Panoz: Petit has grown up
When Don Panoz steps on the grounds of Road Atlanta for the first time at this year’s Petit Le Mans, he will do so with the same pride and joy that a father feels looking at his grown-up child. The annual 1,000-mile/10-hour sports car race in Braselton, Ga., has matured into one of the world’s most prestigious sports car races, one of only two in the world where winners earn automatic entry into the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
It has been that way since the first Petit Le Mans on October 10, 1998. And if Dr. Panoz has anything to say about it, that will continue far in to the future. Oh, and the other race that grants automatic berths to the 24 Hours? None other than Le Mans itself.
But how did a Georgia entrepreneur who had never been to Le Mans before 1997 broker such a historic agreement with the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO), the organizing body of Le Mans? Panoz says it wasn’t easy – far from it.
“That came together in Suzuka, Japan when our cars were racing there with Jean-Paul Driot in the FIA GT race,” Dr. Panoz explains. “I was doing one of the things that everyone talks about theoretically in sports car racing; it all sounds good but never works. People had so many agendas with their own series and their own little niches in the market that makes it almost impossible.”
The other large obstacle was the perception of sports car racing in the United States. Steeped in history in Europe, sports car racing had experienced more than a few ups and downs since the IMSA Can-Am days of the 1970s. By the mid-90s, the sport had nearly fallen into a state of disrepair. World Sports Car races at Road Atlanta typically would attract between 3,000 and 5,000 fans, which led to even more second-guessing by the ACO and those wondering just what Panoz thought he was doing.
“Most of us went into it not knowing if it was going to catch on,” said Dyson Racing’s Butch Leitzinger, who was part of the first Petit Le Mans. “But from the beginning it really clicked with a lot of people. Every year from 1998 it has grown.”
It took a better understanding of Le Mans – not just the glitz, glamour and history but also its politics – for Panoz to finally visualize his dream. Following the meeting at Suzuka, Dr. Panoz met ACO technical director Alain Berteau at Sebring in the fall and they talked about Panoz’s vision of creating a sports car race that would expand the tradition and awareness of Le Mans. That eventually turned into Petit Le Mans, and Panoz signed an agreement in January 1998 with then-ACO president Michel Cosson.
Not everyone was thrilled, however. Other sanctioning bodies that operated sports car series naturally saw Petit Le Mans and its tie to the 24 Hours as a threat. They also didn’t like world-class manufacturers such as Porsche and BMW throwing their support behind an upstart event.
“The first problem was the politics of it. They had no stake in the ground about continuity of rules,” Panoz explained. “A lot of the racing was on an uneven playing field.
“The second thing is that all of these groups had forgotten about the fans,” he said. “They were all looking up and down pit lane, looking at the authorities, all looking at the people who made the rules. They forgot to look across the track at the fans. And that’s why there were none.
“I thought I could bring stability,” Panoz added. “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.”
The first Petit Le Mans drew 30,000 fans to Road Atlanta and saw entries from Porsche, Ferrari, BMW, Nissan as well as Panoz. The Ferrari 333SP of Wayne Taylor, Emmanuel Collard and Eric van de Poele took a 1:12.519 victory over the factory Porsche of Michele Alboreto, Stefan Johansson and Jörg Muller.
But the real winners were the spectators who saw a completely revamped Road Atlanta, complete with a new main paddock and upgraded spectator areas and amenities. They also could look forward to 1999 and the first season of the American Le Mans Series, which began in March at Sebring and would feature Petit Le Mans as an annual event on its schedule.
“The success of that first event had everyone talking,” said Series President and CEO Scott Atherton. “Manufacturers, sponsors, spectators, sportscasters were saying, ‘Don, you can’t create just one race. This is too good. You have to create a series.’ And obviously we know now that is ultimately what happened.”
“I felt strongly that if you create a good show and provide good entertainment in motorsport and ensure that the fans knew that this was stable, precise racing and the people who really went faster would win, that they would start to come,” Panoz said. “And that’s what happened.”
As a result, Petit Le Mans has seen increases in fans, grid quality and more importantly world recognition. It also saw the hometown Panoz team take an overall win in the 1999 race when one of the factory BMW prototypes spun into a gravel trap with five minutes remaining to hand David Brabham, Eric Bernard and Andy Wallace an emotional victory.
“I felt so bad for the driver from BMW, and I could imagine the corporate politics; BMW had been beaten by a no-name American manufacturer with the engine in the wrong place in a prototype,” Panoz chuckled. “All victories are great, and all victories are earned because you can’t win any race without showing up and being prepared. You have to be in a place that when Lady Luck smiles at you or breaks come your way that you can take advantage of it.”
That’s the same philosophy Panoz has used in building Petit Le Mans and American Le Mans Series to the level at which they are now. The number of premium auto manufacturers, elite teams and world-class corporate partners can’t be matched by any other form of motorsport.
Those are just some of the things that Panoz will see when he returns to Road Atlanta. And what are the others?
“I’ll be looking at the physical aspects of the track and comparing that to where we started,” he said. “The second thing I’ll be looking at are the crowd and fans. It’s like having a child who is five or six years old. He’s cute and starting to be a person, then later you find that he’s grown up and matured. That’s what has happened with the race and track. We started out with a lot of hope and ambition and it has turned into something that really has a lot of meaning and is creating its own history.”