Legend in Progress
Thirty-something years ago Carroll Shelby created a performance legend. Now Panoz is in the catbird seat.
It's every car guy's fantasy. A small modern factory out there somewhere beyond the rat race, staffed with a few dedicated like-minded individuals who have just one purpose: to build America's best road going sports car. There's even a proven formula - Front-engined, with a big American V8, in a light, simple chassis with big brakes and four wheel independent suspension. As proof that the dream is possible, there's the ever present reality that it's been done before. How can we forget? Carroll Shelby started with nothing in '62 and had won the FIA World GT Championship for America by '65. People the world over still hold the Texan's Cobra and Shelby American as icons of American automotive ingenuity and performance. But for every Shelby success story there have been dozens that failed. Some where pretty good, maybe even better tan the Texan's snake, but for various reasons the other guys never made it.
The landscape of automotive history is littered with the rusted hulks of those who felt their dreams couldn't miss. Even money wasn't a guarantee of success. Briggs Cunningham's Cadillac- and Chrysler V8-powered Le Mans racers of the '50s are still looked upon with reverence, but the production venture never made it past the first few Italian-built bodies. Lance Reventlow's Scarabs were easily the best sports cars in the world in 1957, but Chevrolet wouldn't give him the time of day. Bill Thomas' radical California Cheetah, Jack Griffith's really beautiful Italo-American Griffith, Bill Devin's Irish-American SS and even the rare French and British variants from Facel-Vega, Jensen, Brian Lister, and Sydney Allard all faded in the stretch.
Yet the dream of building the ultimate American sports car is a tantalizing one that persists. In our litigious society, with ever-increasing government bureaucracy and federal safety mandates that define the parameters of an automotive package, it has become so difficult to survive, that few are bold or foolish enough to make the attempt. Even an exasperated Shelby had thrown in the towel by 1968. Nothing since those magic days of the mid-'60s has equaled the Cobra...until now.
The Dream Materializes
About an hour north of Atlanta, on a quiet byway just off Interstate 85, Danny and his small team of doers are living the dream and building the cars. "Danny" is Georgia good 'ol boy for Dan Panoz, the 36-year-old American-born, Irish-raised automotive dynamo, who has built his strangely wonderful car factory with equal parts of gracious Southern hospitality, genuine car guy enthusiasm and the stubborn, cold-eyed efficiency of an electronic calculator. The whole Panoz project seems extremely low key by design but still vitally alive and growing so quickly that new facilities and divisions are being added by the month. A design studio, prototype shop, administrative offices, warehouses, a racing division, a world class 2.6-mile test circuit, distributors, dealers-not to mention the 109,000 square feet of factory, including a brand new 30,000 thousand square foot, completely self-contained production facility, with cars coming off the assembly line every day of the work week. And that's just part of the Panoz dream. The non-automotive portion is even larger.
The parallels with the old Shelby operation are too obvious to ignore. That's because Panoz is an expert on Shelby history and limited-production sports cars worldwide. Unlike so many others who've tried to emulate the Texan's formula for success, Panoz never had any desire to build replica Cobras. He knew before he started that the fabled era of real Cobras was history and set his sights higher. He wanted a brand new design that would exceed the Snake's legendary performance but still meet all of today's stringent government mandates so it could be sold and serviced like any modern production car.
Although the name Panoz seems to have suddenly appeared overnight in today's public automotive consciousness, the fact is that it has taken Danny eight careful years to build his dream. And he admits that it has taken even longer to figure out how to avoid the pitfalls that caused others to crash or flame out.
"I'm still learnin'," he laughs, "because there are no small volume manufacturers here in America like there are in Europe. It's a constant educational process. Over there you've got TVR, Caterham, Lotus, Morgan, Aston and a few even lesser knowns on the continent. People in Europe know and understand the value of hand-crafted cars, over here it's zip. We spend as much time educating our dealers as we do building cars."
