Two-car effort for the Sahlen's Six Hours Of The Glen in New York.
It takes a lot to get a veteran TUDOR United SportsCar Championship competitor like Ben Keating excited. But even 10 days after his first start at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, he has trouble putting the experience into words.
“There’s really no way to describe it to someone who hasn’t experienced it. I talked to a lot of people who had been before, and I got a lot of good advice, but it’s so different from anything we have in the U.S. I mean, you almost can’t get there from here. It was just unbelievable. I’m totally happy I did it. Even though the finish wasn’t what we hoped for, you realize you are really part of something special.”
Keating, who owns car dealerships in Texas – most notably the Viper Exchange, the world’s largest Dodge Viper store – races a Viper in the TUDOR Championship GT Daytona class, with regular co-driver Jerone Bleekemolen. For Le Mans, they added Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge competitor Marc Miller. Only Bleekemolen had prior Le Mans driving experience, and Keating first attended the race as a spectator just last year.
For Le Mans, they fielded a Viper GTS-R, which is quite a bit different from the Viper SRT that Keating races in the TUDOR Championship. The No. 53 Viper Exchange/TI Automotive/Riley Motorsports car was a handful in testing – “We went to bed Wednesday night with some genuine concerns,” Keating said. But wholesale changes, including raising the car and stiffening the suspension, which was not supposed to work, did indeed work quite well, and the car was on pace.
“By the time the race came, and the track had some rubber on it, our car got happier and happier as the race went on,” Keating said. How happy? Bleekemolen set the fastest lap of the race in their class.
But first a belt broke, and then eventually terminal transmission problems struck. “The car would not go into first and second gear, and soon they pitted to replace the internal parts of the transmission.
“We had good speed,” Bleekemolen said. “We led the race and posted the fastest lap. The gearbox just wouldn't shift anymore. There was some stuff in the gearbox, metal from the previous one, and it just wouldn’t work any longer.”
Keating said they couldn’t keep up with the No. 98 Aston Martin driven by Paul Dalla Lana, Mathias Lauda and Pedro Lamy, which had a comfortable class lead until Dalla Lana crashed late in the race. “That car was just in a different time zone,” Keating said. “But right up until there were five hours left, I thought we had a real shot at a second- or third-place finish.”
Ready for Watkins Glen
So Keating is more than ready for this weekend’s Sahlen’s Six Hours at the Glen, one of the four endurance races this season that will decide the Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup, which is parallel to the TUDOR Championship’ full-season championships. He and Bleekemolen race the ViperExchange.com/Riley Motorsports Viper GT3-R in the GTD class. They’ve won two races so far this season, and Keating was also a co-driver in this year’s class-winning Viper at the Rolex 24 at Daytona.
“I’m more ready for this race than I have been in a long time,” Keating said. “I have a really strong hunger for a podium, and I’ve been doing a little extra data and video homework. I’m really looking forward to this particular race because I’m ready for some results.”
Keating is entering two Vipers: Keating and Bleekemolen will drive the No, 33 car, while Al Carter, Cameron Lawrence and Marc Goossens will drive the No. 93 Viper.
Other TUDOR Championship regulars who went to Le Mans and are racing at Watkins Glen include the GTE-Pro class Le Mans winners, Corvette Racing’s Oliver Gavin and Tommy Milner, who will drive the No. 4 Chevrolet Corvette C7.R. Their Le Mans-winning co-driver, Jordan Taylor, returns to his regular ride in the No. 10 Konica Minolta Corvette DP in the Prototype class.
Fellow Corvette Racing teammates and current GTLM points leaders Jan Magnussen and Antonio Garcia also will be racing this weekend, however not in their regular Corvette C7.R. Instead, the No. 3 will be a borrowed Corvette from the European Larbre Competition team, as the No. 3 machine was damaged in an incident in qualifying prior to the 24 Hours of Le Mans and requires more time for repairs.
Five Le Mans winners
In fact, this Sahlen’s Six Hours of The Glen field will include a total of five winners from Le Mans, including a pair of overall winners. Nick Tandy and Earl Bamber, who made up two-thirds of the LM P1-winning lineup along with Formula 1 racer Nico Hulkenberg in the No. 19 Porsche 919 Hybrid, both return to TUDOR Championship action in the GTLM class.
Tandy will co-drive the No. 911 Porsche North America Porsche 911 RSR with Patrick Pilet, while Bamber is slated to share the team’s No. 912 RSR with Joerg Bergmeister. Both Pilet and Bergmeister also competed at Le Mans this year.
Giancarlo Fisichella, who is the co-pilot of the No. 62 Risi Competizione Ferrari F458 Italia with Le Mans LM P1 driver Pierre Kaffer, finished third in GTE-Pro at Le Mans. Wolf Henzler, co-driving the No. 17 Team Falken Tire Porsche 911 RSR with Bryan Sellers, also competed in the GTE-Pro class but was not able to finish the race.
Scuderia Corsa drivers Bill Sweedler and Townsend Bell will contend at Watkins Glen in the No. 63 Robert Graham/Royal Purple Ferrari 458 Italia in the (GTD) class – they finished third in the GTE-Am class at the Le Mans. It was the first Le Mans for both drivers.
The TUDOR United SportsCar Championship’s Sahlen’s Six Hours of the Glen on Sunday will be televised live beginning on FOX Sports 1 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. ET, with FOX Sports 2 covering the conclusion from 2 to 4:30 p.m. It’s the series’ sixth round of the season.