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Scott Atherton on Don Panoz

Looking back on the legacy of his boss, and his friend

In the wake of the announcement of the passing of Don Panoz there were a number of racing folk that I wanted to catch up with to try to give DSC readers a flavour of the man that did so much to change the sport that we report every day.

There was one particular man though who, I felt, deserved a little more space than most to tell the story of that journey.

Scott Atherton, head-hunted by Don to head up his varied motorsports interests and, throughout the story of the American Le Mans Series and later into the new, merged, IMSA years, a hugely significant figure in his own right in the sport.

We started – as seemed appropriate – at the very beginning:

Scott how and where did it all begin between you and Don Panoz?

“I was, at the time I first met Don, the President and CEO of California Speedway working for the Penske Motorsports Group, which was subsequently acquired by the International Speedway Corporation – ISC.

“I had been following media reports of how dire the status of professional sportscar racing was in North America and the various machinations of groups aligning and fragmenting. It seemed a complete shambles.

“But I kept reading about this guy, Don Panoz, that had a team with these incredible cars, the GTR-1, and as a fan of sportscar racing, I’d followed it for years, I had one eye on it because the other eye was firmly on NASCAR and IndyCar, the focus of my responsibilities at California Speedway.

“I was a good fit in the job in the Penske model, but when the acquisition occurred it didn’t feel like as good a fit for me.

“I was at my desk one day and got a call from (Homestead-Miami Speedway developer) Ralph Sanchez. We’d known each other for years by virtue of being IndyCar promoters and attending many of the same meetings.

“He was very blunt – asked straight out if I knew a guy named Don Panoz, I said I was aware of him, but we had never met.

“Ralph asked if I would have any interest in speaking to Don about working with him. Ralph had just got to know him and had realised that Don had a huge amount going on. It was crazy. He’d acquired Sebring, Road Atlanta and Mosport. He’d acquired IMSA and was launching this thing called the American Le Mans Series, he’d bought van Diemen and G-Force and had absolutely nobody to look after any of it!

“Ralph was looking out for Don and had been straight with him telling him he needed help, and needed it immediately!

“Now with my own feelings about how things were going with the acquisition, I was open to the prospect of a new career direction.

“I made arrangements to meet with Don. I was actually in Florida on other business and arranged to stay on at the end of my trip. At the time Don was living in Savannah, Georgia. I took a plane to Savannah, and Don picked me up in one of his Panoz Roadsters, the AIV, (Aluminum Intensive Vehicle!).

“I got off the plane with my briefcase and suitcase and of course there’s nowhere whatsoever to put them. I belted myself into this go-kart on steroids with everything on my lap and we went flying through the streets of Savannah to a very elegant home where I met his wife Nancy for the first time.

“We ended up out on the porch drinking iced tea until well after midnight with Don sharing all of his ideas of what he wanted to do with Sebring and Mosport, and what was already happening at Road Atlanta, and what was going to happen with the American Le Mans Series – he said we’re going to launch the Womens GT Championship, and then the European Le Mans Series and then the Asia Pacific Le Mans Series and, by the end of the evening he said: “Would you like to see these things?”

“I’d been to Mosport, Sebring and Road Atlanta, but not recently.

“To cut a long story short he then said, “My plane is here, the pilots are here, why don’t you and I do a little bit of a tour tomorrow?”

“We got up early, jumped on his Challenger 600 and flew to Canada, met with Myles Brandt, walked the Mosport property, got back on the plane and flew to Atlanta.

“Again we walked the property and he showed me the plans there, plus the new paddock and pitlane and all the changes and safety improvements that had been made.

“Then we got back on the plane and flew to Sebring and did the same thing again.

“I think he dropped me off at Orlando from where I made my way back to California with my head spinning. Then I didn’t hear from him, and I was a little nervous! When we parted company I knew that we were getting married – but you know you have to go and tell your parents and I have to go and tell mine, so to speak!

“He took off in another direction for a while, he was still involved in the pharmaceutical industry at the time and he went radio silent on me and it was several days later before I got a follow-up call from him saying, Yeah, so here’s the deal, you’ll be president of Panoz Motorsports Group which would include all of the entities, the tracks, IMSA, ALMS, etc. plus the race car manufacturing, Elan Power, Elan Composites, Elan Precision Engineering, all the manufacturing divisions that had been launched, initially to service his race team, but ultimately evolved to build Indy 500 winning cars, among many other accomplishments.

