Two Decades after a Forgettable Le Mans Effort, Cadillac Racing Is Dialed In

Louis Monnier (ACO)

If you’re a fan of this site, or if you’re a racing nerd, you probably know about the first time a Cadillac raced at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. That was in 1950, when American millionaire Briggs Cunningham entered two Caddies into the legendary endurance race in France. One was a stock model, the other a weird-looking wedge the locals dubbed Le Monstre. (Cadillac the company wasn’t involved; Cunningham entered on his own dime.) You probably also know that Cadillac returned to Le Mans last year, got onto the podium, and is back at it in 2024 with its eyes on the top step. What you might not know is the chapter of the Cadillac and Le Mans story that’s set in the early 2000s. 

Cadillac Northstar LMP 2000 Le Mans racing action
Flickr/Martin Lee

Two things come to mind when looking back at early-aughts Cadillac: The original Escalade, and grandparent-era (as the kids might say now) coupes and sedans designed primarily for comfort. Either way, neither screamed performance. (The V-Series was just about to become a reality, and hadn’t yet begun to define at least part of the brand as a sporting alternative to BMW). So why did GM decide that Cadillac should go race sports cars—and internationally? 

At first blush, it made sense given GM’s existing footprint in racing, and due to its existing relationships in motorsport. GM was already represented in almost every major motorsports discipline, promoting its brands wherever it thought the money would do the most good: NASCAR, NHRA, IndyCar, and the GT class of sports car racing. One of the few places it wasn’t racing was in the top echelon of sports-cars, in which the cars are built from scratch rather than based on production models (as in the GT levels). As of 1995, however, GM had a connection to a prototype constructor, Riley & Scott, which was the first team to compete with Oldsmobile’s 4.0-liter Aurora V-8. (Beginning in ‘96, it would supply the same engine to IndyCar’s IRL series.) With Olds power, Riley & Scott’s Mk IIIs won the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the 12 Hours of Sebring. They had even raced at Le Mans, in 1996, though a gearbox failure cut their time short. Why not use the elements that already existed—Riley & Scott, the Mk III, and the familiar engine architecture—to put GM into prototype racing, with the Cadillac brand? 

In 2000, Riley & Scott was back at Le Mans, backed by GM, with not one but four cars—two campaigned by Europe-based DAMS, the other two by Team Cadillac. The model was called the Northstar LMP and was adorned with a grille to look like a Cadillac.

Cadillac LMP at Le Mans 2000
Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

“The return from 50 years was a big deal and I would say from a marketing perspective it succeeded because back then ‘Arts & Sciences’ was the Cadillac marketing theme and this was the bridge from the vinyl top Cadillacs to the CTS-V, which 2003 was the first year of the production car,” Jeff Kettman, GM’s manager for the Northstar LMP program, told Daily Sports Car last year. “The whole reason that Cadillac got involved in motorsports was to shift the public perspective of Cadillac to more of a sporty vehicle.”

The problem? GM showed up to Le Mans with a design and a budget that was four years out of date. “Back in 1996–97 you didn’t need tons of money to run well at Le Mans,” Bill Riley told Gary Martin of Autosport in a 2021 interview. “By the time the car rolled out on the grid, the game had changed dramatically.” The Cadillacs finished 19th, 21nd, and 22nd overall, with one DAMS car a DNF. 

Obviously, something needed to change. They needed a new car. GM began to shop around, chatting with the likes of Prodrive and Dallara, and ending its relationship with Riley later that summer. Months passed. GM eventually decided to rely on a new team headed by Wayne Taylor, Nigel Stroud, and Jeff Hazell, a key figure behind McLaren’s jaw-dropping win at Le Mans on its first try.  By the time GM made a decision, however, there was no time to build a new car. Taylor, Stroud, Hazell, et al. tried anyway, putting “80 percent” of the design team into rehauling the old car while the rest worked on the new one. It wasn’t ready by the 2001 running of Le Mans: Only the two DAMS cars ran, with new bodies on cars built to 2000’s spec. They finished eighth and twelfth overall. The new car, dubbed the Northstar LMP-02, was ready in time for the 2003 event, and then GM cancelled the program. 

The sad irony is that since Audi (the 2002 winner) did not run Le Mans in 2003, Cadillac would have been favorites to win along with Bentley (who did win in their Speed 8, a car that shared much with Audi’s prototypes of the era). 

