Ghosts of Le Mans: 2000 Cadillac Northstar LMP by Hot Wheels

The story of (one of) Cadillac's ill-fated attempts at endurance racing.

1y ago

Looking over the history of the world's most famous endurance race, it seems as though most, if not all brands have had their hat in the Le Mans ring. A lot of unassuming brands have gone on to fight for the right to be heralded as Le Mans legends, such as Ford, Toyota, and Mazda. However, not all brands have been so lucky. One of those brands in particular is America's purported "standard of the world," Cadillac.

Cadillac's efforts at Le Mans have a history extending far back into the 20th century, as early as 1950. During the running of the 24 hours that year, Cadillac entered two Series 61 racers for the event. One Series 61 was a standard car, outfitted with a race-tuned V8, but the other car was far different.

Photo via RevsInstitute

Photo via RevsInstitute

Dubbed "Le Monstre" by race officials and attendees, the other Series 61 featured a far more aerodynamic design by a Grumman aircraft engineer. Underneath the shocking new shape was merely a standard Series 61 car, albeit with racing tuned carburetors on the V8, giving it more grunt to match the exterior. Both of the Series 61 cars finished 10th and 11th respectively (not bad, but could be better), but retrieved applaud from onlookers when they crossed the line. It wasn't a bad start by any means, but Cadillac could do better...unfortunately, their next shot came half a century later.

In the 1990s, General Motors was flirting around with sending their high-tech, Cadillac-developed Northstar V8 engine (yes, that Northstar) to the race circuit. Instead of doing it through the means of a Cadillac racing program, however, GM decided to pump some youthful image into Oldsmobile, their oldest, and slowly dying, middle-class brand. What was created was a racing variation of the 4.0-liter Northstar-derived V8 found in their Aurora flagship sedan, boasting 650 bhp, a total of 400 more than the standard Aurora's powerplant.

1997 Oldsmobile Aurora IRL Car, photo via Mecum Auctions.

1997 Oldsmobile Aurora IRL Car, photo via Mecum Auctions.

GM would begin usage of the Aurora race motor within the IMSA sports car competition in a racing variant of the Aurora, and it would go on to also be featured in the Indianapolis Racing League in a slew of Oldsmobile-sponsored race cars. Despite modest success, GM eventually pulled the plug on the Oldsmobile racing program, as the writing was unfortunately on the wall for the brand in general. However, around this time, Cadillac was seeking a more youthful approach at revitalizing the brand for the forthcoming century, and began interest in a racing program with sights set on Le Mans. Soon enough, development began on a Cadillac Le Mans prototype, with the feature of the Northstar engine being a major advertising point. The car ended up being called the Northstar Le Mans Prototype (LMP), and its earliest entry to the race was in 2000.

The design and engineering of the Northstar LMP followed the trends of most of the contemporary prototypes of the time. Cadillac turned to Riley & Scott, a prototype manufacturing group who had tested the Northstar engine in their own MkIII car earlier in the decade, for help in developing the car. Two cars were built for the 2000 season, a silver Cadillac/Toshiba sponsored car for Team Cadillac in the ALMS series (seen here), and a black Motorola sponsored variant for Team DAMS in the European cup.

Both cars debuted at the 24 Hours of Daytona, and had decent success in qualifying and early rounds of the race. However, various mechanical issues led to the cars falling off pace, but both qualified as finishers, taking 13th and 14th place respectively. Both teams would try again at Sebring, where the mechanical issues followed for the Team DAMS car, and both Cadillac variants suffering accidents throughout the race. Nevertheless one of the Cadillac cars managed to muster up a sixth place finish, which gave Cadillac and DAMS some optimism for the future of the program (despite the car finishing multiple laps down from the race-winning Audi).

As the 2000 series went on, Team DAMS began their first few European races, which fared modest success for the team, even finishing right behind the Ferrari 333SP in the season opener. However, soon it came down to the race they both had been eager to run: Le Mans. Unfortunately for both teams, their eagerness was soon to be shot down, as both cars were vastly off pace of their class, with additional mechanical woes pushing down their throats, only three cars managed to finish in 19th, 21st, and 22nd. Not exactly the rousing attempt that they were hoping for, and afterwords, Team Cadillac retired to private testing, while Team DAMS continued on in the European and ALMS cup.

