Scott Atherton and Don Panoz. Photo courtesy of IMSA

Panoz’s racing legacy honored as DeltaWing set to run one more race

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BRASELTON, Ga. – The man who helped save professional sports car racing in North America, Dr. Don Panoz, then shook it up in an even bigger way in 2012.

The DeltaWing was born of a desire to create a car with half the weight, half the horsepower and half the fuel load, but still be ridiculously efficient in terms of aerodynamics and downforce.

It would premiere to massive media attention and critical acclaim at the 2012 24 Hours of Le Mans as a Garage 56 entrant, and Panoz’s vision was achieved with the help of a number of key partners. Dan Gurney’s All American Racers, Ben Bowlby, Michelin, Nissan and Highcroft Racing were the five entities most frequently connected with the car when it ran as the experimental entry at both that year’s Le Mans and then Petit Le Mans in the fall.

It nearly died on the vine as a project, however, after taking that checkered flag at Road Atlanta in an incredible fifth place overall, having made fewer pit stops than the competition, and thus proving its point.

A tortuous road followed as the difference in future direction was revealed between Panoz and the partners, and throughout the winter there was a question if the DeltaWing would live on.

Indeed it did, as nearly an entirely new team was born over that winter.

There was new tires in the form of Bridgestone – adopted from the molds made when the DeltaWing was an IndyCar idea, then rejected by that series’ “ICONIC committee” in 2010 when discussing ideas for a new car. The engine was the 4-cylinder Élan turbo, based off an MZR-R block but with almost no Mazda content in it.

There was a new crew, with staff taken from some other Atlanta-region teams, and veteran team manager David Price brought back for another tour of duty in Braselton. The livery changed; it went from sinister black to chrome and red, and the driver lineup changed once more as well. The team even took a flier on a PR rep that had exactly one race experience in that department… and to this day I don’t know why Dr. P thought I was the right person for the job, but I’m eternally grateful he did. Even if it was only a two-race stint.

The DeltaWing didn’t fit, but then again, that was the point. The car ran in the American Le Mans Series’ LMP1 class in 2013 even though it wasn’t homologated for anything, but it was better than LMP2, where it ran closer on lap times to at Le Mans the previous year.

The DeltaWing. Photo courtesy of IMSA
The DeltaWing. Photo courtesy of IMSA

The four years since have proven that while the DeltaWing may not have had the outright pace to contend on an every-week basis, it’s had that spirit of innovation that has fueled Panoz throughout his motorsports career, and it’s had a fan following that’s been fervent at nearly every race it runs. It’s polarizing, which is probably its best asset.

Panoz’s 20 years in motorsports since the late 1990s have featured a run of abnormal cars, from the first hybrid dubbed “Sparky,” the stealthy GTR-1, the Panoz LMP1 Roadster with the engine in front, the successful but still off-beat Esperante GT2 (which won Le Mans 10 years ago), to the stillborn, unclassified Abruzzi that disappeared after just two starts. And for good measure, he founded the American Le Mans Series on its own in 1999… after only several months of planning and preparation.

But the DeltaWing has lived on for four years, scoring a number of podiums and leading a number of laps along the way. More importantly, as a true prototype, it may be the last of its era as regulations further define sports car racing and outside-the-box creations rarely last.

The failed Nissan LMP1 experiment of 2015 – despite its crews’ best efforts – shows just how difficult it is to make something completely new “go.”

Andy Meyrick and Katherine Legge have served as the primary drivers for the DeltaWing since its 2013 evolution away from the original drivers and crew. Legge has been full-time since her debut at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, which was a race the pair and car podiumed for the first time. Meyrick started a race earlier, at the season-opening Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, and ran full-time in 2013 and 2014 while running the endurance races last year and this year.

Memo Rojas (2015) and Sean Rayhall (2016) have been the other full-season drivers, and the list of other drivers who’ve driven it, or were scheduled to, is listed below.

Satoshi Motoyama’s exploits to try to fix the car at Le Mans in 2012 after it broke made him a cult hero, and the team’s rebuild following an accident in practice with a GT Cup car at the 2012 Petit Le Mans was also a memorable moment from that first year.

  • Marino Franchitti (2012 24 Hours of Le Mans)
  • Satoshi Motoyama (2012 24 Hours of Le Mans)
  • Michael Krumm (2012 24 Hours of Le Mans)
  • Gunnar Jeannette (2012 Petit Le Mans)
  • Lucas Ordonez (2012 Petit Le Mans)
  • Johnny O’Connell (2012 and 2013, both spyder iterations, testing only)
  • Olivier Pla (2013 12 Hours of Sebring)
  • Alexander Rossi (2014 24 Hours of Daytona)
  • Gabby Chaves (2014, 2015, 2016 endurance races)
  • Andreas Wirth (2016 24 Hours of Daytona)

At an event Wednesday night at the Panoz Museum, Panoz admitted that the last thing he’s doing is slowing down.

He just launched a new street car – the Panoz Esperante Avezzano, or Avezzano for short – which has a special connection for Panoz.

Panoz’s grandfather’s wife was killed in the 1915 Avezzano earthquake, which killed more than 30,000 people. A new woman that met Panoz’s grandfather to take care of the two children at the time got married to his grandfather, and the rest, as they say, is history. Because that’s Panoz’s grandmother.

“Without that earthquake… without that woman to take care of the kids, I would not be here, you would not be here, and the Panoz name would not be here,” Dr. P said last night.

And, true to form, Panoz had another surprise up his sleeve.

A surprise announcement occurred Wednesday night when Panoz caught many in the room off guard by announcing the DeltaWing will run at the Rolex 24 at Daytona next year.