“It was a very brief negotiation to come to terms on all of the details that go along with a job change of that magnitude. So we packed up the family, my wife and three young kids, left California and moved to Georgia!

“That was Spring of 2000 and the American Le Mans Series had been launched the previous season, the first abbreviated season had been completed when I arrived on the scene.

“Bill Donaldson gets the credit for birthing the baby, Don was smart getting Bill, who had just left a big job at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, in as a consultant to launch the ALMS. But it was an all fly-in cast. I was the first staff member to actually be based in Braselton, Georgia at the offices of Panoz Motorsports Group.

Now I have had time with Don several times over the years, sometimes in semi-social situations, and what characterised those times was a sort of machine-gunning of ideas and stories?

“The machine gun flow of ideas is a very apt description, and in the early days of the American Le Mans Series where it was just green shoots coming out of the ground, we had just been able to put together a proper schedule of quality venues with legitimate promoters that were buying into our vision and investing with us to make that Championship viable and I recall Don coming in to my office one morning and saying, “OK, now that the ALMS is up and running I’m under some pressure from the ACO so we’re going to need to launch the European Le Mans Series!”

“I looked at him like he had three heads!

“To put that into perspective, Don was, quite correctly very guarded with our resources, we had the American Le Mans Series just emerging, but still losing a lot of money. And with the same very small staff we were now being tasked with the challenge of launching another Series, this time across the Atlantic Ocean with an entirely new set of venues in foreign countries and all of the challenges, commercial, logistical, and even language that that entails!

“So I said to Don – “OK, and when and how do you suggest that we do that?’

““Don’t worry,” he told me, “I’ve got a guy that is going to help us out!”

“That was John Macdonald and he had a good handle on European tracks and promoters and with John and maybe one other person to help him, part time, that’s all we need! Right…”

“So that’s how we got to the point of launching a second professional, international sportscar championship with two people and some limited assistance from the handful of people we had in Braselton, Georgia!

“But we did it – spending a tremendous amount of time on the phone, a LOT of emails and a lot of time on airplanes and I will give John a lot of credit for at least giving it a hell of an effort. The cards were stacked against us very significantly, with some incumbent Championships that weren’t thrilled about a pharmaceutical czar from America coming into their territory as a new start-up competitor.

“Ultimately, and thankfully, we decided that our resources were better focused solely on the American Le Mans Series and we quietly brought the European series to an end – but not before the decision was made to also launch the Asia-Pacific Le Mans Series!

“That was to be launched with the epic kick-off event, the Race of a Thousand Years at Adelaide in Australia.

“I think it was one of Don’s finest hours and how we pulled all of this off is, again, remarkable in and of itself.

“Because it involved entrants from around the world, with logistics that were very challenging. Back then the only real ‘travelling’ four-wheel Championship was Formula One. No part of it was easy.

“We had never moved equipment and personnel around the world like that and, again, credit where credit is due, Dean Rainsford was the man on the ground in Adelaide, very, very sharp guy, a successful businessman with a passion for racing. He, Don and I got along very well and that event, for a first-time startup, was an unqualified success! Maybe too much so…

“Anyone who attended that event came away with probably a one-word response – Wow!!

“Doing it at all was an amazing thing but doing it over Christmas and New Year’s made it that much more challenging. And honestly, you can barely find a more difficult part of the world to get to! it’s a long way from just about everywhere. But once you were there, it’s just beautiful, and in December it is the middle of summer, but the getting there was the challenge, not just for the people, but of course for the cars and the equipment!

“I had a very effective system of filtration of ideas to manage the flood of ideas from Don. I had to run interference on some of the ideas that, with absolutely all respect, were not possible or aligned with our goals. You know he gets full credit and respect from me for so many brilliant ideas that transformed many an industry, but in amongst that there was always a steady stream of ideas that, a… didn’t pass the feasibility test!

“It wasn’t easy, ever, to say no to Don and I’ve had many a phone call from the people that still work in the Panoz organisation since I left saying “Oh do we miss you!”

“There’s no doubt that the filtration of ideas and allocation of resources was a very important part of my role through that 14-year stretch. Resources were finite, and you wanted to make sure that you were putting those resources behind initiatives that were practical, viable, logical and were relevant to the bigger picture towards success. But you know something, managing the stream of ideas was absolutely part of what made working there, and working with him so amazing.

“It wasn’t just the out of the blue ideas – whenever there was a fork in the road, a barrier to success, an unforeseen problem, whatever, Don had an uncanny ability to come up with a solution to provide a way through, or around, the issue. And he had a way of thinking that through that, nearly every time, had you thinking, “damn, why didn’t I think of that!

