Few American race cars are as revered as the Ford GT, which earned motorsports immortality thanks to its podium sweep at the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans (as depicted in the film Ford v Ferrari). Its endurance racing legacy was revived with the launch of the latest-generation, EcoBoost-powered Ford GT racing program, one that scored a breakout class win at the 2016 Le Mans race—50 years after Ford’s signature triumph in 1966.
Although it’s the most legendary American Le Mans car of all time, the Ford GT is far from the only one to compete and win at the French endurance race. The land of the red, white, and blue has a rich heritage of building racers to race in the other land of the red, white, and blue. Some were developed by mainstream automakers, others by independent outfits, with results ranging from spectacular failures to checkered-flag glory. Regardless, all exhibited American ideals of innovation and competitive spirit. These cars might not have the Ford GT’s cachet, but each is worth remembering.
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Cadillac Le Monstre
One of the earliest American-built Le Mans entrants was also among the all-time strangest. In 1950, the legendary Briggs Cunningham entered his first of many Le Mans races with two Cadillac Series 61s. Minor changes were applied to one of these vehicles, while the other was completely transformed—and became known as Le Monstre. It earned this nickname thanks to its brutal bodywork, which enclosed the wheels and did away with a roof in pursuit of aerodynamics. Beneath the vented hood (with American flags proudly emblazoned on either side) was a five-carb, 5.4-liter V-8 making 160 hp and enabling a 130-mph top speed—13 mph faster than the other Cadillac. Although Le Monstre failed to place competitively, it served as a working test bed for future aerodynamic enhancements.
Cadillac Northstar LMP
A perfect example of race-car-as-marketing, Cadillac created the Northstar LMP to compete in the 2000 Le Mans race. The brand sought to position itself as a high-performance luxury automaker, and it used the Northstar name to tie its series of V-8 engines to racing potential. Indeed, the Northstar LMP’s 4.0-liter unit was based on a production Northstar engine, but it also featured two turbochargers and heavily revised internals in an effort to prepare it for the rigors of endurance racing. (McLaren assisted with the engine’s development.) The Northstar LMP shared some styling cues with roadgoing Cadillac’s, too, such as the egg-crate grille that bore the brand’s crest. The project failed to succeed at Le Mans, but Cadillac still competes in endurance racing today.
America’s sports car has an illustrious history in endurance racing. In the late 1990s, Chevrolet contracted with Michigan’s Pratt & Miller engineering firm to execute the Corvette’s Le Mans campaign. Its first product was the C5.R, a modified and race-prepared version of the fifth-generation Corvette. Using a V-8 derived from the Chevy LS1 block, the C5.R proved successful and Pratt & Miller kept its contract with Chevrolet. After the C5.R, it went on to develop the C6.R and C7.R—all of which have won class victories at Le Mans. The firm is also responsible for the mid-engine C8.R, a car that the 2022 Corvette Z06 will likely crib heavily from. Although the C8.R won’t appear at Le Mans in 2020, it will no doubt be a fearsome competitor when it returns to the race, which should be in 2021.
Chevrolet Corvette GTP
When the C8.R eventually rolls on to the Circuit de la Sarthe, it’ll be the first mid-engine Corvette to compete on that track—right? Not quite. In the mid-1980s, Chevrolet developed the Corvette GTP, a mid-engine prototype inspired by the road-going Corvette. Although it entered domestic endurance races such as the 24 Hours of Daytona, it never performed well enough to compete on the world stage. Chevrolet canceled the Corvette GTP program in 1988, but in 1990, the chassis was acquired by a California outfit called Eagle Performance. Team Eagle had its sights set on Le Mans and scraped together a budget to get the car—renamed the Eagle 700—in race shape. That process entailed utilizing a preposterous 10.2-liter V-8 engine, which was said to produce some 900 hp. Once in France, the Eagle 700 suffered mishaps at every step. Pre-race inspections found it out of compliance, and during qualifying, it overheated and failed. Still, it’s the closest a mid-engine Corvette has ever come to racing at Le Mans. Hopefully, the C8.R will fare better.
Certainly the most distinctive (and arguably the most controversial) Le Mans car in recent years, the DeltaWing looked much like a four-wheeled fighter jet. Designed by Ben Bowlby and built by Dan Gurney‘s All American Racers, the DeltaWing concept started out as a possible IndyCar design backed by IndyCar team owner Chip Ganassi, and then later Bowlby worked with businessman and endurance car builder Don Panoz to field the Le Mans entrant. The DeltaWing took aerodynamics to the extreme with its narrow, pointed front end that dramatically tapered to a more normal width at the back. That resulted in a huge reduction in drag, which meant it could run competitively with much less power—at least, in theory.
It took to the Circuit de la Sarthe in the 2012 Le Mans race as a “Garage 56” experimental prototype class entrant with a Nissan powerplant and corporate backing, but unfortunately, it wrecked early on and could not continue. (Later the car’s design and who owned it became the subject of a lawsuit between Panoz and Nissan and Bowlby.) However, the time it spent on track at Le Mans indicated that it could keep pace with other P2 Class prototypes, and its tuned Nissan Juke-derived engine proved efficient. The car would run in several more races with various configurations and engines through the 2016 season. More than many other cars, the DeltaWing showed American ingenuity and willingness to bend the norms to succeed.
Panoz Esperante GTR-1
American businessman Don Panoz was instrumental in modern endurance racing; he was responsible for establishing the American Le Mans Series in 1999. Prior to founding that series, Panoz created his namesake sports car brand with a focus on motorsport. Its crowning achievement was the Esperante GTR-1, which broke from convention by placing the engine in front of the driver instead of the more common rear-mid-engine layout. The GTR-1’s extreme dimensions might seem to impede drivability, but the formula had merits. Although it never succeeded at Le Mans, it did well in other European endurance races. Of particular interest was the Q9 variant, which added an experimental hybrid assist system to the GTR-1’s 6.0-liter V-8. Highly unusual in the late 1990s, it was a harbinger for the hybrid powertrains found in today’s top-level prototype race cars.
The Dodge Charger is known for its prowess on oval tracks and drag strips, but it also showed up to represent the United States in the 1976 running of Le Mans. A deal between European race organizers and NASCAR’s Bill France resulted in the Charger—successful at the 24 Hours of Daytona—earning an invitation to Le Mans. It arrived packing a 7.0-liter Hemi V-8 and emblazoned with logos for Olympia Beer, its sponsor. The Charger was decidedly out of place among the Porsches and BMWs it competed against but managed to crest 200 mph on the Mulsanne straight. Come race day, it DNF’d nearly immediately due to piston failure brought on by low-octane European fuel. Nonetheless, there could have hardly been a more American vehicle to represent the United States at Le Mans in the mid-1970s.
Dodge Viper GTS-R
Sometimes derided as a simple muscle car, the Viper proved itself as a track-ready American exotic—never better exemplified than with the Le Mans-tuned GTS-R version. Unmistakably a Viper, the GTS-R gained aerodynamic aids, a larger fuel cell, and upgraded lighting to prepare it for the rigors of endurance racing, but it retained a version of the road car’s massive V-10 engine. The GTS-R program ran through three generations of Viper, from 1996 to 2014. Over that period, it scored class wins at the 1998, 1999, and 2000 24 Hours of Le Mans, solidifying the Viper as a true American sports car—not just a straight-line muscle machine.