Were it not for Dr. Don Panoz, the IMSA we know and appreciate today as a fan favorite likely wouldn’t be an entity.
Panoz, 83, succumbed after several weeks of pancreatic cancer illness on the morning of September 11. The Ohioan, who made his fortune in the pharmaceutical trade as the inventor of the transdermal patch, did more than remake IMSA into one of the most fan-friendly racing series in the world.
It was son Danny’s interest in cars and racing that began the Panoz era in sports car competition. The son’s avid interest passed to the father, who jumped into the business with a liveliness and commitment he never lost. Danny Panoz’ road-going cars would eventually morph into racing vehicles and propel his father’s destiny to the pinnacles of sports car racing. To make that happen, Panoz began the American Le Mans Series (ALMS).
Panoz’s racing journey began with the front-engine Panoz Esperante GTR-1 – produced in an alliance with Adrian Reynard – a car that competed against rear-engine prototype sports cars with aplomb. The Panoz team fitted a hybrid drive to Esperante, a move that predated the current hybrid era in prototype racing by at least 15 years.
Not content to ply the sports car universe, Dr Panoz also moved to Indy car racing, picking up the failing G-Force chassis constructor. Despite Indy Racing League moves to disable the improved and renamed Panoz GForce, the chassis constructor won consecutive Indianapolis 500 races in 2003 (Gil de Ferran with Team Penske) and the following year, when Rahal Letterman Racing took the rain-impacted contest with Buddy Rice.
In the last decade of his life, Dr. Panoz was widely, passionately involved in designer Ben Bowlby’s DeltaWing project, which grew from a proposed Indy car to inhabiting Garage 56 at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Panoz’s interest in hybrid technology, born well before it became popular, engendered the open-cockpit DeltaWing and its closed cockpit successor. He had intended to race an all-electric prototype at Le Mans, but the project never culminated in an entry.
Dr. Don Panoz will be remembered as an enthusiastic patron of the sport he came to love, a constructor of great racing cars under the Elan Motorsports banner and the father of Petit Le Mans, the IMSA race that celebrates its 20th anniversary next month. He certainly left sports car racing in the United States far more healthy and flourishing than he found it.