Hi Ho Silver! Panoz to the Rescue!
IMSA has circulated a first draft of new regulations to GT teams, outlining a
proposal to allow 4-door sedans to compete in the American Le Mans Series. The
idea is to entice new manufacturers into the championship, for instance Cadillac
with the CTS-V that races in the Speed World Challenge GT series, maybe Audi
and Volvo too.
Doug Robinson has disclosed that the Automobile Club de l’Ouest was
"responsive" to the suggestion, just as the French were sympathetic when IMSA
asked to back-track on the new LMP1 and LMP2 rules and stick with 2003
regulations for the time being.
Room at the Top
All well and good. If IMSA wants to drift away from the ACO and offer the fans an
alternative form of racing, that’s their business, but sooner or later they will have to
stop calling it the American Le Mans Series.
More to the point, I think that Don Panoz, Scott Atherton and Robinson are adding
too much weight to the wrong end of the field, overloading the ‘tin-tops’ without
addressing the dire lack of prototypes, which the fans pay good money to watch.
Too much pendulum, not enough clock-face, you might say.
Just what are the fans getting now, in the bloated mid-season calendar? One
Audi, two Dyson MG Lolas that are driven balls-to-the-wall to keep up, a grand
total of six prototypes as Kerry Morse has just mentioned. The score so far? Audi
4, Lola 0 (please update this score-sheet after Portland!).
Long Promised Road
We have travelled a long way since October 4, 1998 when the inaugural Petit Le
Mans was contested by the Porsche factory team, Don Panoz’s own GT
prototypes, Riley & Scotts, Ferrari 333 SPs and the Mazda Kudzu, 13 prototypes in
a field of 30 (the race was won by Wayne Taylor, Eric van de Poele and Emmanuel
Collard in the Doyle Risi Ferrari 333 SP, after Yannick Dalmas performed a stylish
back-flip in the Porsche LMP1-98).
In the years that followed, Don Panoz’s brave venture lost the Porsche factory
team but gained the BMW and Audi prototypes, and the grids held up well until
BMW withdrew, to concentrate on Formula One, and Audi put a stranglehold on
the LMP900 class.
It was nobody’s fault, least of all Don Panoz’s, but he suffered, just as the ACO
suffered, just as Stephane Ratel and the FIA suffered, from the mass withdrawal
of the manufacturers. When they turn up everybody is happy, and when they go
away we’re all left scratching our heads.
Panoz has the answer within his own group. He owns the G-Force racing car
manufacturer, and it only needs a prompt from the ginger-haired visionary to have
them build a dozen sports-prototypes to the new LMP1 regulations. They would be
called Panoz, of course, and they would be powered exclusively by Ford (Elan) or
Chevrolet V8 engines, all 6-litre capacity and restricted to 650 horsepower.
What the ALMS lacks right now is thunder. It needs a big noise, more than the
turbocharged cars have to offer. American engines make the best noise, and
many Americans believe that Can-Am racing represented the pinnacle of sports-
car competition in the late 1960s and early 1970s. They made the ground shake,
they sent a shiver through the fans each time they passed -- and isn’t that what
thrills NASCAR fans?
The Doors of Perception
Grand-Am is succeeding despite the ugly duckling styling, despite the power
levels being pegged back to suit the Porsche interest. Because of this and that,
Grand-Am missed its chance to make a hugely appealing formula, so the door is
still wide open for IMSA, which has all the classic events, save the Daytona 24-
Hours, but has poor grids.
Think of it, a dozen Panoz LMP1 prototypes with a little more power than the
Audis and a lot more than the MG Lolas! Nothing would please the ACO more,
because it might be the clincher for Audi to build the R9, Porsche to re-enter
prototype racing at the top level, Mazda North America to take the plunge, and
Would it be commercial? That would be the biggest factor for Panoz to decide.
Any number of teams might be tempted, those of Rob Dyson, Intersport,
Champion, Essex, and maybe a couple of ‘returnees’ from Grand-Am -- for
instance, Wayne Taylor and Kevin Doran -- included. Six teams, twelve cars, and
Dr Panoz would be back in business. There is the European market to consider,
too, some scope there for selling new cars.
Necessarily his cars would be capable of winning ALMS races outright. A little
concession from the ACO, for instance larger air restrictors for stock-block
engines, should do the trick. Give these teams the chance to win at Sebring, Le
Mans, Road Atlanta and Laguna Seca, the ALMS and the Le Mans Endurance
Series, and they’ll be sorely tempted.
Open or closed? Why not give teams the choice: open sports cars with optional
windshields and hardtops, which would not need to add to the structural integrity
of the car? Open one week, closed the next, depends on the type of circuit.
Look upon my Works, Ye Mighty and Despair!
‘Easy for you to say‘, Dr Panoz might respond. ‘You only have a word processor
to maintain, I have the Elan Technology Group to maintain profitably.’
He would be right, but it pains me to see the ALMS wasting away, all the good
work being undone and all the investment trickling into the sand. I have always
maintained that Panoz might be one of the world’s best businessmen, but since
his arrival in motor racing he has been a philanthropist. The man for whom the
saying was coined "How do you make a small fortune in motor racing? By starting
with a large one!"
He ordered cars from Adrian Reynard, unfashionably front-engined, but they
became race winners. He bought circuits, Road Atlanta, Sebring and Mosport,
and developed them hugely. He bought the organisation, which reverted to its true
title, IMSA, built up a great management team, and more than anything, he
conceived and built the American Le Mans Series.
In all sorts of ways, Don Panoz did what we thought was impossible. Or crazy. Or
both. And he succeeded beyond measure. Now the show is on the slide, and he
needs to make one more gesture, sign an order at G-Force, which could prove
expensive but might be the saving of all he worked for in the past eight years.
Are you there, Don?