If he knows anything for sure, it's that there's no fast track to success. Danny Panoz probably knows more about why others failed than those who have failed themselves. He tries to steer clear of the naive dreams that have lured many well intended enthusiasts to believe that their efforts were somehow better or different than those who evaporated into the ether of automotive history. In some ways, he's more like a pragmatic Colin Chapman than the voluble snake oil salesman who built his empire with equal parts of race track skill, Texas brass, and rapacious opportunism. Like the Texan, Panoz is no engineer, but he has Chapman's uncanny ability to see merit in the mundane components of other's high-production designs. By ingeniously adapting those parts into his own cars, he's avoided the high tooling costs which have killed the dreams of so many others. And through the sourcing of hundreds of readily proven, cost effective mass-production components from current parts bins, he's been able to trim costs and build a modern sports car that looks, feels, drives, and performs like a polished high volume production automobile from one of the world's major manufacturers.
The manufacture of a modern road going sports car is almost an impossible dream in America, even for the giants in Detroit. The required production numbers for reasonable retail cost never seem to match the marketing or sales requirements of the Big Three. Tooling costs are the reality that kills almost every proposed dream. Most in Detroit feel it's simply too small a market to justify the risk.
The Viper, Corvette and Prowler all started out as concept cars to stimulate interest in a brand name but unexpectedly strong public response dictated their production. They're all great automobiles, but each in its transformation from dream to reality has been compromised in their designer's original intent, because the market segment they were originally destined for was too narrow and so the cars had to be considerably modified to have a broader appeal.
Today's sportscar requires a far more sophisticated endeavor. Danny Panoz did his homework and as a result, his focus has always been on quality low-volume production. By comparison with racing cars, most production cars are pure engineering drudgery because every component must meet some agenda other than pure performance. Cost, manufacturing ease, material and supplier schedules, federal emissions criteria, safety and even environmental concerns all affect design, but Panoz doesn't mind, he's found his niche. He and his young but experienced staff plow through the red tape with practiced ease. By concentrating on the art of building limited-production automobiles, Panoz and his team have emerged as one of the world's few experts in the field. Although his is not yet an instantly recognized household name, he has become America's leading specialist in a market that few in Detroit ever thought possible. Of the Big Three, only Chrysler has attempted limited production on the scale envisioned by Panoz. In some respects, his small factory in Braselton, Georgia is much like the specialized assembly shop in Detroit that produces the Vipers and Prowlers for Chrysler.
When Panoz visits his main suppliers in the Detroit area, the engineers and executives there listen carefully to his plans because he knows, sometimes better than they do, what others in the low volume field are developing. Various marketing experts in the industry have watched the success of Chrysler's limited production ventures and have ideas about doing the same, but right now it's easier to consult or experiment with ideas or processes at Panoz' small facility in Georgia. PADC (Panoz Automotive Development Corporation) is becoming, through a mutual exchange of technology with various prime suppliers worldwide, a pilot operation for future niche-market cars.
Panoz has a nose for new technology. There are literally dozens of major suppliers to the Big Three who have developed new materials and production methods that could revolutionize the American car industry, but surprisingly few make any inroads in Detroit because change on a large scale usually means high developmental costs to convert to new manufacturing technologies. The reality is that few chief engineers within the Big Three are willing to risk careers espousing their supplier's radical new ideas. As a consequence, Panoz is constantly being invited to view and evaluate new technologies - the visionaries both inside and outside the industry view PADC as the perfect research and development company to launch and test market new processes and materials.
Panoz' sense of what components or systems presently being used for other purposes, (that might be utilized in future Panoz projects), is ever expanding. Like Porsche or Lotus, whose consulting and design services operate worldwide, Panoz' own engineering, testing and development facilities may at some time in the future rival the profits currently derived from his production lines.
The Braselton Bullet
At the moment, Panoz Automobiles is known only for its AIV Roadster, a surprisingly sophisticated two-place sports car that's available at some 20 carefully selected Ford dealers across the US. If you don't live in one of the hot markets you may not yet have seen one,
but in Texas, Arizona, California, and Florida, the Panoz is making a name for itself on the street by smoking today's established limited production vehicles presently accepted as the current icons of American performance. Panoz Racing's GTR-1 homologated "street" model is closely related to Danny's next project, the Esperante, an all weather high performance model that will expand the Panoz line in 1999.
