Don Panoz’s Dream Life Ends at 83

Founder of the American Le Mans Series and Panoz cars was a visionary entrepreneur

American businessman and sports-car racing stalwart Don Panoz died on September 11 after a short fight with pancreatic cancer. Reflecting on his life, I’ll always remember the time he told me, “I close my eyes 15 minutes every day and dream of the impossible.” He often turned those dreams into reality throughout the course of his 83 years.

Those realities included the transdermal patch, a vineyard and winery—near Atlanta, of all places—hotels and golf resorts in Florida, California, Scotland, and Australia, a stand-alone golf tournament without the blessing of the PGA Tour, a bespoke/boutique production-car company, the reinvention of the American sports-car racing scene, and arguably the saving of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

I was the team photographer for most of Panoz’s racing teams during the past 20 years. Like most creative types, Panoz had little patience for those who did not see his vision. He liked being around doers, people with a can-do attitude. I believe this is what really attracted him to auto racing. He thought a front-engine prototype was the only way to race; screw the critics, the engineers, and the drivers who told him the engine belongs behind the cockpit. He hired talented people who shared his vision and his passion and who were motivated to deliver for him.

It worked. Panoz became the privateer who defeated Audi in prototype racing, and every other manufacturer in GT racing across the past two decades. That list of accomplishments includes the 2018 Pirelli World Challenge GTS manufacturers’ championship.

Panoz loved everything about racing, including the adulation and attention from the sport’s power brokers, especially the powers that be at the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (organizer of the 24 Hours of Le Mans) who toasted and hosted him each year at the world’s most prestigious sports-car race. But he also enjoyed hanging with the crew, mixing it up with the lads who wrenched on his cars.

One year at Le Mans, I arrived at the Hotel Emeraude where the team was staying in downtown Le Mans. It is a modest hotel to say the least. The rooms were clean and there was a bar off the patio. All the team members were there the evening I arrived, and I asked one of them how he liked the hotel. He said they stayed there the previous year and complained to Panoz about how much they hated it, but this year they loved it “because Don paid the hotel to invest in a satellite TV system so this year we can watch … ,” well, let’s just call it adult entertainment. Panoz stayed at a chateau on the outskirts of town, but he made sure his crew was happy in their French dwelling as well.

On the family side, Panoz always considered his wife, Nancy, his partner, and he was a strong supporter of her endeavors. He helped to create the Women’s GT Championship, a spec-racer support series during the early years of the American Le Mans Series.

He had founded the ALMS as well, infusing new blood into the North American sports-car racing scene. He formed an alliance with the ACO and encouraged U.S. based teams to race at Le Mans each June. Along the way, those cars and teams also went to Silverstone, the Nürburgring, and Adelaide, Australia. He invested heavily in the Mosport, Sebring, and Road Atlanta racetracks.

The list of drivers he employed is a who’s who of motorsports, and his hires included giving Mario Andretti his drive at Le Mans.

Panoz was an early believer and investor in the radical DeltaWing program, and supported the effort long after Nissan and other early investors moved on. But I would argue his greatest accomplishments were the opportunities he gave to so many people. During his lifetime, Panoz employed thousands of people—providing jobs, opportunities, and dreams of their own. He never forgot his humble beginnings in West Virginia, nor the possibilities life offers all of us.

He was a remarkable man and a bold visionary. He was never afraid to try, never afraid to fail, and certainly never afraid to dream. Impossible never stood a chance with Don Panoz.