Cadillac Racing soars as the brand reboots

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

For the Cadillac brand, 2019 promises a year of transition as the luxury automaker returns its headquarters from New York City to Metro Detroit and plays catch-up to competitors in the race to satisfy demand for SUVs and electric cars.

But when it comes to sports car racing, everyone is chasing Caddy.

Cadillac's IMSA prototype program began 2019 where it left off in 2018 — in dominating fashion. Cadillac swept the top two positions at the grueling Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona endurance race last weekend, eclipsing a who's-who field of manufacturer-led teams including Acura, Nissan, Mazda, BMW, Porsche and Ferrari.

GM's luxury brand also shared international headlines with one of its first-place team drivers, Fernando Alfonso of Spain, who became only the third Formula One driver in history to win both the F1 championship and the Rolex 24. 

The win established the Cadillac DPi-V.R as the car to beat again in 2019 after it swept the 2018 driver's and manufacturer's crowns in an IMSA Weathertech Series that spans a dozen races from Daytona to Long Beach, including a June stop at the Belle Grand Prix. IMSA is currently the world's premier stage for manufacturer-sponsored racing, featuring head-to-head duels between the most storied names in motorsport.

Cadillac has won the 57th running of the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona. The Konica Minolta Cadillac team soldiered through 24 hours of start-and-stop racing to give the Cadillac brand a Rolex 24 hat trick with their third win in as many years.

"This is the third year in a row that Cadillac has been one-two at Daytona," said Mark Kent, the director of General Motors Racing. "The attraction to drivers like Alonso is they want to be in a product know they can win in. If you’re on the outside looking in, the Cadillac prototype is the natural choice as the car that can win."

Alonso's feat generated headlines across the globe for Cadillac which is growing in markets like China and posted a global sales record last year with over 380,000 cars sold.

Cadillac's wins parallel GM's success in GT racing, where Chevy's Corvette racing program also took home the 2018 drivers crown (the Corvette team struggled at Daytona). Caddy's fortunes are the culmination of two decades of investment in motor racing beginning with its production-based, V-series racers in 2004. 

Cadillac has built its racing cred even as its production lineup has struggled to compete in U.S. showrooms. Sales in 2018 were down by 1 percent to 154,702 units.

The brand shuffled its captain chairs last year, replacing ex-Audi North America chief Johan de Nysschen with Steve Carlisle and closing down the brand's headquarters overlooking the Hudson River in the Big Apple.

Carlisle opened the Detroit Auto Show this January with a promise that Cadillac is back in Detroit — and back in the luxury game.

"Let me say with no offense whatsoever to the good people of the city of New York," said Carlisle as he unveiled the all-new, three-row Cadillac XT6 SUV. "Cadillac is back in Detroit, and more determined than ever to reclaim the mantle as catalyst." 

With the XT6 and the smaller XT4 released in 2018, Cadillac hope to make up lost ground in SUV sales where Cadillac has lagged German manufacturers like BMW that have flooded the U.S. market with multiple models. 

Cadillac even finds itself behind in battery-powered cars, a segment it helped pioneer in 2013 with the handsome plug-in ELR coupe. Cadillac ditched the ELR — and its cousin Chevy Volt — and has re-trenched with a new "BEV-3" electric vehicle platform designed to compete with BMW's i-series and Jaguar I-PACE EV models.

"We are working to elevate Cadillac to a position at the pinnacle of mobility," said Carlisle.

The racing team is already at the pinnacle. So admired is Cadillac's racing program that it attracted four teams racing six cars at Daytona this year. That's double the number when Cadillac debuted its 600-horsepower bat-mobile in 2017.

The program's success in prototype racing came after a decade of five Pirelli World Challenge championships with the CTS-V coupe.

"Racing gives us the opportunity to show people through motorsport what Cadillac stands for," says racing boss Kent. "It gives us an opportunity to demonstrate technology, reliability, and also... bring our production vehicles to the race track for people to look at some of our amazing products."

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.