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.