Don Panoz made his fortune inventing the nicotine patch. Working out of a warehouse in an Atlanta suburb, he’s spending some of it to develop a svelte race car that could transform auto racing and make regular cars more efficient.
The DeltaWing, which looks a bit like the Batmobile, is a collaboration between several companies including Elan Motorsport Technologies, one of several companies Panoz founded in the 1990s to build components for race cars. Its design tapers at the front and features a vertical fin to reduce wind drag. Extremely thin front tires (just four inches wide) and other tweaks to standard car design help keep weight down. Most important, the body is made of a material developed by Elan called REAMS, or Recyclable Energy Absorbing Matrix System, which is a composite plastic made up of tightly woven threads of polymers including PVC, the stuff used in piping. It’s cheaper and 20 percent lighter than the carbon fiber typically used in race cars and luxury vehicles, and far sturdier. REAMS can block bullets, whereas carbon fiber shatters on impact, says Panoz.
Overall, the DeltaWing weighs half as much as a typical Formula One racer while using less fuel and going just as fast, according to Panoz. “When you look at this car, the first thing you think is, ‘It’s going to fly,’ ” he says. He plans to debut the DeltaWing in France’s Le Mans in mid-June, but he hopes REAMS will have applications beyond racing. David Cole, chairman emeritus at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich., says Detroit automakers will be interested: “Everyone would like to have something lightweight that absorbs energy on impact.” Elan’s client list includes aviation companies such as Gulfstream Aerospace (GD) and Lockheed Martin (LMT), as well as a major Chinese automaker, though Panoz won’t go into details about his work for them.
Panoz, 76, started his career a long way from the racetrack: He studied as a pharmacist before founding a generic pharmaceutical maker in 1961. He came up with the idea for a time-release adhesive patch while at a hospital in 1975. His father had a heart condition, and doctors used nitroglycerine to raise his heart rate. The chemical was applied to cardboard and then placed directly on the chest. The fumes gave Panoz a headache, and he realized a nonpermeable backing could prevent their release. Panoz went on to patent an adhesive patch for nicotine and received Food and Drug Administration approval in 1992. He briefly retired before picking up his son’s hobby of building roadsters and started making cars for professional racers and the wealthy.
Panoz used the nicotine patch to quit smoking at one point but restarted 11 years ago after watching his friend Mario Andretti survive a crash while racing a Panoz-built car at 170 miles an hour. While he shuttled visitors between two of his factories recently, a cigarette dangled from his left hand. He stepped on the gas. “We just touched 80,” he said with a grin. “What can I say—I like to drive.”