“I think it was perhaps his ability not to be bogged down in the granular day-to-day, boots on the ground part of any issue that made him such a brilliant thinker, always seeing the overview, always a fresh set of ideas.”

Maintaining and growing participation, and trust in ALMS despite also building and racing cars that were competing against the factory teams!

“I will give Don high marks for never leaning in on any aspect of rules, regulations, race officiating, any part whatsoever.

“I think its because he started out exclusively as a competitor, as a team owner and witnessed the unravelling of sportscar racing with that situation, the owner of IMSA participating in regulatory and officiating decisions, being more prevalent than it should have been.

“There’s no place for any outside influence in any competition- period, but Don had the added benefit of having experienced some of that, and witnessing its negative impact as a competitor himself. That actually became the motivation, the catalyst, that created the American Le Mans Series.

“Don knew that if he could create a platform that wouldn’t have any examples of that sort of activity that other like-minded manufacturers, team owners, sponsors, promoters etc would embrace it, and that’s exactly what happened.

“Don competed with his own cars, of his own designs, his own construction with his own race teams and believe me there was many a situation where close, and debatable calls were made and he accepted it without any hesitation every time and the Championship was the better for that.”

And what about the personal chemistry, 14 years working closely together means that there simply has to have been a strong element of that too?

“It was a true partnership of two diversely different individuals. We were separated by many years in terms of age, very little in common outside of our shared focus and complete passion for motorsport, that went well beyond the American Le Mans Series. Mine lifelong, Don’s recently acquired.

“In those early days of launching the ALMS and redeveloping the tracks it was Don’s first, second and third priority, it was an all-in effort, and it had to be because it was such a daunting task to run the businesses that he had acquired, that he had purchased without any regard for an operating structure or profitability. We burned through a lot of capital.

“To have Van Diemen building open wheel cars in the UK and G-Force designing and building IRL cars on the other side of the country, and all of the enterprises that were Braselton-based, plus the three racetracks and IMSA and the ALMS and the ELMS – we were together seven days a week, and if we weren’t together in the office we were together on his airplane.

“I’ve never smoked a cigarette in my life, and for 14 years I feel like I smoked a couple of packs a day! The secondary smoke was an ever-present aspect of life with Don!

“Don could be very, very emotional, and there would be reactions at times that could be very difficult – it could create a high tension situation between us but we always, every time, found a way to get around it and get back on track, back to the matters at hand.

“He made many, many things possible for me, and for my family, in a way that I give him nothing but huge credit and respect and thanks for.

“I saw all sides of Don, a brilliant thinker and one of the most engaging fun-loving people to be around, and I also witnessed the angriest, most cantankerous entrepreneur you could imagine! Those few examples though don’t stand out. What does stand out, my overall memory of Don, is much, much more positive than any of that, what he achieved, and we achieved together is part of a great legacy.

“14 years of absolute ‘runnin’ & gunnin’ has left me with many very fond memories and a catalog of adventures. Don ran on the rev limiter right to the very end. And I have no doubt that is exactly how he wanted it to go.

“The stamina and energy that he displayed, his work ethic and the commitment he had to his interests were outstanding.

“It used to blow me away that, thinking about how busy we were on the motorsport side of Don’s world , and we had a LOT going on.

“But then it would hit me that Don also has every bit as much going on with the resort / golf course / winery divisions, the residential real-estate division, he was also continuing to acquire controlling interests in other investments from water treatment to revolutionary digital video screens. He had more going on than the law should allow!

“I am really, truly, going to miss the experience of being around him. He had a joke a minute. He had them in his hip pocket like change and he would pull out of his memory. There were key words that would trigger jokes and great stories. You could be having a conversation about a very serious business matter, a heavy topic and somebody would say something that would trigger a joke or a story in Don’s mind from 2 weeks, or 2 years or maybe 30 years ago that would result in a hiatus in the meeting while Don regaled everybody in the room with what happened when he was travelling in some remote country you’ve never heard of selling pharmaceuticals, or it was about the time the plane crashed, or an R-rated joke or whatever, there were a million of them!

“There are so, so many stories – years ago my wife and I went to see the movie ‘Tucker’ about the story of the man behind the Tucker Motor Company. Part way through the show I leaned over to my wife and said that some day there is going to be a movie called ‘Panoz’ because there are so many parallel lines there, and, with Don Panoz, much more.

“A brilliant man, we’re all going to miss him so very much.”