Ingram's Flat Spot On: Panoz pushing pace again

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Ingram's Flat Spot On: Panoz pushing pace again

Ingram's Flat Spot On Panoz Pushing Pace Again by Jonathan Ingram Long before the Audi versus Peugeot contretemps became the backbone of endurance racing, it was suggested that Don Panoz saved the Le Mans 24-hour. Since the suggestion came...


Ingram's Flat Spot On


Panoz Pushing Pace Again
by Jonathan Ingram

Long before the Audi versus Peugeot contretemps became the backbone of endurance racing, it was suggested that Don Panoz saved the Le Mans 24-hour. Since the suggestion came from six-time Le Mans winner Jacky Ickx, it's an idea worth considering.

Panoz Abruzzi "Spirit of Le Mans" presentation: Don Panoz.
Photo by Eric Gilbert.

Panoz's entrepreneurial projects include pharmaceuticals, wine, automotive and racing pursuits. He reinvigorated Le Mans by building a moat around an isolated event often subject to the ill winds of politics and the economy. By launching the American Le Mans Series and what was initially known as the European Le Mans Series a decade ago, Panoz provided leverage in the form of a steady wellspring of entries for Le Mans, which previously tottered as well as towered as the ultimate sports car event because of its isolation.

In addition to virtually guaranteeing a solid starting field, an infusion of cash from Panoz resulting from the licensing agreements has helped the relatively small outfit at the Automobile Club de L'Ouest, seemingly always caught in the tentacles of the local and regional "Syndicat Mixte" that runs the Le Mans track. Further, it girded the little French sanctioning body's loins when it came to going head-to-head with Europe's ruling FIA sanctioning group.

This year, an Intercontinental Cup has been added to create a three-round de facto world championship for Le Mans cars, including a round at Zuhai in China in November after starting at Silverstone and the Petit Le Mans. Before Panoz arrived, one would not have expected such an audacious development from the ACO. After all, it's the FIA that asserts only it can organize a world championship -- and that sanctions the Le Mans 24-hour as an official international event.

Given his entrepreneurial thrust and racing ambitions, is it any surprise that Panoz Auto Development, where Panoz's son Danny is in charge daily, has launched a super car with dramatic gothic retro styling? Called the Abruzzi -- after the region in Italy where Don Panoz's grandfather was born -- the car is intended to leverage the association with Le Mans like no other manufacturer has previously contemplated.

Panoz Abruzzi "Spirit of Le Mans" presentation: Panoz Abruzzi "Spirit of Le Mans".
Photo by Eric Gilbert.

Sold and serviced from Le Mans, owners will be able to drive the Abruzzi each year on a parade lap prior to the 24-hours. Upon delivery at Le Mans, owners can receive instruction on how to get the most out of the machine's 600 horsepower and 590 ft.-lbs. of torque on the Bugatti track at the Sarthe circuit. That power is supplied by a derivative of an LS-9 Chevy V-8, which made a name for itself in racing in the GT1 class factory Corvettes. Alas, the car is not approved for use in the U.S. and is being marketed to Europe, Asia, the Middle East and South America.

The man who established a winery in Georgia's moonshine country and delivered anti-smoking medicine through a transdermal patch should be expected to introduce substance as well as a unique marketing plan. In addition to radical styling, the Abruzzi incorporates some other radical ideas. Its body panels will be lighter than carbon fiber, dent-resistant and can be recycled. The radiator is in the back of the front-engined car for more efficient air intake (and less drag) and less vulnerability to damage during races. A dual piping system helps cool the fluids en route from the engine to the radiator.

Truth be told, if Panoz Auto Development sells all 81 Abruzzi's scheduled to be built, it may get into the black for the first time since the first Panoz Roadsters were launched in the mid-1990s. At a price in excess of $400,000 per copy, a total take of $330 million or so from the limited edition Abruzzi would be a nice haul.

But are sales of the Abruzzi, whose stand in the Le Mans paddock is always surrounded by a crowd, dependent upon what happens with the Le Mans GT2 class racing version on the track?

One shouldn't be inclined to count the Abruzzi out. The Panoz Esperante GT LM won its GT2 class at both Sebring and Le .Mans. And before that, the Panoz LMP1 Roadster beat the vaunted Audi R8 in such places as the Nurburgring and Sears Point.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the Abruzzi is its "Spirit of Le Mans" legend. The Abruzzi represents the days when participants drove their sports cars to the track, slapped on a number, raced all weekend and then drove the cars home again. That era came to a close in the 1960's, when the factory wars really started heating up.

Having invested a lot of money in the ALMS and LMS -- particularly the original European version that came to a crashing halt -- Panoz is not likely to recoup the revenue. And after the ACO turned down his bid to leave open the possibility of a GT car winning over-all, Panoz is not likely to ever win Le Mans over-all.

Scheduled to be at least available for viewing in its racing form at the Petit Le Mans in October, can the Abruzzi keep up with the huge factory efforts now under way in GT2 from Porsche, Ferrari, Covette and BMW? Can Panoz Auto Development truly succeed as a free-standing business enterprise?

One thing is certain: Don Panoz always looks forward and rarely hesitates when he believes in one of his ideas. For that, those who appreciate the Le Mans 24-hour can be thankful.

Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jonathan@jingrambooks.com.

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