Drinking, Driving and Drugs was a fitting title for the autobiography of a man addicted to entrepreneurship who founded with ACO the American Le Mans Series and Petit Le Mans and the firm that designed the Batmobile and the Deltawing, both of which raced in the Le Mans 24 Hours.
Don Panoz spent his career blazing trails yet turned to motorsport relatively late in life. Panoz made his fortune and his name in the pharmaceutical industry, having had the idea for a transdermal patch at his sick father’s bedside. The entrepreneur co-founded Mylan Laboraties with his friend Milan “Mike” Puskar in 1961 and later launched Elan Corporation. Both companies became market leaders.
Panoz turned to the “driving” part of his life on retirement, having added the “drinking” chapter by investing in a vineyard in Georgia, a state hitherto devoid of winegrowers. Once again, the business was a resounding success, and the wines of the Château Élan Winery & Resort are regularly commended.
Don Panoz was also highly acclaimed in motorsport, both on and off the track. The Panoz Esperante fielded by British outfit Team LNT clinched a class win at the 2006 Le Mans 24 Hours and his contribution to endurance racing was widely acknowledged. He was awarded the Spirit of Le Mans trophy in 2006.
The “serial entrepreneur” first set foot at Le Mans in 1997. Thanks to Steve McQueen’s film, Le Mans was the first (the only) race to spring to mind when Panoz’s son Dan asked him to head his manufacturing company's competition arm, Panoz Motor Sport Group.
With barely a few months in which to build a track-worthy car, Panoz based the Esperante GTR-1 on the front-engined production version. Panoz had no idea that most racing cars had rear-engine designs and kept the layout, which resulted in a long bonnet that earned the car the nickname of Batmobile. With the 1999 rule change, the car later became a roadster.
Despite a shoestring (yet well-managed) budget, the roadster held its own against the likes of Audi and BMW under certain conditions, especially on a wet track. Mario Andretti very nearly achieved his lifetime goal of winning Le Mans in a Panoz, but it was not to be. However, David Brabham (Le Mans winner with Peugeot in 2009) and Jan Magnussen won the Nürburgring 1,000 km for the marque in 2000. Don Panoz was extremely proud of that triumph, and of the Panoz Esperante’s class win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2006. It took less than ten years for the American manufacturer to win Le Mans and for Petit Le Mans to become a major endurance race.
Having purchased the Road Atlanta circuit in 1998, Panoz founded Petit Le Mans, which spawned the American Le Mans Series in 1999 (which has now given way to the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship). Petit Le Mans and the series were backed by the ACO and based on 24 Hours of Le Mans regulations. The initiative helped draw attention to endurance racing in the USA with cars like the DeltaWing a showcase for pioneering design.
Unveiled at Petit Le Mans in 2008, the futuristic DeltaWing featured on the grid of the 2012 Le Mans 24 Hours in the slot reserved for technological innovation. Race incidents got the better of the DeltaWing at Le Mans but Panoz had the pleasure of seeing his impressive car cross the finish line at several endurance races in his home country.
Never short of ideas and always one step ahead Panoz harboured the dream of seeing an electric car win the Le Mans 24 Hours. He was the first to enter a hybrid in 1998. He loved a challenge and his “why not?” motto applied throughout his career and his life.
Le Mans will miss Don Panoz. The Automobile Club de l’Ouest extends its deepest sympathy to Don’s friends and family and shares in their sorrow.