The Northstar LMP would continue to be raced by Team Cadillac and Team DAMS into 2001 and 2002. For the former season, General Motors decided to let Cadillac focus solely on Le Mans racing, while DAMS continued in ALMS. Early news from Le Mans qualifying showed promise for the new updates to the car, with the DAMS car qualifying faster than the all new Bentley EXP 8, but as the race dawned, accidents caused two of the cars to be disqualified. Nevertheless, DAMS managed to bring an overall better finish for the car, ending up in 15th place.

The 2002 season brought forth a new version of the car, the LMP02, featuring enhancements to the body and chassis. Although Le Mans was still the main focus, Cadillac did opt to contribute at Sebring, but ended with an unfortunate 31st place finish. But Le Mans finally showed some promise for the cars, as the new and improved model showed a definite strength over the older variant, finally getting a top ten finish in ninth place by the end. It seemed as though Cadillac had finally found its groove to the prototype racing circuit, but GM didn't find it to be enough to keep the program going. The big-wigs eventually decided to focus on their Corvette racing program, and the Cadillac team was put to rest after the 2002 season.

The Cadillac Northstar LMP feels like such a smudge in the history of prototype racing that never gets mentioned, and to some, for good reason. Looking over that rundown of their career, I'd hardly say it's a breathtaking one. But, I still think it deserves a spot in the limelight, and not only because I'm a diehard Cadillac fanatic. The fact that Cadillac would go so far out of their comfort zone to do this sort of thing, and even pushed hard to improve over the three years that the program existed, shows just how much dedication a brand can have to trying something new. That's something you don't see a lot of nowadays, and I feel like it should be admired.

If you want to showcase your love for the LMP01, you can look out for this Hot Wheels 1/18 model like I did. They made two variants of the car, the Team Cadillac silver and Team DAMS black versions from the 2000 season. Both versions will run you back anywhere from $50-100 depending on variant, with the DAMS car being the more expensive of the two.

The model as it sits is a fairly modest model, nothing that really changes the game, but it does feature nice enough casting and detailing of the livery to make it worth the buy in my eyes. I appreciate the removable engine cover which allows you to take in the sight of that race-tuned Northstar engine, even though the detailing isn't quite 100% there. Do be wary of that giant wing on the back, mine broke off during shipping and is currently held on by a generous dab of superglue. Nevertheless, I'd say it's a solid quality model, and a neat piece of Le Mans history to have.

So, will Cadillac ever return to Le Mans? It's possible. The brand has had modest success in racing over the course of the past decade, with its CTS-V.R and ATS-V.R carving up the competition in the SCCA class, showing that the brand could put together a good race car when they truly tried. But the biggest promise comes from the recently-debuted DPi-V.R, an all-new prototype built for the WeatherTech Sports Car Championship. The new prototype has showed its grunt so far in the series, taking home a considerable amount of wins, which has led people to wonder if it could ever make a debut in France. Cadillac has yet to disclose any information about a Le Mans run, but my hopes are fairly high.

The Northstar LMP may have not been the rousing success that Cadillac and GM wanted, but I think it was a fairly decent attempt. Who knows where they could be if they had been allowed to continue development, maybe the Cadillac prototype team would be heralded along with the likes of Audi, Porsche, and Toyota with vast racing success. Nevertheless, I feel like the LMP has earned its place in history, standing as one of the oddest attempts in Le Mans history, let alone the history of racing overall.

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Comments (3)

  • Nice writeup. Shame these came along at the same time as the Audi juggernaut, which really defines the era. Lots of interesting also-rans which are easily forgotten.

      1 year ago
    • It was a weird time, who thought that a Northstar V8, a diesel Audi, and a BENTLEY would be running Le Mans all at once?

        1 year ago
  • I was thinking the same thing but GM was also dumping money and time into the Corvette racing team and I really doubt they would have kept up with Cadillac much longer even if they saw results.

      1 year ago