AIV is the industry's acronym for Aluminum Intensive Vehicle. Panoz was the first domestic manufacturer to offer an AIV for sale in the USA, although Panoz isn't alone in the world of AIVs. In the ever continuing quest for cleaner, lighter, more efficient automobiles, lightweight materials like aluminum are playing an increasing part in achieving those goals. Panoz is also the first domestic builder to introduce SPF formed alloy body panels on an automobile. Open the hood on a Panoz Roadster and you'll have an instant understanding of SPF. The composite inner panel that covers the outer skin is so perfectly finished you'd think the PADC crew spent hours detailing it. The quality observed both inside and outside is the result of SPF, Super Plastic Forming. In the superform process a special aluminum alloy is heated to 900 degrees Fahrenheit and then gently drawn down over, or into, a highly polished tool with air pressure and vacuum.
The perfectly formed aluminum panels have several advantages more than light weight. The heat/cooling process has given them temper, so they are far more dent resistant than rolled or hammered aluminum panels. Because each panel is not "hit," as in a conventional forming process, there is no local thinning at critical points. This makes the Panoz panels stronger. And in the Panoz tradition, tooling costs are kept relatively low. The Esperante's new SPF/composite body will be tooled for the approximate cost of a single conventional stamping tool as used in Detroit for mass production!
The main chassis tubes on Panoz' Roadster are constructed from large rectangular extrusions that provide exceptional torsional rigidity and resistance to bending and compression. In fact, the Roadster's chassis is so strong that in federally mandated crash tests the initial design was considered too strong! Its resistance to impact resulted in so little deformation to the car's structure that it transferred much of the force of the impact to the vehicle's crash dummy occupants. As a result, the production vehicle now has a series of carefully engineered crimps in the main frame rails that allow a carefully predetermined rate of energy absorption or "crush" to increase survivability. The Panoz Roadster's engine and running gear are all Ford. A carefully selected mix of components from different Ford production cars gives the AIV Roadster an ideal combination of power, handling and braking. The 305 hp Mustang 4.6-liter twin cam "Cobra" engine is mated to a T-45 Borg-Warner five-speed and Ford-sourced fully independent rear suspension and brakes. The Panoz Roadster also utilizes an entire complement of Ford instruments and electronic componentry from the Dearborn production line so that it can be readily serviced at any Ford dealership in the country.
Unlike the other production-based high performance "tuner cars" being produced here and abroad under various names, Panoz' chassis and body are manufactured from scratch. At Panoz' small factory in Georgia, the aluminum chassis and SPF aluminum skins are joined in a labor intensive process that has divided Dan Panoz' emotions - he loves the resulting finish of some 350 hours of careful hand assembly but vows that his next car, the Esperante convertible/coupe, will be far more labor efficient.
"We'll probably continue to build the Roadster for the next several years," he says with a mixture of pride and frustration, "but our main problem now is that with present construction methods we just can't build 'em fast enough."
The Roadster will always be remembered as the first Panoz production car, but like Porsche's early 356 or the 289 Cobra, it's an evolutionary stage the company has had to go through to achieve size and credibility in the world market. Experience has proven that there's practically no way to go from nothing to building hundreds of cars in the niche car business without growing through the five-cars-per-week mode that establishes the company name. "It's no longer a simple matter of working with someone else's half-baked production cars, as Shelby did," he explains. "Today you have to build the entire team and facilities to manufacture your own cars."
