Innovator Panoz aims to retool the sports car
BRASELTON, Ga. -- Don Panoz lives and plays on the outer periphery of the U.S. auto business. But when it comes to the future of sports cars, he may be in the dead center.
The wealthy 78-year-old Atlanta entrepreneur, a one-time Ohio pharmacist who created the nicotine patch, has been churning the discussion for the past year with the DeltaWing, a race car that strives to be a game-changer.
It is not street legal. It's barely even racetrack legal. But Nissan Motor Co. spent the past year promoting the DeltaWing with "Nissan" emblazoned on the side -- not just because of what the project represents on the racetrack but because of what it holds for future sports cars.
The spear-shaped black phenomenon, looking unlike any other vehicle it passes on Le Mans tracks, has drawn crowds and generated buzz. Conceived by racing designer Ben Bowlby, the DeltaWing is powered by a petite 1.6-liter, four-cylinder turbocharged engine. Its front tires are just 4 inches wide. It has half the weight and gets twice the fuel economy of other Le Mans racing circuit cars.
In October during the Petit Le Mans race at the Road Atlanta racetrack here, race officials forced the DeltaWing to make pit stops it didn't need to compensate for its competitive fuel advantage -- just to be fair. It still finished fifth.
In February, Nissan and Panoz (PAY'-nohz) parted company on the project. The partners disagreed on how fast to move on further development of the car, according to sources familiar with the arrangement. Panoz now intends to put a slightly altered DeltaWing into the Twelve Hours of Sebring race March 16 at Sebring International Raceway and the American Le Mans Monterey race May 11 at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in California.
Don Panoz: The fact that the DeltaWing racer is “so different is what attracts people.”
Nissan: Still interested
Meanwhile, Nissan says it is still interested in the ideas behind the racer and expects to begin competing on its own at Le Mans in 2014, using lessons from the DeltaWing project. DeltaWing designer Bowlby is now working with Nissan.
As recently as January, Nissan had shown the DeltaWing at international auto shows. Darren Cox, director of Nissan Global Motorsports, said before the split that Nissan sees the project contributing to the company's sports cars.
If a race car can perform respectably with a small engine, lightweight body and high fuel efficiency, Cox asks, why can't a sports car offer the same advantages?
In a taped interview that appeared on nissansportz.com just days before the partnership's demise, Cox explained that Nissan increased its role in the DeltaWing project when it became apparent that "it was going to change people's perceptions of motorsports, of downsizing and of aerodynamics," the future trends of the auto industry, he said.
"We had to get more involved so that we could learn lessons, not just from the engine technology but also from the chassis and the aero.
"This really is a beacon for Nissan's innovation," Cox said. "Motorsport really needs to lead the rest of the business."
In October before the start of the Petit Le Mans race, the car drew hundreds of onlookers out of the stands and onto the racetrack to see it up close. Panoz said privately that day that he has invested $20 million so far to fund the DeltaWing, and now has a two-passenger DeltaWing on the drawing board, with an eye toward a street version.
He believes that, just as racing fans are intrigued by something new and different on the track, sports car consumers are looking for new and different ideas in the showroom.
"The fact that it's so different is what attracts people," Panoz said, exhaling cigarette smoke, despite having invented the technology to help millions stop smoking. "But what we've proven here is that it's a competitive force, even at half the weight and half the engine."
Radical racing ideas
Panoz made his fortune inventing and patenting the nicotine patch in the 1980s. He has publicly stated that he not "a billionaire," but according to press reports, his patch has earned someone about $3 billion to date.
Since the 1990s, he has invested part of his wealth to buy Road Atlanta, a Grand Prix motor speedway. He built a vineyard and luxury resort next to it called Chateau Elan and created the American Le Mans Series racing circuit, which he said in a recent interview that he no longer owns.
He built more wineries, resorts and golf courses in California, Scotland and Australia; acquired a Grand Prix racetrack in Ontario; acquired the British race car manufacturing company Van Diemen International Ltd., acquired Sebring International and launched a high-tech race car materials company called Elan Motorsports Technologies, which is marketing a body material that is lighter weight than carbon fiber -- a material gaining some use in the U.S. auto industry. Panoz calls his material Recyclable Energy Absorbing Matrix System, or REAMS. It is a composite woven from polymer threads that is about 20 percent lighter than carbon fiber.
Along the way, Panoz also funded the startup of Panoz Auto Development Co., a company run by son Danny Panoz to design, build and market limited-edition, high-end sports cars. That company halted marketing efforts in 2007 because of the economic downturn. Contacted by Automotive News, Danny Panoz says the company now makes parts and does tuning work for other auto manufacturers, including parts for the DeltaWing.
But he said he is considering a return to assembling sports cars.
You can reach Lindsay Chappell at email@example.com.