by Larry Roberts
May 01, 1998
If you are a sports car racing fan and you've been in a coma for the past couple of years, you probably don't recognize the name Don Panoz so we will fill you in. As you might recall, when you went to sleep professional sports car racing (fast, powerful two-seater purpose-built racers as opposed to street machines like the Corvette or the Mazda Miata) as a sport was in disarray. The International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) was going down the tubes and the pro side of the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) was all but moribund.
It would take several weeks to explain the whole tragic/comic political and financial shenanigans that have taken place since then. Instead I'll skip them and go on to the man who may be able to bring order out of this chaotic mess. His name is Don Panoz.
Panoz is a self-made multi-millionaire who got his start in life in 1960 when he used his Army mustering out pay (plus a few bucks he'd earned acting as an agent to ship the cars owned by other GIs back home) to buy a drug store in Pittsburgh and in short order, bought another.
From there, Panoz developed Maylan Laboratories to make pharmaceutical products like pills, capsules, ect. Obviously, he had acquired considerable experience and contacts in the business.
Rather than have this turn into an aggrandizement of Don Panoz, we'll skip ahead to the current era by which time he has become a very rich guy with lots of money to spend on new hobbies, one being an auto building enterprise with his son Danny. What seems to have started out as the high-class $55,000 Ford-powered "retrorod" Panoz sports car, has now developed into a sports-racer (actually an international Grand Touring Class 1 racer) that is now doing battle in endurance races at tracks like Le Mans, Oschersleben, Daytona Beach and Sebring. And the team that's campaigning the Panoz GT-1 cars is - you guessed it - Panoz Motorsports. All this less than six months after he decided to upgrade his son's hot-rod lookalike into an exotic but more streetable two-seater coupe.
Along the way, the Panoz racing team (but not the manufacturing organization} acquired Visteon (a Ford-owned auto parts company) as a partner, making the team officially the Visteon Panoz Racing Team.
Early on in his involvement with professional big-time sports car racing, Panoz realized that to make the sport a paying, spectator- oriented proposition, the two at-odds organizations that were running conflicting events, would have to be brought together. To make sure that his Panoz racers would have race dates and tracks to run on, he simply bought up a bunch of those tracks. In short order Panoz Motorsports owned the venerable Road Atlanta track, Sebring International Raceway and Mosport Park in Canada. Since these are three of the tracks that the USRRC (a name resurrected by the SCCA) and the PSCR (Professional Sports Car Racing - the successor to IMSA) race on, Panoz holds a decisive hand in who races where.
And being a team owner, he pretty much represents all the competitors who agree that there's only room for one organization to hold big-time sports car endurance races in North America. Those races have to be prestigious enough to attract corporate sponsorship for the teams since sponsorship money is the key to any professional form of racing today. Without it, teams wither up and blow away and the drivers are forced to get day jobs.
Late in April, Don Panoz held a " ...and you'd better show up.." meeting for the warring factions at his swanky resort in Brazelton, Georgia. He stated that "..our mission (here) is to find a way to advance sports car racing in the United States." And being who he is, Don Panoz is just the guy who could force the amalgamation. Rumor has it that he's even considering the purchase of the PSCR for himself and maybe even the USRRC branch of the SCCA. And if that happens, the whole ball game is his.