Understanding Don Panoz Through His Most Ambitious Race Car

Twenty years before hybrids became a normal sight at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Dr. Don Panoz pursued an ambitious experiment with the hybrid-powered Q9.

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From the Marshall Pruett Archives

The essence of Dr. Don Panoz is found in his Q9 Le Mans challenger. Fresh into the world of motor racing, the late pharmaceutical billionaire ignored the sport’s conventions. Wandering down unusual paths fed his innate curiosity.

Lost this week at 83, the man had a singular calling. We can find deep insights into his way of thinking in the grossly unsuccessful gas-electric Q9 hybrid prototype, an early Panoz racing experiment from 1998.

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Starting with 1997's front-engine Panoz Esperante GTR-1 race car, Dr. Don's Q9 design rejected the standard practice of building a sports prototype with the engine mounted midship. His son Danny's low-volume Panoz car company made boutique front-engine roadsters that served as the underpinnings for so much of what Dr. Don would pursue in the sport.

Wisdom be damned, the GTR-1, the Q9, and its immediate successors would all feature front-engine designs like Danny’s cars. Panoz spent his way to competitiveness against the giant auto manufacturers and their sleek rear-engine solutions, and his insistence on fielding race cars that looked like their roadgoing versions gifted us with some unforgettable machines to behold.

With the Q9, a creation somewhat lovingly dubbed "Sparky," Panoz showed us his mission statement. If the big, roaring Ford V8 caged beneath the GTR-1’s mile-long hood wasn’t enough of a middle finger to its European competitors, Panoz delighted in mixing retro propulsion with cutting-edge technology.

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From the Marshall Pruett Archives
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Through the specialist UK firm Zytek, Panoz broke new ground by fitting a monstrous battery pack and electric motor to the GTR-1, christened it the Q9, and headed to the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The first of its kind, the Panoz hybrid prototype arrived at La Sarthe two decades before the event’s organizers would summon the courage to add hybrid systems as compulsory items for its marquee prototype class.

As history has ably documented, the Q9 was everything but successful. Dreadfully overweight thanks to the 200-pound battery pack and associated hybrid components, the car lacked outright pace when it wasn’t halted by severe electrical problems. It failed to qualify for the race. But as many pioneering creations have done, the Q9’s shortcomings would provide key insights on how to improve the use of hybrids in competition.

That’s where we return to the brilliance of Don Panoz. In the marriage of the GTR-1 and the hybrid-electric system that followed, we’d properly understand his backwards approach to forward thinking. Rock steady in his front-engine ethos, Panoz was determined to prove the old, proven ways of the past could be relevant in modern times. And despite clinging to the anchors of history, he would not stop until next-generation technology was brought forth in one of his vehicles—even if it wasn't quite ready for prime time.

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Dr. Don Panoz at the 78th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2010.
Getty ImagesRick Dole

Panoz applied the same formula to the drowning IMSA sports car series he purchased late in the 1990s. Relaunched as the American Le Mans Series, he moored the once-proud IMSA organization in throwback ideology. His motto, "For The Fans," could be perceived at trite, but it was the rallying cry the sport needed after years of infighting between rival series that almost killed sports car racing in North America.

A simple commitment—to place fans first—helped the ALMS become a golden example of all that can be achieved in motor racing. As far too many series today continue to search for bigger and more dedicated audiences, Panoz’s ALMS product deserves close study by sanctioning bodies whose cars or drivers are veering toward irrelevance.

And like the Q9, Panoz put movement behind new technologies to elevate the ALMS to new heights. Although the early attempts were occasionally bereft of success, his funding of the ALMS Radio Web—precursor to today’s IMSA radio, staffed by the Radio Le Mans crew—connected the world to his series via the internet a lifetime ago. Live streaming of practice and qualifying sessions also took the ALMS to new online places where other domestic series had not ventured.

Panoz possessed that remarkable trait owned by Dan Gurney, Smokey Yunick, Harry Miller, and precious few others in our sport: He wasn’t afraid to fail. Grand dreams—some vastly overambitious—were his hallmark, and in most cases, his bravery made our sport better. Panoz’s fearlessness changed how we think about racing, and there’s no turning back from that.

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