This week Don Panoz filed suit in Georgia state court to block Nissan from racing its ZEOD RC Le Mans car after taking out an accusatory advertisement in a Tennesse newspaper, reports Racer Online. The suit seeks monetary damages against both Nissan and Ben Bowlby, the lead designer for both the ZEOD RC and the DeltaWing racer that ran at Le Mans in 2012. The complaint filed with the court weighs about 10 lbs. and is crammed full of legal gobbledygook. Here’s what you need to know about this controversy.
Way back in 2002, Chip Gnassi hired Ben Bowlby as a designer for his Indy Car race team. Years went by, during which young Mr. Bowlby toiled away in relative obscurity. In 2010, IndyCar decided to replace the obsolete Dallara IR03/07 chssis, and Gnassi offered Bowlby’s DeltaWing concept to Indy Car as its replacement.
A radical departure from standard race car practice, it had two wheels mounted very close together at the front and two wheels set far apart at the rear, making it look more like a trike than a race car. The main feature of the DeltaWing is that it weighs about half of a normal racer, needs an engine about half as powerful that uses about half as much fuel and half as many tires during the course of a race. A car doesn’t need the same outright speed if it spending half as much time in the pits for refueling and swapping rubber. The concept is brilliant, and potentially game-changing.
Needless to say, the honchos at Indy Car dismissed Gnassi’s offering as too bizarre, and opted for an updated Dallara chassis instead. Not wanting the effort put into the DeltaWing to go to waste, Gnassi went looking for other people to work with. He struck a deal with Don Panoz to convert the design from an open wheel racer to a sports car project with Le Mans in mind. The organizers of the Le Mans race agreed to allow the car to race as an experimental model, and Nissan came on board with an engine. The car ran in the 2012 Le Mans race, but was involved in a collision that put it out before the halfway point of the race. That said, it still performed admirably, and garnered a great amount of attention.
This is where things get interesting.
After the 2012 season, Nissan dropped its DeltaWing sponsorship and then hired Bowlby as its lead race car designer, which resulted in the ZEOD RC (Zero Emissions On Demand Race Car) that competed at Le Mans in 2014. It doesn’t take a trained expert to see there is more than a passing resemblance between the DeltaWing and the ZEOD RC. Panoz cried foul, and has taken his complaint to court. Part of the suit claims that Bowlby stole the idea for the ZEOD from Panoz, which is a pretty interesting claim, since Bowlby designed them both.
Stripped of its legalese, the complaint says that whatever designs Bowlby came up with while working for Gnassi belong to Gnassi. Gnassi entered into a partnership with Panoz, and so whatever ideas Gnassi owned became the property of Panoz. This is not an unusual concept in commercial law. As an example, scientists at DuPont have developed a lot of cool stuff over the years, from Nylon, to Dacron, to Teflon. The patents for all those products belong to DuPont, not the scientists who created them.
But….Bowlby never actually signed any agreement with Panoz, which claims that the designer verbally agreed to sign the patent paperwork, but never actually went through with it. Panoz will have to prove that Bowlby did indeed make a verbal contract, giving Panoz control over his designs, whereas Nissan will have to prove that the designs belong to Bowlby, and were his to bring with him to Nissan.
On the surface of it, Panoz appears to have a pretty good case. What is puzzling is why Nissan, which has an an armada of attorneys at its disposal, would allow itself to be drawn in to this dispute, knowing that their car was designed by the same guy who designed the DeltaWing – particularly since the two cars appear to be practically twins.
No doubt, Nissan and Bowlby will counter that the ZEOD RC is sufficiently different from the DeltaWing that no infringement of Panoz’s rights occurred. That is the sort of claim any first-year law student can make with a straight face, and it may even be true. Both Panoz and Nissan have plans for production cars utilizing the DeltaWing/ZEOD RC design, though Nissan’s designers definitely came up with the better looker if you ask me.
But Panoz has asked for a trial by jury, which could be to his advantage. You put 12 average Georgians in a jury box, show them photos of both cars and try to get them to believe the cars are not virtually the same, what do you think the jurors will decide?
My heart is with Nissan on this, but my money is on Panoz for the win.