As we walk through the factory, Panoz points down the assembly line. "Georgia and the Carolinas are centers of American automotive enthusiasm," he explains. "Guys down here grow up in a car culture something like California had in the '50s and '60's Shelby proved that you need that to build great cars." Unfortunately it's an environment that no longer exists on the West Coast. It's no secret that BMW, Mercedes and Nissan put their new factories in the Southeast partly because the labor pool there loves and understands automobiles. Fifty years of NASCAR racing in the area have developed an enthusiastic car culture that provides thousands of jobs in the local racing industry. Panoz notes with pride that several of his veteran assembly technicians are ex-NASCAR racers. "These boys live and breathe cars; it's what helps us build the best - nobody is going to let something go down our line that isn't right." It's much the same spirit that permeated Shelby's operation in the '60s, only those were much simpler times - and Shelby didn't really build cars; he ordered completely finished components from AC's plant in Thames-Ditton, England or the Ford assembly plant in San Jose, California and put the finishing touches on them in his shop near LAX in Los Angeles. Danny Panoz' operation in Braselton is already far beyond what Shelby ever had or envisioned.
Total production of the 289 cubic-inch small block Cobras was only 580 cars. In early '63, with less than 50 cars delivered, the Cobra quickly replaced the then-new Stingray Corvette as America's established icon of performance. When Chevrolet was producing Corvettes by the thousands in St. Louis, Missouri, Shelby in Venice, California was barely doing three a week. But it still didn't take long for the word on the street to get around. Now Panoz is doing the same. At its current rate of production, Panoz Automobiles will exceed 600 AIV Roadsters before the end of 1999.
Shelby's now-legendary status has been in place for so long that it's difficult to understand that he once was just another struggling ex-racer with the same car guy fantasy that infected a dozen other would-be constructors of the time. Call it timing, coincidence, perseverance or plain 'ol Texas charm, the difference that made Shelby American successful was the Texan's carefully cultivated friendships within Ford Motor Company's upper management. Without the dedication and belief of those half a dozen acolytes in Dearborn, the Texan's dream and the Cobra might have been just another asterisk on the index page of history. Panoz has friends in Dearborn too - designers, suppliers, engineers and powerful executives who can see his progress, not just as a young visionary making five cars a week in Georgia, but as a legitimate producer of niche market vehicles that are helping to polish Ford's performance image worldwide. When the new Georgia factory starts delivering the Esperante in 1999, Panoz and Ford will become serious contenders in a much larger and very specialized market.
Unlike other basic homebuilt offerings currently trying to penetrate the American automotive consciousness, the Panoz Roadster is a full-on factory manufactured, federalized, EPA certified and approved automobile. Its huge twin-cam V8 meets all federal pollution requirements so it can be purchased off the showroom floor in any state, including California. If you've ever dreamed of owning a Cobra but can't afford the tariff of a real one, or if you still want something a bit more civilized but with no loss in performance, the Panoz AIV Roadster is the solution to a dilemma that has faced countless American car enthusiasts since Shelby American closed its doors back in 1970. The current Panoz Roadster has surpasses Shelby's 289 Cobra in terms of performance, comfort, ease of maintenance, technical sophistication and cost of operation. The quirky but voluptuous roadster-style body with its suspension mounted cycle fenders may not have the svelte curves of the Cobra, but much of its true charm is hidden behind federally mandated bumpers. Remove these, as many owners do, and it looks entirely different. The original street roadster lines don't seem to come across in photos as well as they do when driving the car, but put one on, fire the engine and you'll instantly feel why those who own them are so enthusiastic.
Panoz Versus Prowler
Because of its road blistering performance, it's difficult not to keep comparing the Panoz Roadster with the original 289 Cobra, but its real contemporary competitor is probably the Plymouth Prowler. Chrysler's second entry into the limited-production performance car market is a glossy interpretation of the American street rod of the 'SOB, though it doesn't hold a candle to the Panoz AIV in terms of accepted performance standards. You can try any commonly used number; 0-60, 0-100, top speed, 100-0 or even that long standing measure of American performance, the quarter mile drag. At 13.4 seconds and 101.6 mph through the lights, the Panoz is easily the hands down winner.
