Thanks to the recent Hollywood blockbuster recounting Detroit’s epic battles with Maranello at Le Mans in the 1960s, mainstream audiences are well-versed in the trope of American underdogs in motorsports. While Ferrari broke through with the brand’s first victory in nearly 60 years at the 2023 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, there was another, less obvious, manufacturer that was busy trying to steal the show.
Although General Motors fell short of the top spot this year, it pulled off a few bangers that disrupted the 100th anniversary of the French endurance race in the loudest and proudest of ways: five cars blasting all-American V-8 exhaust notes and finishing first in the LMGTE Am class, and third and fourth in the Hypercar class.
Cadillac’s return to Circuit de la Sarthe marked the first time the American brand competed there in 21 years. “We’re not here to participate,” said Rory Harvey, Cadillac’s executive vice president and president for North America, ahead of the race. “We’re in it to win it.”
The boisterous engine sounds were no coincidence. For starters, the three competing Cadillacs were the only examples running naturally aspirated engines in the Hypercar class. The 5.5-liter V-8s are clean sheet designs built specifically for the new race category, and the engines produced a distinctly different sound from the field as they blasted through the 8.46-mile course. They stood out by churning an exhaust note several octaves lower than the shrieking, turbocharged engines of Glickenhaus, Ferrari, Peugeot, Porsche, and Toyota.
“Our DPI [Daytona Prototype International] engine was a 6.2-liter V-8,” explains Laura Klauser, manager of the GM Sports Car Racing Program, who says the feasibility of the snorty V-8 was evaluated before committed to last November. “We have a sound profile we want to achieve. We said, ‘if the math works out, we want to have a V-8.’”
With that aural signature settled on, the project was greenlit in February of 2022—an extremely short development time considering its first race was at the 24 Hours of Daytona the following January, where Cadillac finished third, fourth, and fifth. Aaron Pfeiffer, the technical lead for the marque’s LMDH [Le Mans Daytona Hybrid] Vehicle division, says the free-breathing V-8 is easier to package since it lacks turbochargers, intercoolers, and the requisite electronics that would go with a more complicated setup.
“It sounds good and it fits the brand, but it’s also relatively light. We’re basically at minimum engine weight; considering the short development time, it made sense to go for the V-8.” Adding visual distinctiveness to the Hypercar class are brand-specific, vertically stacked headlamps and angular bodywork that echo the Caddy’s production cars.
The class-winning Corvette C8.R’s naturally aspirated 5.5-liter engine produced a distinctly searing sound at the race thanks to its flat-plane crank setup, which trades the familiar V-8 rumble for a higher-pitched exhaust wail. Rounding out the charismatic American presence was a true outlier: a NASCAR-derived Chevrolet Camaro ZL1. The first NASCAR-related entrant since 1976, this dropped, spoilered, and lightened Chevy was an entrant in the Garage 56 field, which has hosted past racing oddballs like the DeltaWing. Piloted by NASCAR legend Jimmie Johnson, F1 champ Jenson Button, and two-time Le Mans–winner Mike Rockenfeller, the Camaro ripped across the track with an angry crackle. Due to a driveline issue, the Camaro spent an hour getting worked on in the pits and eventually finished 39th in the 62-car field.
As is always the case with Le Mans, it took grit, determination, and a little bit of luck to complete the grueling 24-hour competition this year. Toyota Gazoo Racing seemed ready to extend its five-year winning streak until a spin-out at the Arnage corner dashed hopes for victory, allowing Ferrari’s 499P racer to take the top spot. The subsequent two places on the podium for Cadillac Racing’s V-Series.R hypercars were notable, not just because the brand isn’t nearly as established as such Le Mans winners as Porsche and Toyota, but also because the domestic carmaker had been absent from the competition for the better part of two decades.
As for Cadillac’s future, U.S. boss Rory Harvey is bullish on competition. “If you look at racing, people either like it or don’t; they’re either super enthusiastic about it, or maybe they could take it or leave it,” he told Robb Report. Harvey goes on to point out that regardless of the category a customer falls in, motorsport is important to the product. “If you’re successful at racing, it really underpins the durability of the vehicle.”
That said, Cadillac’s recent announcement that the brand is seeking to broaden its presence beyond endurance racing revealed a partnership with Andretti Global to field a Formula 1 racing team. This full immersion into motorsport promises the American carmaker a future that’s loud, fast, and competitive, bolstering credibility to its road-going cars.
Click here for more photos of General Motors at the 2023 24 Hours of Le Mans.
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