Americans have long been fascinated with the 24 Hours of Le Mans and runners and riders from the continent have marked some of the finest hours of the race’s history. Don Panoz, constructor, circuit owner and high-powered entrepreneur, made a very sizeable contribution to the endurance revival.
Panoz was born in Alliance, Ohio, to an Italian immigrant father from Avezzano and first made his fortune in the pharmaceutical industry. He started with two drug stores in Pennsylvania then later founded Mylan, where he headed a research group that invented the nicotine patch. He set up Elan Corporation in Ireland to market the invention.
In 1989, his son starting building cars under the Panoz name and Don purchased the Road Atlanta circuit in Atlanta, where he launched an endurance race, adopting the Automobile Club de l’Ouest’s technical regulations and naming it ‘Petit Le Mans’. The race was first run in 1998 and heralded the start of the American Le Mans Series, which in turn paved the way for endurance racing as we know it today with the Asian Le Mans Series, the European Le Mans Series and the FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC).
Over the past twenty years, 14 drivers have won both the 24 Hours of Le Mans and Petit Le Mans: David Brabham, Andy Wallace, Allan McNish, Michele Alboreto, Frank Biela, Emanuele Pirro, Tom Kristensen, JJ Lehto, Johnny Herbert, Marco Werner, Alex Wurz, Neel Jani, Nick Tandy and Brendon Hartley. Five of them have won both races in the same year: Biela, Pirro (2001), Kristensen (2002), McNish, Capello (2008), Tandy (2015) and Hartley (2017). Panoz was also thrilled to see one of his own cars win the second Petit Le Mans race in 1999, with Brabham, Wallace and Eric Bernard at the wheel.
The Panoz chassis had made its maiden appearance at the 24 Hours two years earlier. The prototypes stood out with their front engine, striking looks and the roar of their V8 American engines, and immediately won the hearts of the crowd and the photographers!
Panoz prototypes featured regularly in the Top 10 at Le Mans (P7 in 1998 and 1999, P5, P6 and P8 in 2000, P5 in 2002 and 2003) but Panoz’s best 24 Hours result came in GT with a class win in 2006 for the Panoz Esperante driven by Lawrence Tomlinson, Richard Dean and Tom Kimber-Smith; they finished fifth overall.
The following year was the last time we saw a Panoz – another GT – at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Yet Don Panoz’s connections with La Sarthe are still strong. He was involved in another pioneering venture in 2012 when, partnered with Dan Gurney (1967 winner), Chip Ganassi and Nissan, he entered the innovative Nissan DeltaWing, the first tenant of Garage 56 devoted to ground-breaking non-competition entries.
Panoz is now 82 years old but still continues to inspire. He founded Green4U Technologies, devoted to all-electric mobility, and presented his latest venture the Green4U Panoz Racing GT E-V at Le Mans last June.
Other instalments in our Le Mans and America series:
Photo: Christian Vignon/ACO The Panoz prototypes were driven at the 24 Hours of Le Mans by four former and future winners (Mauro Baldi, David Brabham, John Nielsen and Andy Wallace), and by a former Formula One World Champion (Mario Andretti).