Dogged Adherence To The God
Danny Panoz has little personal time to devote to the radical new racing GT-1s that bear his family name. That very successful one-year-old division of the Panoz empire is run by his father, Donald, and a small staff of dedicated racing professionals who are focused solely on building racing cars that compete worldwide with Mercedes, Porsche, Nissan and Toyota. It's not that Danny Panoz doesn't love racing, it's just that his current mission to build the next iteration of the Panoz dream has little time for it. To an outsider visiting the small Georgia factory, it seems strange because the ultra modern Panoz Racing shop, on the grounds of Road Atlanta, just five minutes from his office, is so remote from his consciousness that it could just as easily be in California or Europe. Danny Panoz concentrates on just one thing: creating a team that can build America's best limited-proauction, road-legal sports car. And, as any automobile engineer will tell you, that's a far different and tougher job than any racing program.
Most racing engineers want little to do with production automobiles because, in the racer's mentality, there's just too much bureaucratic hassle and not enough pure satisfaction for the effort required. As Danny says about the production side of the business, "It takes far too long, you have to deal with too many people who don't care about automobiles and there's precious little time to go to Le Mans, but that's precisely why we're so good at what we do." Danny occasionally allows himself enough time to go to the major races with the Panoz Motorsports team, but even when he arrives, he spends time eyeing the competition's homologation models or checking the details on the road going versions of the racing GT- 1 s that are required by the regulations to be present at each major event (so the scrutineers can cross check and verify the required production details that must appear on both racing and street versions).
Although Panoz is now rapidly becoming a major name in international motorsports thanks to the success of his dad's racers, two years ago it was almost unknown. Dan realized early on that he couldn't get involved in racing and build a production car at the same time - there simply weren't enough hours in the day to do both. He obviously knew and understood the value of racing in establishing a name for his cars, but it wasn't until he and his engineering staff started working on their second major project that a series of events coincided to make the construction of a real world-class GT racing car with a Panoz badge a possibility.
Like the AIV Roadster, Dan wanted a front-engined, rear-drive layout for his second car. All realized that commonality of parts would keep the same sources of supply, and an engineering familiarity with the basic package would, hopefully, make the development of a far more sophisticated car easier. The new Esperante convertible/coupe was an idea that formulated itself after the Roadster had become a production reality. The cycle-fendered open car is a sunbelt racer with serious performance numbers but, like any hot street roadster, it's something you drive for the pure fun of mashing the throttle and running through the gears. Its limitations are designed in, so as not to compromise the pure enjoyment of driving for the fun of it.
After completing the AIV Roadster, Panoz Auto decided to expand its geographical market by building a car that could operate in any weather and yet still have the Roadster's cachet and performance. At his dad's now enthusiastic insistence, Danny began the new project. Several Ford chassis components planned for the new car were already being utilized in the Roadster but Panoz and his engineering team expanded on this design philosophy and decided to use even more Ford content for the Esperante.
John Leveritt, Panoz' young chief engineer, wanted the new Panoz, like the Roadster, to have its own stand-alone chassis. With the full confidence of his experience with the AIV Roadster's off-the-shelf rectangular tubes, Leveritt decided to expand on that theme and fabricate custom extrusions to match a unique design concept that had evolved with Danny and his engineering team over the several months since Don Panoz had suggested his son start on the new car.
Starting with a 1/5 scale model of the Esperante and the planned use of existing Ford components, combined with Leveritt's extruded tube chassis, Panoz could immediately see that the immense tooling costs, which would normally sink a project of this size, could be reduced if Ford would sell them the vital but mundane sheetmetal components. By this time, the Roadster had already been in production for five years and Ford had gained a lot of confidence in the tiny company. Since Panoz had been routinely buying engines and powertrain components, it wasn't much of a stretch to devise a purchasing system for the key internal sheet metal parts as well.
