In November, the world learned that the popular DeltaWing, one of motor racing’s groundbreaking race cars, will not compete in the Rolex 24 At Daytona as previously scheduled. New Automobile Club de l’Ouest prototype rules didn’t include a place for the paradigm busting race car. It’s a shame because the lawn-dart-shaped car was finally showing competitiveness.
The DeltaWing tossed every race-car-design notion into a cocked hat from the start. It was created by Chip Ganassi Racing Technical Director Ben Bowlby, who introduced the concept to IndyCar officials as a potential Indy car chassis.
Ganassi and Bowlby believed another “cookie cutter” Indy car was the last thing the slumping series needed. The DeltaWing looked more like a fighter jet than a race car with its tall vertical fin. Though jaws dropped, IndyCar leaders didn’t take the car seriously and sent Bowlby packing.
Broken but unbowed, Bowlby pressed on. He approached ACO officials to run their Garage 56 category for “experimental” cars at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. As luck would have it, Don Panoz invited the DeltaWing to run at the 2011 Petit Le Mans where the ACO officials would be attending. Panoz has a long history as an innovator in both business and racing. He built and campaigned the world’s only front-engine LM P1 in the American Le Mans Series.
“It (the DeltaWing) was something that grew on me,” Panoz recalled. “I always like a challenge, they told me I couldn’t grow grapes in Georgia. too. I said: ‘Well, let’s look into it,’ and sent the letter to the ACO. They accepted it for Garage 56.”
The DeltaWing project was initially shepherded by Duncan Dayton’s Highcroft Racing, which contracted Dan Gurney’s All American Racers to build the car. Panoz was not directly involved in the project at that time, but stopped by the Santa Ana, Calif., shop en route to a business trip in Australia.
He was displeased by what he discovered.
“I stopped by AAR and heard that their designers and people had not been paid,” Panoz remembered. “The monies they (Highcroft) purported to have raised were not raised. So I stepped in and started funding it and got it built for Garage 56. I had two reasons. I had represented I would have a car for them (ACO) for Garage 56 in 2012. Secondly, I had gotten to know a little bit about the technology and I believed it would work.”
So through a series of events, Panoz moved from an interested bystander to become deeply involved in the DeltaWing program.
Panoz went for broke when deciding where the DeltaWing would race just weeks after initial testing. Its first journey came during the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring. While the chassis took the incessant pounding of the WWII bomber base concrete, the engine didn’t make the grade.
Panoz took the setback in stride: “When you have a car for four months you’re going to have problems. When you have one for three months you’re going to have a lot of problems. We had it for two weeks and we had a hell of a lot of problems.”
The 24 Hours of Le Mans was next. The car qualified 29th — 18 seconds off the leader’s pace. Come race day it was competitive with the LM P2 prototypes. However, the DeltaWing’s second sortie ended after 75 laps with a spectacular crash. Driver Satoshi Motoyama was uninjured, proving the chassis was safe.
Panoz says the design philosophy works. “First of all, it’s a challenge because the DeltaWing is completely new,” he explained. “When you consider the performance of this car, it’s the performance of a hybrid but it doesn’t need batteries and an electric motor. It’s all based on aerodynamics and physics. It’s certainly very green; it’s half the weight, fuel, tire wear and horsepower, yet has the same performance.”