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Don Panoz, sports car designer, racing pioneer, dies at 83

Panoz: No particularly love for racing or even cars.

The quickest way to get Don Panoz to do something was to tell him he couldn’t.

Had Panoz not responded to a dare — or, at least, that’s how he took it — we would not have had the American Le Mans Series, the Chateau Elan Resort and Winery, the DeltaWing race car and a startlingly long list of other accomplishments and investments.

Donald Panoz — often referred to Dr. Donald Panoz, thanks to an honorary doctorate of business conferred by the West Virginia University School of Business, and before that, an honorary doctorate from Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, and he loved being called “Dr. Don,” — died Tuesday at his home in Duluth, Ga., after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 83.

Long before Panoz began a side career in motorsports, he was deeply involved in the drug industry. He attended, but did not graduate from, Duquesne University in Pennsylvania — then opened two drugstores. With a partner, an old friend he served with in the U.S. Army, they started a company, Milan Pharmaceuticals (later changed to Mylan) and developed the transdermal patch — a new method of delivering medications through the skin, rather than using more conventional means — after Panoz visited a sick friend in the hospital and watched how difficult it was to administer them orally or intravenously.

The best-known use for the Patch, as if became known, was to control nicotine use, but Panoz claimed to be allergic to his own invention, and he smoked — Silk Cuts, tapering down to light, filtered cigarettes as his health waned. Yes, he got the irony and was amused by those who did not.

Panoz had multiple passions, as mentioned, mainly driven by dares. He was told that it was impossible to produce fine wine in Georgia, so he built the 3,500-acre Chateau Elan and planted grapes next to it, as he did at St. Andrews Bay Resort in Scotland and the Diablo Grande Winery and Resort in California, which he listed as one of his few failed business ventures.

He loved golfing, counting among his friends legendary golfers like Sam Snead and Gene Sarazen, and his resorts all have world-class, professionally designed golf courses on the grounds. And he loved boxing — his father, who migrated from Italy, was a champion pugilist.

Panoz did not particularly love racing or even cars. His son, Danny, began building a small line of specialty cars mostly using Ford powertrains, and at some point, Don Panoz began showing mild interest. He was told that a front-engine car with an American V-8 motor would never again be competitive at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and he took that as a dare, overseeing development of the GTR-1 in 1997, powered by a NASCAR-style Ford V-8.

Panoz hired top drivers; in fact, after Mario Andretti crashed one of his cars, Panoz — famously saying he thought he had just killed Mario Andretti — grabbed a lit cigarette from a crewman and began smoking again, after quitting months earlier.

After that, Panoz’s automotive interests were all over the place. He was enamored with the French in general, Le Mans in particular, and started the American Le Mans Series because he thought U.S. sports car racing had become too provincial. This put the ALMS and Grand-Am into direct competition, until Grand-Am and parent company NASCAR bought Panoz out, getting the ALMS, the Road Atlanta racetrack and control of Sebring International Raceway.

But that left Panoz without a project. He was a man who pledged never to retire — and, in fact, he didn’t. He adopted the flailing DeltaWing program, again, because people said it would never work, writing check after check until, in partnership with Nissan, the car actually debuted amid fanfare Le Mans hasn’t seen since, running well as an experimental Garage 56 entry until being taken out by a Toyota.

The DeltaWing program did not end well, resulting in a lawsuit Panoz filed against Nissan — stunningly, Panoz told Autoweek that it was the first time he ever personally sued anyone — for theft of intellectual property. There was a settlement, and while the results are sealed, Panoz was very pleased with the result.

It also led to his final racing-related challenge: Nissan made a big deal out of making some laps at Le Mans under electric power, and Panoz was planning an all-electric assault on Le Mans with the Green4U Panoz Racing GT-EV, which was displayed at the 2017 24 Hours of Le Mans.

It can be revealed here that the project was canceled, which the company never fully admitted. A press release was prepared but never circulated that said: “Don Panoz has decided not to move forward with the Green4U Panoz Racing GT-EV project. He is instead focusing his resources on Green4U Technologies Inc. and bringing its lineup of electric vehicles to market.”

It was, as Panoz told Autoweek, and then in his autobiography, his “holy grail.” Sad that it was never completed.

In his official obituary, his company included this statement: “In addition to all the career, business and work achievements, Panoz was a family man, a comedian, an inspiration, a philanthropist, an innovator, a visionary and most importantly, a wonderfully entertaining human to be around.”

That pretty much covers it.

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