Though it campaigned the CTS-V and subsequently an ATS-V Coupe in the Pirelli World Challenge series through 2017, Cadillac took a lengthy respite from the top level of sports car racing, particularly international competition. In the meantime, a lot of history’s been written: Audi’s era of dominance (including Le Mans wins in 2002, 2004–08, and 2011–2014), the revenge of Porsche (2015–17), and the recent establishment of Toyota (2018–22) as the somewhat unexpected king of Le Mans.

When IMSA made a rules pivot for the 2017 season, Cadillac decided it would return to prototype racing. The Cadillac DPi-V.R, a Dallara-built prototype with a Cadillac-developed engine, debuted in November of 2016. 

LAT Images/Dole

Off the bat, the effort was more successful. For its first year back, Cadillac fielded three cars in partnerships with three different teams: Mustang Sampling, Whelen Engineering, and a familiar name—Wayne Taylor Racing. Sponsored by Konica Minolta, the Wayne Taylor car won its first-ever outing, which was also the longest race on the calendar: The 24 Hours of Daytona.  

Like the Northstar LMP, the DPi was powered by a V-8, and made a subtle nod to Cadillac’s street cars with similar wheel and headlight designs. Unlike the LMP, this new car won—a lot. During its six-year lifespan, the teams running DPi-V.Rs posted 27 wins and 80 podium finishes across 60 races. The cars also took home three manufacturer’s, three driver’s, and three team championships in that time.

Cadillac had mojo like it never had before in racing. In June of 2021, the FIA, ACO, and IMSA announced new regulations the prototype class, outlining a “Hypercar” with a hybrid powertrain that would be eligible for competition in both IMSA and World Endurance Championship (WEC), with minor changes. The crown jewel of the WEC is Le Mans, and Cadillac quickly declared its intent to return.

Cadillac Project GTP Hypercar front left three-quarter on track

Unveiled in June of 2022, the Cadillac Hypercar prototype was beautiful, and more strongly visually related to production models. Why Cadillac bought into the regulations, says GM sports car program manager Laura Wontrop Klauser, is that the rules “allowed us to keep the styling of the bodywork to make that car uniquely a Cadillac.” The car’s hybrid V-8 heart is a bespoke design that shares nothing besides a displacement figure with that in GM’s GT-class competitor, the Corvette C8.R. 

Cadillac headed back to Le Mans in 2023. As the checkered flag brought the rain-soaked race to a close, Cadillacs crossed the finish line in third and in fourth, the brand’s best-ever results at the most prestigious endurance race in the world. Both cars, #2 and #3, were fielded by Chip Ganassi Racing. Ganassi is back for 2024, joined by Action Express.

Cadillac JOURNEE TEST 2023
Jean-Philippe Boyer (ACO)

Change is coming, though: Cadillac will no longer be partnering with Ganassi for its prototype efforts in IMSA or in WEC after this season. Action Express, who fielded the Whelen-sponsored IMSA car for Cadillac in 2023–24, will likely take up the mantle of Cadillac’s primary racing partner in that series. DSC reported in March that multiple teams are already bidding for Ganassi’s space as Cadillac’s partner in WEC, an encouraging sign of the maturity of the program.

What does the lackluster 2000–02 program illuminate about the current effort? By way of contrast, it shows just how much GM has to prove at the 2024 Hours of Le Mans. The podium finish last year shows that Cadillac has remedied its worst missteps of the earlier era; clearly, it has gotten wiser and more efficient when making decisions alongside its partner teams, and it has handily run cars in two series simultaneously. Speaking of the podium finish, Klauser says: “We got a couple minutes to be just completely blown away—Hey, we had this success—and then the hunger set in, and the only answer from here on out is first place.”

Can a Cadillac win Le Mans in 2024? For now, the brand finally has everyone asking the right question. More than ever, Cadillac has skin in the game—and that’s what makes for good stories, and great racing. 


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    I wonder with Chip leaving if Andretti will step in. Good place to build a team while they wait for F1.

    2 nits to pick here
    1- “Ugly arts & Science’ is a design theme. Not marketing. (if i m not wrong)
    2- How does it make sense to race cadillac when 95% of their sales are SUV CUV? I dont get it.

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