Don Panoz never saw a sports-car race until he was 62, and even then, he often left before it ended. The on-track action wasn’t what drew him to racing; rather, Panoz loved the art of the deal.
As a youngster he sold tomatoes by the roadside next to his home in Ohio. Circuitously, Panoz ended up owning drugstores in Pennsylvania, and soon, with a partner, he founded Milan Pharmaceuticals. The company did well, but its big break came when Panoz visited his father in the hospital. A nurse applied nitroglycerine ointment to his father’s chest, and she complained of an “instant headache” every time she did so, from the nitro particles in the air. Panoz envisioned some kind of enclosed patch that could administer nitroglycerine without exposing it to the air.
Then he had another thought: a patch that delivered nicotine through the skin to smokers, hopefully decreasing their desire to smoke. The nicotine patch was born, and it made Panoz wealthy. The fact he continued to chain-smoke right up until his death on September 11, 2018, was one in a long line of enigmas that made up his personality.
Panoz’s interest in motorsports originated in his son Danny’s small boutique automotive business, building sports cars using Ford drivetrains. Large manufacturers used racing to draw attention to their products, so why wouldn’t it work for Danny’s company? Early on it may have, but Panoz’s interest in motorsports almost immediately eclipsed any sort of modest effort that would help Danny sell cars. Panoz Motorsports was formed in 1997, with the typically unmodest Panoz goal of taking the Panoz Esperante GTR-1 to Le Mans and winning. He hired chassis guru Adrian Reynard to build it, which gave the project immediate credibility.
The car competed at Sebring, where racer Andy Evans, who also owned most of IMSA, reportedly proclaimed it “a joke.” Panoz was annoyed when Evans decreed IMSA should add 150 pounds to the Esperante to slow it down. The car went to Le Mans and didn’t win, but it did better than expected. After semi-retirement from the drug industry had left Panoz bored, “Suddenly, I had a new direction.”
He bought Road Atlanta and then purchased the entire sanctioning body. He called his new toy the American Le Mans Series, sanctioned by IMSA. Years later in 2012, talks between Panoz; Scott Atherton, his first in command; and NASCAR’s Jim France produced a deal to sell the ALMS, IMSA, Road Atlanta, and Sebring to NASCAR and to merge the organization with the NASCAR-backed Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series into today’s WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.
Panoz continued to be involved in motorsports right up until his death. Aside from essentially rescuing U.S. sports-car racing, he was also the man who signed the checks to develop the DeltaWing, possibly the most innovative vehicle to compete in decades. He certainly left the sport in a far better place than it was when he arrived on the scene.