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.