Motown in Daytona: Penske, Cadillac and Corvette prepare assault on a great endurance race

Posted by Talbot Payne on February 4, 2023

Daytona, Florida — Auto racing has always been a key proving ground for Detroit automakers, and never more so than the 2023 Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona.

This year’s International Motorsports Association-sanctioned race Saturday and Sunday brings together an extraordinary intersection of Motown story lines. Bloomfield Hills-based Team Penske and Porsche have united for a historic run at the 24-hour race as founder Roger Penske seeks his first Daytona win since 1969 and the German automaker looks to add to its record 22 victories.

Cadillac debuts its first hybrid GTP race car as it vies for an overall win against the world’s best, including Porsche, BMW and Acura. And the mid-engine Chevrolet Corvette C8.R race car goes head-to-head with Porsche, Mercedes and Ferrari for the GT-class crown.

All three Detroit icons see sports-car racing as an essential piece of their brand in a global marketplace.

“Racing plays a huge role in today’s world,” said Corvette Racing Brand Ambassador Doug Fehan, who launched the race team in 1997. “When you look at all the performance elements that we seek in a race car — it’s the same for a production car. We’re looking for better aerodynamics, better fuel economy, we’re looking for new, lighter and stronger materials. They are not that far apart anymore.”

The manufacturer involvement comes as the industry is under the biggest government microscope since the early 1970s, when an OPEC oil embargo strangled gasoline supplies and Washington imposed strict vehicle mpg requirements. Five decades later, governments are trying to force automakers out of gas-burning cars altogether with electric vehicle mandates.

In the 1970s, politicians feared a planet that was running out of oil, and manufactures felt a moral responsibility to scale back on racing. “The shortage quickly put pressure on motorsports, which some saw as the wasteful use of a now precious commodity,” records the International Motor Racing Research Center, and race organizations formed a lobbying campaign in “Washington D.C. to keep Congress from legislating . . . sanctioning bodies out of business.”

Automakers fled motorsports and IMSA canceled the 24 Hours of Daytona in 1974 as well as its sister Florida event, the 12 Hours of Sebring.

The Porsche 963, managed by Team Penske, hits speeds of over 200 mph on the high bankings of the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona.

Today, political activists are again sounding the alarm — this time warning of a planet that is dying from too much fossil fuel use. Once again, manufacturers feel political pressure — but this time they are investing millions into high-tech solutions like the hybrid Cadillac and Porsche prototype cars that will streak around Daytona’s high bankings this weekend.

“No doubt this is the most disruptive period for the auto industry since the 1970s,” said veteran racing journalist Steven Cole Smith of Hagerty. “Yet this weekend there will be 17 manufacturers on the Daytona grid. The benefits of technology transfer and brand elevation are irresistible.”


Corvette Racing is a model of how competition benefits vehicle production.

“When we started the program back in the fall of 1996, the cornerstone was technology transfer. The C8 was the culmination of all those years of hard work and effort.” said Fehan in reference to Corvette’s eighth-generation, mid-engine supercar that was developed in parallel with the C8.R racer.

A Corvette C8.R practices at Daytona Roar for the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona. Drivers: Jordan Taylor, Antonio Garcia, and Tommy Milner

“The C8 development program . . . started well over 10 years ago (and) involved the race team from the get-go — from a clean sheet of paper,” he continued. My team was “were there looking over body design, aero, suspension. We worked together as a team with (Executive Chef Engineer Tadge Juechter’s) engineering group and Tom Peters’ design group. The three legs of that stool produced the C8, which is the closest thing you can get to a race car today.”

Since 2019, Chevy has introduced three models of the Corvette C8: the 2020 Stingray, 2023 Z06 and 2024 E-Ray. At the heart of the Z06 is a high-revving, 5.5-liter V-8 —– the first duel-overhead cam engine in a Corvette — that first appeared the C8.R in 2020, winning the IMSA GTLM championship in its first year.

“It’s been hiding in plain sight. (We were) developing the heart of the beast,” a smiling Juechter said in an interview with The Detroit News a year ago at the Z06’s media introduction.

