DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (June 18, 2013) – Don Panoz wasn’t always the internationally known, sports car executive type. In fact, for most of his long and accomplished life, the 78-year-old Panoz says he was a casual race fan, at best.
His self-diagnosis: “I got bitten by the Le Mans bug and infected by the Le Mans virus.”
This happened with an assist from the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring. Panoz attended America’s oldest sports car endurance race in ’97; that whetted his appetite for more.
“Before going to Sebring that year that was the fifth race I’d been to in my life, so I wasn’t a fan of racing and all of that,” Panoz said. “That race to me was exciting but then, when I went to Le Mans later that year … I saw all the crowds, all the participants, all the pomp and circumstance.
“And I got to understand what 24 hours of racing really meant, what it really meant to have the different classes of cars and all the people competing. It really just overwhelmed me. It was something I’d never imagined. I mean we’ve all see the Steve McQueen movie Le Mans and I had seen it and was a little bit of a fan of it. But to actually be there in person and see it all up close was overwhelming. And so when I say I caught the virus, what happened was I got infected with endurance sports racing.”
Which led to Panoz establishing a relationship with the Automobile Club De L’Ouest (ACO), the organization which creates and runs the 24 Hours of Le Mans. That relationship in turn led to Panoz’s founding of the Petit Le Mans, 10-hour endurance event held each October at Road Atlanta’s famed road course in Braselton, Ga. And that led to founding of the ALMS itself in 1999, which included an ALMS-ACO link that facilitated automatic ALMS entries into the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
“One thing led to another, and bingo, here we are,” Panoz said.
Panoz returns to Le Mans this week and will be joined by his new, best friend: GRAND-AM Road Racing founder Jim France. Together, they are leading the merger of the ALMS and the International Motor Sports Association with GRAND-AM, which has produced a new sports car series – United SportsCar Racing, set for a January 2014 debut with the season-opening Rolex 24 At Daytona. Together, they are presenting this week the new-and-improved, unified face of North American sports car racing – on the world’s largest sports car stage.
You want pomp and circumstance? At a Thursday Le Mans press conference, Panoz and ACO President Pierre Fillon will present Jim France with the French flag, which he will wave on Saturday to start the 90th anniversary running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
“I think this is special for Jim, as I know he was at Le Mans many, many years ago and Jim is a real sports car guy, so I think it’s appropriate,” Panoz said. “All the roads have finally ‘led to Rome’ and we’re getting the consolidation of relationships in sports car racing. And that’s all good for the fans, the teams, the sponsors.
“Moving forward, we need to keep our relationship with the ACO going which I’m sure Jim and our new group will do. It’s going to be a new era and I think it’s just going to be bigger and better.”
GRANDAM - ALMS