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Don Panoz looks back on 100 races

ALMS founder is proud
Friday, March 20, 2009

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Don Panoz
With all the work and effort that went into launching the first American Le Mans Series race in March of 1999 at Sebring International Raceway, Series founder Dr. Don Panoz never thought about the day when the Series would hold its 100th race.

A decade later, though, it’s here. And it’s quite appropriate that the event that started the Series also serves as the backdrop for Race No. 100, the 57th Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring presented by Fresh from Florida.

“I never thought about 100 races from the beginning. The first race just occurred,” Panoz said overlooking the Sebring circuit, a venue he purchased and has invested in heavily over the years. “It was more focused on our initial agreement with the ACO (Automobile Club de l’Ouest) and rules stability.”

In early 1998, Panoz purchased licensing rights from the ACO to hold endurance races in North America branded with the Le Mans name and rules. What followed was the first Petit Le Mans in October of that year with the groundwork entrenched for the launch of the American Le Mans Series at Sebring in 1999.

“I thought I could bring stability to sports car racing,” Panoz said. “When I got to Sebring in 1998 and had acquired the track, we did some basic things like put in bathrooms and things like that. When I started to see that the fans actually noticed, then the confidence that we were on the right track grew stronger.”

As the Series has grown, so has its standing among motorsport fans worldwide, along with some of the most prestigious teams and manufacturers around the globe.

And it’s appropriate to ask Dr. Panoz his most vivid memories of the first 100 races.

“Audi coming to Sebring in 2000 with the R8 was a big moment,” he recalled. “I had been to Florida to see the car when it arrived and told Dr. (Wolfgang) Ullrich (Head of Audi Motorsport) that it would win everything in sight. Even someone like me who was still a novice could see that. But that’s exactly what they did.”

Not surprisingly, some of his most memorable Series moments revolve around the fierce competition and victories over some of the most established factory prototype efforts in sports car racing. “It was very satisfying for our team to compete against and beat the Audis and BMWs of the world,” he said. “There were some historic races and finishes like at Washington D.C. in 2002, and winning at the Nurburgring in 2000 was a great moment. But that’s from a race team perspective.

“As far as the Series, to get our first races at Road America and Mid-Ohio was great, just like Long Beach. Some of the biggest keys for the Series early was to gain the trust and confidence of the promoters,” Panoz said. “Once we accomplished that, those great venues fell into place.”

Panoz often talks about his dream of building the American Le Mans Series into what is now. He is confident in the Series’ direction of a relevant, environmentally responsible championship that continually provides its fans and stakeholders an unmatched motorsport experience.

And his vision and desire are what will propel the Series well beyond race No. 200…

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