The recent announcement by the Panoz Motor Sports Group that it was selling Mosport International Raceway to a Canadian ownership group was another step in an ongoing evolution of the sports car racing organization founded by Dr. Don Panoz, whose vision and commitment paved the way for the development of the American Le Mans Series from the crumbling foundations of Professional Sports Car Racing, nee IMSA, in the late 1990s.
“In 1997, Professional Sports Car Racing, Sebring and Mosport were all under the control of Andy Evans,” recalls Panoz. “By the end of that year and toward the last race, the series was falling apart. I was told that if someone didn't step up and buy Sebring and Mosport, another group would take over the sanctioning. So I stepped up and agreed to buy it.
“I have to say that I wasn't completely aware of all the history of Mosport at the time. Then almost immediately I started to find out through Myles (Brandt, Mosport president and general manager) the history of the track, being the first place Formula 1 raced in North America, and tradition of the track. It's really one of the best road tracks in all of Canada and has a very good reputation.”
Even as its racecar constructor arm fielded exotic prototype roadsters in the series (RIGHT), Panoz Motorsport Group developed plans to take Mosport to the next level.
“It needed some work,” he recalls of the facility. “We built new pits, a new pit entry. We started doing maintenance and improving the track year by year. We took the ALMS there in 1999 and saw the numbers grow and watched the Canadian support grow.
“In 2008, we laid out a plan to develop Mosport into more of a tourist facility for people in the Toronto area to have a motorsport country club – and then the financial crisis hit and we put those plans on hold,” he explains. “Three to four years go by and, me being maybe 80 years old when it comes to fruition didn't seem a very bright thing to do. But, last October, this group made contact with us. (Transportation industry leader) Al Boughton and (real-estate developer) Carlo Fidani and, of course, (Canadian racing legend) Ron Fellows (with Panoz, ABOVE). And their vision of what to do in the future with the track was similar to what we were working on in 2008. This is a good group of people and we're delighted to do a deal with them. It's the right group of people for that track – they certainly were capable of carrying through the kind of vision that we had. And they have some great ideas that they're going to start on right away.
“I think it's a win for Canada – Mosport is a Canadian treasure as far as motorsport goes. And they want to carry it forward and keep it going and for the ALMS to continue to race there.”
The transition in ownership of the Canadian circuit comes at a time when Panoz's ALMS appears to be evolving schedule-wise, too, with new street course events added in Baltimore this year as part of a doubleheader with IndyCar, and another in Oklahoma City on the horizon, while the permanent road circuit at Miller Motorsports Park was pulled from the calendar this year. Panoz says that this shouldn't be seen as a change of direction so much as a response to specific situations and opportunities.
“I don't think it's philosophical, no,” Panoz says when asked if the new venues represented a change in approach. “There are always entrepreneurs out there, like I was when I created the series in '98, there are others who want to bring racing to the cities. The case in Baltimore, that's very good and we saw some visionary guys in Oklahoma who wanted to do that. Some people are successful in getting to it and if that's available and a good environment to race in, then, of course, we want to be a part of it.
“But it isn't a policy that we want to do more [street course] racing than on the traditional tracks – that's not the case at all. We want to race where our fans can come – and we've shown over the years that, even with the economic downturn, the series has continued to grow.”
He remains confident about long-term prospects at Miller Motorsports Park, too, despite it falling off the calendar this year.
“(MMP) has a great facility, but Salt Lake was traditionally not a motorsports city – it was basketball and everything else. That facility over the long run will continue to grow and create some fans. But we're always looking for facilities where the fans can come and see the racing and have a nice experience, and in some cases that's a road course downtown and we're delighted to have the opportunity to participate wherever.”
Panoz is also optimistic about the positioning of his series with regard to the racing and auto industries as a whole, although he recognizes that too is a process that must roll with the punches of the times.
“We know – at least I'm beginning to understand it – that motorsports goes through cycles,” says Panoz. “Sometimes we're in a cycle where we're very well balanced, and then little things can happen – there can be rule changes, there can be emphasis on green, there can be emphasis on diesel – where it gets all out of kilter and you have to go back and adjust and get it back in the cycle where it was really prospering. I think the effect of the diesels has been good for green racing, to show that these things can be competitive, but I think balancing that and finding ways of encouraging other teams and other privateers to compete needs to be looked at.”
Panoz makes plain that he's comfortable with the people he has in place to handle those issues, like series president and CEO Scott Atherton, while he focuses on the big picture.
“I'm more of the dreamer-type guy; I like to create things and build them, but we've got really good professional people in IMSA and the American Le Mans Series and they do a good job,” Panoz says of day-to-day management. “I continue to have an interest in that and to try to find ways to improve racing or to attract more fans and to consolidate the ground that we're on.
“We understand that we have a competitive situation – that there are some people who don't like what we do – but the fans seem to like it and, if you remember, the original phrase for the American Le Mans Series was, ‘Racing for the fans.'” We continue to keep that uppermost in our minds, but along with that we have to also keep in mind that we have to have to encourage privateers to come. They come because they have a vision that on any given day they have a chance to be on the podium and to win a race, and that they can do that against major manufacturers – and I've had that experience myself. So we've got to find ways to keep those things balanced and to continue to encourage them.”