the track where nobody goes — effectively an off-limits part of the circuit — inches from the wall and kicking up a storm of dust and pulverized tire rubber, comes a Ferrari approaching so fast that no one in front sees or anticipates it.
From 10th place, the car is suddenly in second and closing before the pack reaches the first turn. It’s Scott Tucker, and while he knew his banzai move would likely draw a penalty from the officials, it was worth it.
“That was so much fun,” he said an hour later, grinning. “But that move generally just works once.”
Tucker, now 53, has little reason to smile this week. He was indicted in federal court, accused of charging interest rates as high as 700 percent in a payday loan business. Longtime partner Richard Moseley Sr. was also indicted, as was Tucker lawyer Timothy Muir.
According to the Kansas City Star, Tucker, of Leawood, Kansas, claimed he did not own the multiple payday loan businesses, and that they were instead owned by Native American tribes. “Meanwhile,” the newspaper said, “Tucker actually ran the operation with a 600-employee business in Overland Park, prosecutors say.” Native American tribes are largely immune to federal and state government scrutiny. But, says the indictment, tribe members did little more than “press a key on a computer on a daily basis on hundreds or thousands of loans,” to make it appear the tribes were involved in the loan process.
According to prosecutors, Tucker used the loan business to finance his professional racing career and buy luxury homes. They want Tucker to forfeit $2 billion, six Ferrari race cars, four Porsches, and a Learjet.
Except for the indictment, none of this is news to the sports-car community. As far back as 2011, executives of the American Le Mans Series, where Tucker raced and won championships, had privately discussed a game plan addressing the possibility that Tucker could be arrested at a race.
Indeed, Scott Tucker, quiet and shy, was a paradox in the pits. His racing operation, called Level 5 Motorsports, named for a step in a self-help book Tucker once read and enjoyed, was massive. It dwarfed the factory-supported teams with its mirrored enclosures transported on multiple 18-wheelers. Tucker often had private security, sometimes local off-duty officers, but what they were protecting him from was unclear.
He shied away from interviews and publicity, but he employed a camera crew that followed him everywhere, documenting his exploits for his website. Outlets as diverse as The Wall Street Journal and the website Jalopnik wrote giddy, glowing articles about him, apparently never asking where the money was coming from.
And there was lots of money. At Road Atlanta, Tucker flew in an expert from Europe to make sure Tucker’s HANS head-and-neck restraint device fit properly — despite the fact that the HANS’s co-inventor, racer Jim Downing, lives in Atlanta and would be at the track. He catered lavishly, hired the finest drivers to co-pilot his cars, and won a lot.
For at least a year, no race car driver in the world competed in more different races, in different series, in different cars, on different tracks, in different countries. Having discovered motorsports comparatively late in life — largely in the Ferrari Challenge series where he began, and likely ended, his career — he devoted himself to learning all he could, and he maintained a top level of fitness.
And he was a good driver. Much of sports-car racing rests on the well-financed shoulders of “gentleman” drivers, who pay the bills in order to have a chance to race at the top levels.
Tucker went to the 24 Hours of Le Mans, not racing the typical rental Ferrari but an Audi R10 TDI diesel. He typically turned the car over to his invariably faster, professional co-drivers in one piece, and seldom crashed or caused a problem like the one caused by Rob Kauffman. Kauffman, you might recall, is the NASCAR team owner currently getting praise for engineering the Sprint Cup charter system, who raced a rental Ferrari at Le Mans in 2011 and, near midnight, clipped the Audi R18 of Mike Rockenfeller, sending the Audi on a 200-mph crash into and eventually through the steel barriers.
It was in 2010 that Tucker really began to make a name for himself and for his Level 5 team. That year, he hired top-notch talent — Sébastien Bourdais, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Sascha Maassen, Lucas Luhr, Richard Westbrook, and Emmanuel Collard — to co-drive a pair of Daytona Prototypes in the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona. Tucker and Level 5 also began competing in the ALMS and eventually found a home there, winning the 2011, 2012, and 2013 ALMS LMP2 championships.
Tucker – who, according to his website, trademarked his name, Scott Tucker™ — had a commitment to racing that was unparalleled. In a spring ALMS event at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, he took a win in the LMP2 class, even though the No. 055 HPD ARX-03b that Tucker started in the race crashed and was sidelined for more than 30 minutes for extensive repairs, including a new rear axle.
Fortunately for Tucker, he also had entered the No. 95 HPD ARX-03b, for which he was also listed as a driver, and that car won its class. So Scott Tucker won, and he also officially finished third in the No. 055 after it was repaired. He also won that same weekend in two Cooper Tires Prototype Lites races, and he competed in both IMSA Porsche GT3 Cup races, for a total of five races in one weekend, including the six-hour ALMS enduro. It was almost as if he knew the end was coming, and he wanted to leave nothing on the table when it came to racing.
The wheels began to come off Level 5 in September 2011, when CBS News, in conjunction with an organization called the Center for Public Integrity, produced an expose on payday loan companies, which lend relatively small amounts to people to essentially tide them over until payday — money needed for utility bills, a car payment, rent, or food. Pay the loan off quickly, and the interest isn’t that severe. But let the loan linger for months, or years, and the interest piles up to staggering levels. Certain states and the Federal Trade Commission were looking into payday lenders, accusing some of deceptive or illegal practices.
The CBS report described Tucker like this: “Today, the 49-old-year-old Tucker enjoys a high-octane lifestyle. He races a fleet of expensive cars and flies on a $14 million corporate jet. An $8 million home in Aspen is listed in his wife’s name and the property taxes, we discovered, were paid by AMG Services,” a company Tucker supposedly controlled.
Various states and the federal government worked hard to build a case against Tucker and his brother, Blaine, a cheerful and well-regarded frequent visitor to Tucker’s races. But in March of 2014, Blaine killed himself. His death, by all accounts, hit Scott Tucker hard.
Earlier that year, Tucker had raced at the Rolex 24 at Daytona, where Tucker and co-drivers Townsend Bell, Jeff Segal, Bill Sweedler, and Alessandro Pier Guidi won the GT Daytona class, but a hasty and flawed ruling from the sanctioning body stripped them of the victory, accusing them of car-to-car contact that never occurred. Four hours later, it was announced that the ruling was overturned and Tucker’s Level 5 Ferrari team won, but he was long gone from the track by then and never got to celebrate his 101st victory.
Less than six weeks later, Blaine committed suicide. He was 48. Six days later was the 12 Hours of Sebring. Scott Tucker wasn’t there, and he has not competed in a major race since.
On Wednesday, a shackled Tucker was led into a courtroom in Kansas City. He was released on $2 million bond after putting up his Leawood home as security.
Judge Scott Tucker for what he did at and on the racetrack, and it was easy to like the tall, lean Kansan, and remember him grinning after outsmarting his far less skilled colleagues in the Abu Dhabi race. But with a federal trial and ancillary charges from states facing him, that grin might very well be gone for good.