What were you doing when you turned 34? If you’re Laura Wontrop Klauser, you’ve just been made Sports Car Racing Program Manager at General Motors, which means you’re not only overseeing American-based motorsport efforts, but you’re also about to start building a car capable of winning at Le Mans. That’s not a bad gig.
“Right about the age 13, I decided that I wanted to work for one of the big three, GM, Ford, or Chrysler. And I wanted to be a part of working on cars,” Klauser said during a recent interview with Jalopnik. She and her family grew up on a large piece of property in Maryland, where she learned to love being around big machinery and began to understand the value of a car, since it was the only way she could access things like grocery stores. There, cars were a necessity.
She initially wanted to be a mechanic, but her family wanted her to pursue a college education. She opted for mechanical engineering instead, which fed right into her love of numbers, and it was at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute that Klauser discovered Formula SAE and, by proxy, motorsport.
“I chose RPI for a couple reasons, but one of them was actually you didn’t have to come in with loads of experience to be on the Formula SAE team,” she said. “They were willing to take whoever was willing to put the work in, and as soon as I got on campus freshman year, I got right involved with it.
“In fact, I remember a funny story. My parents came to visit me October of freshman year... and I had been at the race car shop. I had been working on the car, and I’m just chattering away about how much fun I’m having. And they’re just looking at me. And finally, they sat me down. They’re like, are you having fun here? They’re like, what about parties? Are you going to parties? You can tell us, we don’t care. No, race car, mom and dad, I’m at the shop building a race car! And they were all just like, really?”
Soon after graduation, Klauser achieved her childhood goal: she joined GM in a variety of production car roles that Klauser credits with helping her excel today. She started out working on the C7 Corvette before dipping into the Cadillac CT6 world. After that, it was to the Sonic and the Spark.
During that time, Klauser worked a variety of different roles. She was a design release engineer on the suspension side of things, so she was well attuned to what it took to make a car comfortable and fast. She worked vehicle definition and balance, where she says she took soft phrases like “fun” or “fast” and transformed them into identifiable metrics like 0-60 speed or the ability to handle a certain number of g forces.
“There were little things you could pull from each job that really had to do with working with balancing projects, balancing expectations, and then creating a network within GM that has helped me connect back to production as much as possible with the racing programs,” Klauser told me of her time in production.
Crucially, though, she had a chance to get to know the mechanics and engineers who were building the production cars that would actually become race cars. Some of those engineers moved from the production car world to racing, so when Klauser took on her role as Sports Car Racing Program Manager, she had a network of people she already knew and who already respected her abilities.
Laughing, Klauser also confessed that racing is enjoyable for something else: its relative simplicity.
“Production cars are, in my opinion, more challenging than race cars,” she said. “Race cars, we are pushing to the limit. But a production car needs to start at 120 [degrees Fahrenheit]. It needs to start a negative 20. It needs to meet all the government regulations. You’re handing it to anybody to drive whereas a race car has skill. There’s all these things that make production ridiculously challenging. Plus, you have to meet your cost targets and all this stuff. The plant has to be able to build it. It’s a lot.”
It was almost a relief when she moved into racing in 2016, where she was in charge of the program running the Cadillac ATS-V.R in Pirelli World Challenge. There, she was not only able to focus on going fast and winning races, but she also began to forge relationships with mechanics and team members that would benefit her when she moved up the ranks.
Klauser moved into her new role in a time of flux. Not only was the COVID-19 pandemic raging in full force, but she also took over from longtime Corvette Racing custodian Doug Fehan and immediately launched into the development of an LMDh to compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
“I don’t think it was probably too much of a surprise to the team when I came on board just because of the amount we’ve been working together,” she said. “Plus, we’ve been trying for the past couple years to make sure that whenever GM spoke, whether that was through Corvette, Cadillac, or Camaro with the sanctioning body, that we were consistently communicating because at the end of the day, we are one company. So we wanted to make sure that we were portraying ourselves as such. And that meant that all of us had to get together and really operate one because we were trying to figure out our goals and all of those things.”
The hardest part, Klauser admitted, has been the fan interactions — or the lack thereof.
“When I started, fans weren’t allowed in the paddock. We weren’t allowed in the corrals. We weren’t able to do any of that interacting. And I think it really left the door open for a lot of people to be confused as to what was happening and feeling like they didn’t have that touch point that they could come and talk to somebody. The good news is now we are able to interact with our fans more often. And I think that’s definitely helped allow them the opportunity to see that we’re still racing. We still want to win. The goals are all the same. We want to put on the best show that we can; we want people to be excited about the cars.”
Since then, she’s found her transition into her various roles to be successful. As Sports Car Racing Program Manager, Klauser and her assistant program manager Christie Bagne are the main points of contact between the teams, the sanctioning body, and their technical partners. So, while they’re not the ones doing hands-on machining, they’re the ones coordinating everyone within the team’s budget and making sure everything on the car corresponds to the series specs.
At the track, Klauser is staying on top of the function of the team by checking in with everyone on the team to see if they need anything, chatting with fans, staying on top of balance of power changes, and advising on strategies.
“I’ve always been good at the project management side,” Klauser said when I asked what makes her such a good fit for her role. “I loved budgeting since I was little, and figuring out how to be creative within constraints because you only have so much money to play with.
“But I think the thing that I’d like to think is my biggest strength is I really like working with people and I love it when I can bring two different groups of people or two different people together because they both want to do something similar and they just need it to meet each other and they need it to start to figure out how to connect and then magic starts to happen.
“I’m good at removing roadblocks. I’m good at listening, understanding what people’s needs are and then pulling them together so that we can have, ultimately all the goals are met because at the end of the day, you’ll find, especially racing’s easy because everyone has the same goal they want to win. We’re all going the same direction. It’s just that we all have different ideas, maybe on a how to get there or maybe we don’t have all the information that we need. And really, it’s making sure that we all kind of start moving together and showing how much stronger we are when we work as a group.”
Motorsport remains a male-dominated sphere, even well into 2021, but Klauser has never been intimidated thanks to the female role models in her family.
“My grandmother, she was the very first woman in the neighborhood that she lived in to wear pants,” Klauser said. “She could do anything. She taught herself to drive. My grandfather, after the Navy, took a job on ships, moving them back and forth across the Atlantic, and she was at home with two kids running a farm. And then she was very loving and definitely she honored ‘respect thy neighbor.’
“My mom was a homemaker, but she was the toughest person I still know to this day, and a cancer survivor. Pushing to make sure that the household always had what we needed. All those things. And no shame to my father, my grandfather. They were big parts of growing up too. My dad was an electrician. I thought that was neat. He could do everything. He did plumbing; he built a couple houses, all that stuff. Really, the ability to have that independence to do that stuff for yourself was neat. But it was great to have strong women to look up to in the family.”
She’s kept her family in mind as she’s led her teams to victory at the Rolex 24 in Daytona. Now, Klauser is moving onto her next challenge: helping build an LMDh prototype capable of winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans.