Still hooked on Le Mans 15 years later, Harris writes
To even the uninitiated, the name Le Mans conjures up enticing images of sports car roaring through the night in the French countryside.
For Don Panoz, founder of the American Le Mans Series presented by Tequila Patrón, that magic hit very close to home the moment he arrived for the first time in 1997 to watch the 24 Hours of Le Mans – perhaps the world’s most famous auto race. But, while most people who come to see the grueling twice-round-the-clock event simply find it fascinating, Panoz immediately wanted to become a part of the action.
“Like so many other, I was bitten by the virus,” Panoz said in a telephone interview from Paris. “You can take all the antibiotics you want…”
Unlike so many others, Panoz had more than a dream. He had the money, motivation and moxie to make it happen. The 24-hour race is organized by the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO), an entity which can be brutal for a non-Frenchman to deal with. But Panoz persisted.
“You can get angry, frustrated, sweat, toil, cry and rant and rave, and you still have that virus, no matter what happens,” Panoz said. “So, when I had an opportunity to talk with them about creating a race in the U.S. called Petit Le Mans in 1998, they agreed to do that.
“Before that race even started, we saw we were going to get 10 to 15 times the race fans to that race that we were getting to normal sports car racing in the States,” he added. “We started negotiating to do the ALMS and we negotiated a contract. The first one was for five years and it’s gone on since.”
When the deal first came together, a lot of people thought the politics that come with the territory would eventually blow it up. But so far, so good.
“We’re still doing it, so it’s all good,” Panoz said. “I’m sure there’s always different agendas and all, but the final result is we’re still doing it and we’re quite happy to keep doing it.”
Since he love affair with Le Mans began, Panoz has banked many fond memories. But two of those memories stand out.
“In 2006, when the Panoz Esperante beat the factory Porsches and the factory Ferraris (in GT2) with a privateer team out of England,” Panoz said. “That was very special.
“And there was 2003 when the Bentley’s won and it was Bentley, Audi, Bentley, Audi, Panoz,” he added. “But the real race was between us and (Henri) Pescarolo’s team and that race went on for about six hours. It was nose-to-tail. Most of the time we led with Gunnar Jeannette driving.
“Something happened then that I don’t think ever happens in racing,” he continued. “Gunnar came in after driving two stints and we had a stint to go. The other team drivers were Olivier Beretta and Max Papis, and one of them was due to go into the car. When Gunnar came in, both of them said, ‘No, no. Let him stay. We couldn’t do what he is doing.’
“Gunnar at that time was about 20 years old. It was very special. That was the part of the race that got all the coverage at the end. It was a race where two real professional drivers said don’t put us in because we could not do any better than this guy is.”
Panoz will be on hand again this weekend for the big race, and he will watch several teams from his own ALMS competing on track. Included in that group is Highcroft Racing with the radical new Nissan DeltaWing, a concept car that the ACO awarded the Garage 56 position for this year’s race. It will run unclassified but is part of the race as it showcases new and innovative technology.
The car ran at Le Mans 10 days ago as part of the official Test Day program.
“We had a great weekend at the Le Mans test with the new DeltaWing car, which proved everybody wrong,” said managing partner Panoz, sounding like a proud father. “They said it couldn’t corner and they said it would fly. It cornered and it didn’t fly and ran right in the middle of the pack with all the LMP2s with half the fuel, half the horsepower and half the weight. So we were quite ecstatic about that. It did five stints on the tires so we’re quite happy.
“It’s unclassified because there’s only one car. But this car is proving that you can equal the same speeds with more horsepower and you can do it with half the fuel.”
Asked if he believes the DeltaWing and cars like it are the future of racing, Panoz said, “I hope so. We’re committed to it.”
Just as he remains committed to the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Mike Harris is the retired Auto Racing Writer for The Associated Press and remains a frequent contributor to a variety of racing outlets. He will file periodic reports on the American Le Mans Series to ALMS.com.