Duluth, GA – Don Panoz, an American entrepreneur who made his name in the pharmaceutical industry before becoming widely influential in North American endurance racing, passed away Tuesday (Sept. 11) at his home in Georgia after a brief battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 83.
A lifelong entrepreneur, Panoz was the founder of the American Le Mans Series (ALMS) and creator of the famously loud and uniquely styled front-engined Panoz LMP1 race cars.
After experiencing the 24 Hours of Le Mans for the first time, Panoz aimed to replicate the spirit of Le Mans by creating a “one-off” event at Road Atlanta — the 10-hour or 1,000-mile Petit Le Mans — that debuted Oct. 11, 1998.
Buoyed by the event’s success, Panoz founded the ALMS, a series of races throughout North America on world-class racetracks, including three that he owned: Sebring International Raceway, Road Atlanta and Mosport, today known as Canadian Tire Motorsport Park. Through those efforts, Panoz became a driving force for sports car racing in North America.
Under Panoz’s watchful eye, the ALMS was the first motorsports sanctioning body to open the pre-race starting grid to race fans, allowing them to walk among the cars and drivers on the racetrack minutes before the start of each race. It’s a practice that is still a part of every IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and IMSA Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge race — and has been replicated by many racing organizations around the world.
In 2012, Panoz recognized that to truly achieve the type of success he envisioned for sports car racing in North America, a merger between the ALMS and the Grand-Am Road Racing Association was needed. He joined forces with Grand-Am founder Jim France — and together with their respective CEOs, Scott Atherton with ALMS and Ed Bennett with Grand-Am — the historic merger was announced at Daytona International Speedway on Sept. 5, 2012. With France as chairman, Panoz became vice chairman of the new organization, which took on the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) moniker.
“Don Panoz will be remembered as a one of the most important figures in the history of sports car racing,” NASCAR chairman and CEO and IMSA chairman Jim France said. “Don was a true gentleman who deeply cared about our sport. That was obvious to all who are involved with sports car racing. He became a great friend and partner, and we shared the pride of combining Grand-Am and the American Le Mans Series and re-establishing the IMSA brand, bringing sports car racing together again. Don was a true innovator whose work touched many lives.”