Panoz fuels sports car racing in U.S.

Entrepreneur brings Le Mans Series to D.C.

July 15, 2002|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Competitors in the American Le Mans Series call Don Panoz names, but the man who reinvigorated sports car racing in the United States doesn't mind. The names they call him are genius, visionary and crazy.

Sometimes, all three seem to fit.

This week, Panoz is in the limelight because he created the American Le Mans Series, the endurance sports car racing series that comes to Washington this weekend.

"It's a crazy thing he has done," said Frank Biela, a member of the Audi team that has won the 24 Hours of Le Mans sports car race three consecutive times. "But why not? He is enthusiastic. He's playing with his toy, let's say. He is the main actor in the whole story. He invented the series and he asked others to come join him and it is very professional and very nice. If it wasn't, you just wouldn't go."

Panoz, a friendly man of 67, has been mystifying people ever since he was a kid growing up in Spencer, W. Va.

"I learned pretty quick that it benefited me to do things right," said Panoz, a twinkle in his eye and a smile creasing his face. "Every time I did something bad, I'd be seen leaving the area, and I always was recognized because I was the only redheaded kid in town."

And that formed the basis of his personal philosophy: "Work hard. Do it right. And it will usually turn out pretty good."

The Grand Prix of Washington was announced a year ago and caught many by surprise. It will be the first motor-sports race in the D.C. area in 80 years.

The Grand Prix will be staged in a redesigned area of the RFK Stadium parking lots. Though some local residents and city officials have voiced concern over noise and expense, and irritation over the way the event was approved without major impact studies, it will go on as scheduled.

And as far as Panoz is concerned, Washington will be the perfect fit for his series.

"I think it's time major-league sports car racing in this country got the attention it deserves," Panoz said. "We have a great country with great technology. And there is quite a vast segment of society that appreciates the fine things - and that includes fine cars. At this point, only Europeans, Italians or the Japanese have capitalized on the opportunity those interests provide.

"It's time we garnered some of that back."

Before getting into sports car racing, Panoz amassed hundreds of millions of dollars in the pharmaceutical business. Among his many businesses is Elan Corp., the research company he established in Ireland when he was 25. Elan developed Cardizem, a landmark heart medication, and the technology that has been used to deliver a variety of medications, the most well-known of which is the nicotine patch.

When Panoz stepped down as Elan's chief executive officer at the end of 1996 to pursue other dreams, Elan grossed $233 million in sales and boasted $77 million in profits.

He is working on several more fortunes, and his latest project is eMotion Mobility, an electric car transit system to help cut traffic and air pollution.

"I've never gone in search of things," he said. "They seek me out, these little challenges. I've just pursued things other people have overlooked."

He also learned early the value of dreaming. He said he still sets aside time every day to dream.

"It's very important," Panoz said. "Just take time for that second cup of coffee and contemplate what you might be able to do. Oh, all of what you think about won't be possible, but over time you'll shake out the ideas that are valid and they'll come into sharper focus."

It was because his son, Danny, began building and selling sports cars with the family-owned Panoz Auto Development Co. that Panoz got involved with the sport. Father and son agreed sports car racing could be a way of infusing heritage into the Panoz automobile emblem.

When Panoz began to go racing, he uncovered politics in the sport he felt treated his cars unfairly and undermined the credibility of sports car racing. So he set out to create his own series.

He contacted the Automobile Club d'Ouest, which sanctions the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and persuaded the organization to allow him to create a series in the United States using its rules and the most famous name in sports car racing, Le Mans.

After founding the series, Panoz bought two racing car manufacturing businesses, another racing series, three racetracks and four driving schools. He also has built world-class resorts near Atlanta and San Francisco and owns vineyards in Georgia and California. That's how Panoz operates. He builds one company on another.

"There are a number of things [about Panoz] the average person would say, `I don't understand,' " said Scott Atherton, president and chief operating officer of the American Le Mans Series.

"Financially, he's made several fortunes, and his age would indicate it's time to throttle back and smell the roses. But, if anything, he continues to push the throttle harder."

Race facts

What:Grand Prix of Washington

Where:Adjacent to RFK Stadium

When:Friday through Sunday

Who:Sports car competitors from the American Le Mans Series and three other racing series

Format:Endurance races of set time or distance

TV:Saturday, CBS (chs. 13, 9), 2:30 p.m.; Sunday, 1 p.m., NBC (chs. 11, 4).

Schedule:Friday, 9 a.m. to 7:05 p.m., practice and qualifying. Saturday, 9 a.m. to 1:10 p.m., practice and qualifying; 2:30 p.m., Trans-Am race; 4:15 p.m., Star Mazda race; 5:25 p.m., World Challenge race. Sunday, noon, American Le Mans Series race.

Tickets:202-432-7328

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