When the modular extruded tube chassis concept began to exhibit valid potential, Panoz Auto decided to call in some even more serious engineering consulting expertise in the form of famed English constructor Adrian Reynard, with hopes that his aggressive forward-thinking engineering approach would be an ideal collaboration with the new modular extruded chassis. Reynard's reputation as a word class race car constructor was just what Panoz thought his young company needed. Reynard first came to visit the small Georgia manufacturer in late '95. At the time, there was mutual interest in road-going vehicles, perhaps inspired on Reynard's side by the cost-no-object McLaren F1 or his recent involvement in the design and construction of Ford's Indigo show car. The Englishman had a chance to evaluate the Esperante's proposed form and chassis first hand. He liked what he saw, not only in the concept but also in the people.
During this period, engineer John Leveritt and fabricator Mike Crawford had taken one of their 1/5 scale Esperante models and converted its lines to a full GT racer. Reynard offered to test the scale model's aerodynamics in his wind tunnel in England. The test results were so positive that Reynard suggested using the production car's general form as the basis for a new GT racing car that could compete against Porsche and McLaren at Le Mans. "Sure," said Danny, "but it's gotta' be front engined and it has to use a stock Ford pushrod V8 - just like we use in our Roadster!" At that time, the Panoz AIV Roadster was using Ford's 351
"Cleveland" small block. When Reynard returned several weeks later with the redesigned windtunnel model and the comparative aero figures projected against the Porsche and McLaren coupes, the Esperante project for both road and track was given the green light. It was a huge commitment for the Panoz family. There was only one reservation...time. Activities were so compressed at the tiny Georgia facility that it was decided that Danny would continue to concentrate on production cars, while the elder Panoz would concentrate on motorsports. At the time, Donald Panoz wasn't a "car guy" in any sense of the word and in fact had never even been to an auto race in his life! He didn't know an A-arm from a drive shaft but he liked Reynard's approach and the professionalism of his staff. Don had also read up on Shelby's Le Mans history and knew if his son ever expected to have any true credibility as a legitimate manufacturer in the world of sports cars he'd need some racing exposure.
The more time Donald Panoz spent around the project, the more he grew to like the challenge of the automobile business and racing. It was a typically pragmatic Panoz approach: a proven American racing engine and drivetrain in the best chassis available. The goal of winning Le Mans may have seemed incredibly naive to those who were there at Chateau Elan (Don Panoz' vast vineyard estate and luxury hotel) when the project was first announced, but most of those present were automotive people. They weren't familiar with Don Panoz or his record in business.
Through friends at Ford, Danny Panoz contacted legendary Ford NASCAR racer Jack Roush, so Roush could begin development of an SVO small-block V8 for the new car. Roush-built Mustangs had won their class at the 24 hours of Daytona for the last 11 years, so Panoz was certain that the engine portion of their new combination would deliver when needed. As the chassis design developed in England under the guidance of Reynard's engineer Doug Skinner, it became obvious, through hours of windtunnel testing, that aerodynamicist Nigel Stroud's modified Esperante shape, now called the Panoz GTR-1, had serious potential. Reynard's aero-engineer had used the McLaren F1 coupe as a benchmark. Reynard's approach was to exceed the McLaren's numbers in the windtunnel. "If we can do that I think we can be extremely competitive," he said. At the time, Reynard had never raced at Le Mans either, but every other car designed in his shop, including his '95 Indianapolis 500 entry, had been a winner first time out. Within months, Reynard's design team had aero drag numbers that were less than the McLaren and had better downforce as well!
The only thing that didn't suit Reynard's avant-garde British racing engineers was the idea of being forced to use "30-year-old technology" for power. Most within the English chassis team wanted Reynard and Panoz to replace the stock block Roush V8 with a "proper racing engine," say a Judd V10 or a Cosworth V8, but Danny and Donald Panoz were adamant about their marketing plans. "Eventually the Esperante is going to be an American car for the road. It has to be serviceable at any Ford dealer, and I want there to be a direct link between what we sell and what we race - this will not be a racing car converted for road use!"
