Don Panoz Tribute

The Early Years

The Grand Entry

I first met Don Panoz at the 1998 24 Hours of Daytona. He was there with his new cars, new team, a quality group of internationally talented drivers and he was making a big splash like only Don knew how to do. I found it interesting that we were both from Atlanta but were meeting for the first time in Daytona. He really had an unusual looking car but it was fast and impeccably perfect in its build and livery. As a billionaire, Don wanted the best and he could afford the best so he bought the best. He was coming from out of nowhere and no one knew anything about him.

Don had been a boxer earlier in his life and then became a brave and ‘a serial entrepreneur’. His pharmaceutical company invented the transdermal patch and with every patch sold, for whatever purpose, he was receiving a royalty. Someone had bet him that he could not grow grapes in Georgia so he planted his grapes in the north Georgia hills and built a vineyard and world-class resort, Chateau Elan, to go along with it. And, he started producing award-winning wines and proved his doubters wrong.

When I first saw Don at Daytona, I also saw ‘Old Man Jim France', founder of NASCAR riding around in his golfcart while looking all the cars. I heard him say, “We need to slow these cars down 10 seconds a lap!” I then heard Don explode, “Why the hell build a race car if you aren’t allowed to make it go fast?!!!” I think that was the moment that Don really got serious about racing. I think Don was thinking, “OK, NASCAR, watch what I am going to do!”, as he went home and bought Road Atlanta and started the American Le Mans Series (ALMS). Don was a showman and he really liked to put on a show and he did so repeatedly. And, oh what a show he could put on.

Early on, he had gotten into racing by supporting his son, Danny’s, venture into the automobile market by building hand-built roadsters with a Ford V8 in the front. With this basic design, a front-engined endurance prototype GT sports car was born. Everyone told Don that he had put the engine in the wrong end of the car and that just made him more determined to prove them wrong. He was really serious about helping build a racing legacy for the Panoz cars and family. And, he gave it his all.

Don Panoz, Daytona 1998


1998 Panoz Esperante GTR-1


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Daytona Introduction

Don Panoz with the new Panoz Esperante GTR-1 and all-star lineup of drivers at the 1998 24 Hours of Daytona

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On Track Daytona

The silver Panoz GTR-1 was a sight to see and a pleasure to hear with its Ford V8.

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Pit Road - Daytona 1998

The new Panoz Esperante GTR-1 sitting on pit road at Daytona 1998

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Road Atlanta

Panoz Esperante GTR-1 sitting on pit road at Road Atlanta 1998

20+ Years PLM with Cyber Motorsports

Premiere Petit Le Mans

The Petit Le Mans

In 1998, Panoz had entered his race team in the 24 Hours of Daytona, purchased the Road Atlanta circuit, started a new racing series, the American Le Mans Series (ALMS), and started a new major international event, the Petit Le Mans. Like a tornado out of nowhere, Panoz shocked and surprised the international endurance prototype racing community.

Cyber Motorsports was an early supporter of Panoz, the ALMS and his Petit Le Mans race. Many challenged the ideas and dreams of Panoz while Earl thought he was a genius and supported his dreams. In 1998, with the first Petit Le Mans, Panoz invited the world’s top teams and cars. Porsche showed up with two cars that had won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in seperate years.


Cars of PLM 1998


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Porsche 911 GT-1 98

Panoz brought the Le Mans winning Porsche 911 GT-1 98 to Atlanta for the premiere Petit Le Mans

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911 GT-1 98 Tail

The rear of the phenomenal 911 GT-1 98.

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Porsche LMP1-98

In addition to the 911 GT-1 98, Porsche brought their Le Mans winning LMP1-98 prototype to Atlanta. This historic car first saw life as a Jaguar XJR-14, then Mazda and finally a Porsche.

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“Sparky” Panoz GTR-1 Q9 Hybrid

The Panoz GTR-1 Q9 Hybrid was the first hybrid sports car to race at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Panoz Wins PLM 1999

Victory Circle with Eric Bernard

Panoz & David Brabham


PRIDE IN HIS CARS


PRIDE IN HIS CARS

A NEW CAR FOR DON

Don scheduled a big unveiling of a new car over at Chateau Elan in 2001. It was an impressive event with the car sitting up on a pedestal covered in a silk cover that hinted at its sleek design but gave nothing away. Photographer, Tim Crete, and I got there first and we were sitting on the front row and making our guesses about what the car looked like. Don walked in and chuckled as he watched us try to get some hints and making our guesses. Don then said to Tim and me, “You are not going to believe the shade of green that we painted this one!” Of course, it was a Ferrari red but Don had fun teasing us before he unveiled his latest project before the world. That had been twice that it was the three of us, Don, Tim Crete and me sitting there chatting and laughing. When people were questioning Don about his decision to start the ALMS and to have scrutineering at Lenox Square, Tim and I sat down beside an exhausted and discouraged Don Panoz and pepped him up as we told him how great we thought his ideas were and thanked him. It cheered him up and think we were friends after that. Now, both Don and Tim are gone and I hang onto those good memories.

Panoz 2001 LMP-07


INNOVATION


Panoz, Supporter of Innovation

Panoz, Supporter of Innovation

Don also did a lot for women in the sport. He and his family created the Women's Global GT Series for women. When I was at the Ford Museum in Detroit, they had one of these cars on display. When Don was racing the DeltaWing, he hired Katherine Legge as one of his lead drivers. Years later, she was in the driving lead for the championship in her class. The Panoz GT-RA was used in the Women's Global GT Series. I saw one of these cars in the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

The Petit Le Mans also served as a showcase for Porsche’s 911 Hybrid that was using Williams F1 energy recovery braking and flywheel storage system.

Women’s Global GT Championship


THE SHOWMAN


For the Fans

FOR THE FANS

Don Panoz knew how to put on a show and give his customers a memorable experience. He had first perfected this in his Chateau Elan Resort and then transferred these skills to promoting his racing events. The moniker, “For the Fans” became the official ALMS’ motto and many events were held over the years. One of the main ways that he welcomed fans and gave them an extra special experience was in his open paddocks and pre-race grid. Fans could get up close to cars, drivers and teams and it was a custom to hold autograph signing events at each race.

In 2001, just weeks before the Petit le Mans, 9/11 occurred. The ALMS office polled fans and teams about whether the PLM should be cancelled? Earl was adamant in his view that it should be held because if not, the terrorists had won. The 2001 PLM and Don Panoz took it one step further and held a free event in downtown Atlanta at the Centennial Olympic Park. This was accompanied by a Panoz being allowed to drive through the downtown streets of Atlanta revving its racing engine whose sounds echoed off the tall skyscrapers.

In 2010, the ALMS held a special event downtown Greenville, South Carolina, home of BMW,USA and Michelin, USA.


Don Panoz
Feb. 2, 1935 - Nov. 11, 2018


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As one of the last hats in the list, Earl, put on his Visteon hat and headed to the Panoz Memorial set up in the paddocks down near Turn 1. As he walked up, Geoff Lee, President of Road Atlanta and long-time Panoz associate said, “Look! The man is wearing a Visteon hat! Get him over here and get a photo!”

Earl remarked, “Don’s passing was a shocker to me, especially, happening weeks before his beloved Petit Le Mans. He made many positive contributions to the world. He will be missed. And, I wish to thank him for creating a spectacle that millions have gotten to enjoy, especially, myself.” May this last photo of the car that started it all sitting in front of the Panoz Memorial with my shadow on it serve as a fitting close to a great era.