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For the Fans – A Fitting Tribute

Dr. Don Panoz at the unveiling of the DeltaWing at Road Atlanta in 2011. [Photo by Jack Webster]

By Jack Webster & Eddie LePine

We are once again on our way to Atlanta and the historic Road Atlanta circuit for the 21st running of Petit Le Mans. This year, however, we will be missing for the first time the founder of this event, Dr. Don Panoz. Dr. Panoz passed away in September and his passing has left a large void in the world of motorsport and this event in particular.

The first Petit Le Mans was held in 1998, and starting in 1999 it was the crowning event in the Panoz created American Le Mans Series. We remember those days, as we were there. In our opinion, Don Panoz not only saved historic circuits like Road Atlanta, he literally saved sports car racing in the United States with his new series. Sports car racing was reborn under the guidance of Dr. Don, and the American Le Mans Series and Petit Le Mans became a major force in international sports car racing.

Why did the American Le Mans Series prosper? Again, it was likely because of the personal influence of Don Panoz and his founding principle that the series should be “For the Fans”.

The paddock was open throughout the race week for fans to get up close and personal with the cars, drivers and mechanics. Driver autograph sessions were held at every event, and every driver participated and interacted with fans. The track was opened prior to the race, and the fans were invited to walk among the cars on the starting grid, interacting with their favorite teams just before the race started. If you ask virtually any driver about their favorite race series, they will all say it was the American Le Mans Series.

Can you imagine baseball, football or any other racing venue giving fans so much access? Dr. Don literally invited fans into the locker room of a major sporting event and gave them a truly unique experience.

And the fans rewarded Don Panoz, for they showed up in droves to watch his American Le Mans series all across the country as word spread about this “fan friendly” form of motorsport. Don Panoz himself was a fixture at these events and was easily accessible to fans throughout a race weekend and had countless conversations and posed for countless photos with those fans.

How fitting is it that at the Motul Petit Le Mans this year the Grand Marshall will be a fan? Nick Calhoun was given that honor after winning an essay contest held by Road Atlanta, where he spelled out what Dr. Don Panoz had meant to him and his racing buddies. It was heartfelt and a fitting tribute to a modern legend of motorsport.

Fortunately, the spirit of Don Panoz and the American Le Mans Series lives on with the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, formed with the merger of GrandAm and the ALMS in 2014. The new entity has continued all of the fan friendly innovations first pioneered by Dr. Panoz, and the new series continues to grow and prosper.

We will all be thinking about Don Panoz as we arrive at Road Atlanta this week, and his spirit will certainly live on at his signature event – Petit Le Mans. When Johnny O’Connell takes the DeltaWing around the circuit along with Jan Magnussen driving the Panoz GTR-1 on a lap of honor prior to the start of this year’s race, Don Panoz will be remembered very fondly by the multitude of race fans in attendance.

This event will truly be “For the Fans”.

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Jack Webster has been shooting motorsports since the early 1970’s, covering Formula One, CanAm, F5000, TransAm, GrandAm and American Le Mans races, among others. In addition to his photography, he has also worked on racing teams, both in IMSA and IndyCar, so has a complete knowledge of the inner workings of motorsport. Both his photography and writing can be seen here on racingnation.com. Eddie LePine has been involved in motorsports for over 30 years as photographer, columnist, and driver. Eddie also is now a retired racer (well, retired unless a good ride pops up). You can usually find Eddie in the paddock area, deep in conversation with a driver.