While the American office in Braselton, Ga. was going through a major developmental change with the Roadster (extending the wheelbase eight inches to use the larger twin-cam modular Ford Cobra engine), the Panoz GTR- 1 coupe was taking shape in England. As a result of airflow research on Reynard's racing version, the proposed Esperante street version in Georgia was being changed significantly as well. "This isn't rocket science," says Danny. "The evolutionary changes from our first version of the Esperante, as a result of the GTR-1, were more on the basis of aesthetics, ergonomics and manufacturing effficiencies." As the street project moved forward, Panoz' engineering team began innovating construction concepts that would make the Esperante a truly unique automobile. "We're now building a clearly better engineered automobile than we first envisioned," says Panoz.
"Reynard's racer gave us the inspiration but there's no direct technical tie-in to the race car. After looking at Reynard's aero numbers we narrowed the Esperante's platform to reduce the frontal area considerably," he says. "We could have come down even more," he adds, but the size and width of the stock Ford windscreen, A-pillars and firewall didn't allow much latitude for change. Even though the race car's aero numbers for even less frontal area were extremely seductive, there was no way to make the transition without dropping his formula. Panoz' young engineering staff begged their boss to reduce the windscreen's width. "Nope, change all the existing integral Ford components that made this project possible," says Panoz, "and we'd price ourselves out of business."
In the team's first outing at Le Mans in '97, a mere three races and nine months after the concept had first been discussed, all cars in the three-car team made the qualifying field and one car during the race was still climbing the charts after working its way into the top ten. Unfortunately, a refueling error DNF'd the last car, ending the team's challenge. Donald wasn't exactly pleased, but for a guy who'd decided to race at Le Mans in his first year of competition, he realized his nascent team hadn't done too badly. It was only the fourth automobile race in Don Panoz' automotive career, but he was hooked. "This is more fun than I ever imagined," he says, "but it's also a lot more work."
In spite of the setback, Panoz vowed to return to Le Mans in '98 and hired famed English team manager Tony Dowe to run his organization like a Formula One operation. Dowe soon had his development group working overtime to prepare for Le Mans '98. During the last part of '97 and early part of '98, the Panoz GTR-1 coupe became a leading contender in national and international competition, leading overall at Daytona and winning GT-1 at Sebring. The "antique" pushrod two-valve, Roushbuilt Ford V8 engines have since gained tremendous respect on the circuit for their power and reliability but, chuckles Dowe, "it's rather like dressing pigs in tuxedos isn't it?"
But Wait There's More...
At this writing Panoz Racing has started another project, a hybrid GT-1 car called the Q-9 that uses a brushless Zytek electric motor in the driveline. The Ford racing engine in the Q-9 still puts out around 600 hp. but when the Zytec motor is engaged it adds another 150! The instantaneous power boost from 200 lbs. of batteries laid longitudinally in the chassis only lasts for a short spurt, but they then recover their lost energy when the car is braked - generators attached to the Q-9's half shafts recoup the batteries power whenever the driver lifts off the throttle, so it's ready for another 150 hp blast when needed. The car's US debut was at Road Atlanta's Petit Le Mans in October.
At the design office in Georgia, Panoz designer Luis Romo and his team of clay modelers are completing the full size interior layout for the Esperante while Panoz' design consultants at the DZN studios in California complete the car's exterior form. Leveritt's engineering staff in Georgia is busy fitting the prototype extruded aluminum chassis components together and test jigging them with the production underskirt panels from Ford. Everybody is linked via computer so each group is aware of the other's progress. Like the AIV Roadster, the Esperante's new exterior will be all SPF aluminum. The tooling for those parts is being digitally mastered for manufacture directly off the full scale model being developed at DZN in California.
And just up the road from the new manufacturing facility, the Panoz family's newly acquired race track, Road Atlanta, is undergoing several million dollars in redesign and refurbishment, so it can be ready to host a Champ Car or major NASCAR event when a calendar date becomes available. Top teams from CART and NASCAR are already testing there.
Panoz has started his own driving school at the track with cars of his own design and, down at the factory, Roadster production has just passed five a week so things are looking pretty good. Give it another few years and Panoz may join the Texan as another national cultural icon.
Copyright © 1996, 1997, 1998 The Auto Channel.
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