The E-Ray is the first hybrid, gas-electric production Corvette. But the team chose not to race that powertrain, instead focusing its electrified racing efforts on Cadillac, a brand converting to an all-electric lineup this decade. Electrified powertrains add considerable cost, so IMSA allowed teams to co-develop a hybrid system paired with manufacturers’ unique engines (a bone-rattling V-8 in the case of Caddy).

Electrified Cadillac

“It’s difficult to go racing with hybrid powerplants. It presents a number of unique challenges,” said Fehan of the 800-volt, nearly 700-horsepower prototype GTP cars that are the class of the field. “We’re not talking here about batteries that are powering your cell phone. We are talking voltage that is capable of instantaneously electrocuting people, whether it be drivers or safety workers on the scene. (There’s a) risk of fire and safety aspect you have to work through.”

Drivers and corner workers must follow a protocol on how to handle the high-voltage cars in case of a crash. Unlike pure, internal-combustion-engine cars, drivers can’t just leap out onto the fender and celebrate a victory.

Cadillac V-LMDhm GTP race cars wear blue, red and gold liveries at Daytona International Speedway for the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona.

When Tom Blomqvist took pole position for the 24-hour race in the wicked-fast Acura ARX-06 hybrid prototype, he rolled into pit lane . . . and sat there. No one touched the car. Blomqvist waited for a green light in the cockpit to let him know it was safe to get out. If the cockpit light remained red, drivers are instructed to step out onto the fender, stand up, then jump as far from the car as possible to avoid electric shock.

“These guys in prototypes (have been) learning over the last six months and down here: how do you apply the electric power?” he said. “The connection between internal combustion powerplant and the electronics — how do those two integrate seamlessly in order to improve performance? It’s a huge technical challenge.”

And for Cadillac, it’s an opportunity to prove itself versus European exotics as it transitions to an electric future. In an indication of how important this race is to his company, GM President Mark Reuss will be the Daytona 24 Hour’s grand marshal.

“The element of electricity with their prototype is good for them. Cadillac is rebuilding their brand,” said Hagerty’s Cole Smith. “With the GTP car and EVs like the Celestiq, they want to position themselves for luxury buyers who follow IMSA and Formula 1.” Cadillac recently announced its intention to enter Formula One, the summit of global open-wheel racing.

For all of the storied brands here, though, all eyes are on a living legend. At 85 years old, Roger Penske is on a mission.

America’s winningest team owner, “The Captain” (as his troops affectionately call him) has won 611 races in 56 years as Team Penske boss, including a record 18 Indianapolis 500s. Across multiple racing series, he has 43 championships, including 17 IndyCar and three NASCAR championships. Last year, Penske became the first team owner in history to win both the IndyCar and NASCAR Cup Series championships in the same season.

Bucket list. At 85, Roger Penske has teamed with Porsche in an attempt to win the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona. He has been a constant presence at tests like this one last fall of the Porsche 963.

Yet one trophy has eluded him: the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Daytona, the first major endurance race of the year, is a stepping stone to that achievement. His partner is that effort is formidable. Porsche has won more Le Mans races, 19, than any manufacturer since its first overall victory in 1970. It has also won more Daytona 24 Hours — 22 — than anyone else. But it has not won at Daytona since 2003.

The Porsche Penske Motorsports 963 in the pits. The car's sophisticated hybrid system demands detailed safety protocols.

Cole Smith observed that Meyer Shank team’s Acura has been the class of the field so far. It paced the field in the practice/qualifying last weekend — including taking pole. Right next them on the front row is the Porsche Penske Motorsport team’s 963 hybrid. With years of experience behind them — as well as the most miles testing the new hybrid system — Cole Smith counts Porsche Penske as the favorite.

“He was up for 36 hours at Le Mans, on the radio, asking questions,” Porsche Motorsports chief Urs Kuratle said of Penske’s visit to Le Mans last year, when his team entered a special, non-Porsche prototype to test the Le Mans waters. “He knows the open points list as well as our engineers. To me, the man is from another planet.”

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at or  Twitter @HenryEPayne

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