The car doesn’t comply with the upcoming 2017 Daytona Prototype international (DPi) regulations, but that hasn’t stopped the car before, and its outright speed at Daytona has been on display early each of the last two years before retirements.

It makes that race a one-race extra signoff, for the visionary who continues to amaze depending on the day or situation.

3-time NHRA champ Larry Dixon gives back to save lives on the streets

Photo courtesy Larry Dixon Racing
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Three-time NHRA Top Fuel champ Larry Dixon is a man on a new mission: to save lives on the streets and highways as perhaps the fastest driving instructor in the world.

Because he’s not currently hurtling down a dragstrip at 330 mph on the NHRA national tour, Dixon is at a point where it was time for him to give back and help youngsters the way so many individuals helped him in his own life and career.

Much like when he became the protege of mentor Don “Snake” Prudhomme – first as a crew member and then as Prudhomme’s hand-picked choice to replace him when he retired as a driver – Dixon is now imparting some of his vast knowledge behind the wheel upon thousands of impressionable teens and young adults around the country.

Dixon recently signed on as an instructor with fellow former Top Fuel champ Doug Herbert’s nationally renowned B.R.A.K.E.S. (Be Responsible and Keep Everyone Safe) driver safety training program. Since Herbert formed the free, non-profit program in 2008 to honor the memory of sons Jon and James, who were both killed in a tragic car crash, B.R.A.K.E.S. has trained over 35,000 students across the U.S. and five countries to be better and safer drivers.

MORE: Drag racer Doug Herbert turns son’s deaths into program that has helped over 35,000 teens

After putting two of his own teen children through Herbert’s program (with a third child to go through the program soon), Dixon was so impressed with the training that his kids received that he told his old buddy he wanted to become involved with B.R.A.K.E.S.

“I’ve known Doug since we were in high school,” Dixon told NBC Sports. “We both worked at a chain of speed shops in Southern California, Doug at one in Orange County and me at one in the San Fernando Valley in Van Nuys. We came up together racing Alcohol cars and Top Fuel cars kind of along the same lines. That’s how long I’ve known Doug.

Photo: Larry Dixon Racing

“I ran my son through the course a couple years ago when it came through Indianapolis (where Dixon and his family now live), and then my daughter signed up for a class a couple months ago, and that kind of got the talk going because I’m not on the (NHRA national event) tour now and I’ve got more time and the conversation just snowballed and here I am.

“I obviously believe in the deal if I ran my own kids through the system. The program is very methodical but still personal. When you put the kids in the car, you’ve got one instructor and three students, so they’re getting taught one-on-one almost.”

Even though he’s been driving for nearly 40 years, Dixon, 52, readily admits with a chuckle, “I’ve even learned things from the program already, which shows you’re never too old to learn.”

In a more serious vein, Dixon said from his perspective as both an instructor and a parent of two of the program’s graduates is how parents are so vital to the program’s impact.

“It’s mandatory that when you’re running a student through the program that at least one parent or guardian is also there, so the message you’re teaching the teens, you have to rely on the parent to not only be on the same page as what we’re teaching, but to also drive that message home for the rest of their lives.”

Dixon isn’t teaching students to drive 330 mph or to become aspiring drag racers. On the contrary. Dixon is right at home giving instructions on how students can avoid incidents or accidents on streets and highways at speeds typically between 30 and 50 mph.

“It’s more impactful as far as your legacy,” Dixon said of his motivation to teach. “Obviously, I’ve won a lot of races, but what I have to show for those wins are trophies but they’re in the basement, and if you don’t dust them, they get dusty.

“What I’m doing with B.R.A.K.E.S., you’re making a difference for people hopefully for the rest of their lives, and that’s bigger. I remember when I first got my own racing license. The first day I had my license, I was a race car driver but I wasn’t a great race car driver right away, I just had a license. It took a lot of years and a lot of runs and laps down the racetrack to be able to be good.

“It’s the same thing with a driver’s license. You go through the driver’s education course and such and they hand you your license, but that doesn’t make you a great driver. It takes a lot of road time to be able to get that experience. And the great thing about this course is you’re trying to ramp up that experience and put the teens in situations ahead of time so that when they’re in the real world, they’ll know how to react to them.

Larry Dixon is interviewed recently during his debut as a driving instructor for B.R.A.K.E.S. Photo courtesy B.R.A.K.E.S.

“These cars nowadays have so many safety features on them, but they don’t get taught. When you go through a basic driver’s education course, they don’t teach you that you can slam on the brakes and if you have an ABS (anti-lock) brake system, let alone how to use it, so that’s part of what we’re running the kids through. It lets them speed up and then slam on the brakes and feeling what ABS does and that a car isn’t going to spin out or flip over like you might see in a ‘Fast and Furious’ movie. Most people don’t know what you can do with a car and how great cars will take care of you as long as they use the tools you’re supplied with.”

Dixon has already taught three different classes in the last month, with five more sessions scheduled primarily in the Midwest in the coming months. You can immediately hear the passion and self-satisfaction he’s getting from being a teacher.

“I really do enjoy it,” Dixon said. “You get to see the difference you can make in someone’s lives. When you get them on a skid course and they’re learning how to get out of a spin or slide, they’re having fun but also learning a valuable lesson.

“After they’ve taken the course, they have a bounce in their step and know and understand cars better and have a good time doing it. That’s what Doug has done, out of his tragedy, he’s really making a difference in other people’s lives. We’re not trying to turn the kids into Mario Andretti or anything like that … just to be better and safer drivers.”

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