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Ben's Benz: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at an IMSA GT Monster

In that half-hour leading up to the green flag, TV loves to win our hearts with human interest pieces on our favorite drivers. Most of the profiles on the top-tier motorsports heroes come with low-resolution camcorder footage of a ridiculously young version of that driver in full racing gear, an oversized helmet dwarfing a little frame. We marvel at this tiny tike carving corners in karts or micro-scale formula cars at an age when most of us still needed help getting the straw punched into our Capri Sun juice pouch.

While a prepubescent start certainly lends itself to racing success later in life, it’s far from mandatory. A fair share of drivers get their street license before their racing card, giving hope to those of us who didn’t learn rev-matching at the same time as our ABCs. Occasionally, a topnotch racer is even born out of a mortgage-owing, tax paying, fully fledged adult.

The green flag first dropped on Ben Keating in 2007, when he was smack in the middle of his 30s. He’s rapidly climbed the road course ladder in North America, and Ben, now 45, has parlayed his talents into an impressive partnership with Mercedes-AMG as they debut their snarling GT-based GT3 in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. The team’s first challenge was also to be their greatest for the season: the Rolex 24 At Daytona.

Pre-Grid

Before the move to the AMG-Mercedes program, most of Ben Keating's track time came in Vipers.

Before the move to the AMG-Mercedes program, most of Ben Keating's track time came in Vipers.

Keating, a Texas native, wasn’t without his automotive influences as a kid. “My father was a car dealer,” he explains. “I grew up parking cars in a straight line, washing, putting gas in ’em. From my perspective that’s what the car business was all about.”

Ben headed off to Texas A&M University for his engineering degree, but the car business was in his blood, and after graduation he got into sales. “I ended up working for my dad, we had a disagreement, I got fired,” he explains, “and I ended up unemployed for about six months.”

Unwilling to give up on his passion for selling cars, Ben found a small space in rural Texas and set up his own dealership. He humbly reports that the venture was quite a success: “It just kept growing. I bought one dealership every year for the next 15 years.”

There’s no denying that Ben was a car guy through and through in those days, even though he’s the first to admit he didn’t have a clue about racing. “I had never driven a car on the track anywhere ever until I was 35 years old,” he laughs. “I didn’t even realize it was something you could do. My wife bought me a weekend at Texas World Speedway, a DE weekend, for Christmas in 2006.”

So, Ben did the only logical thing. “I took a Viper off the showroom floor,” he reports. “I was so ignorant that I didn’t take a helmet, I didn’t have harnesses, I just drove the car to the track and drove around on the factory tires. I had to borrow a helmet. I promptly went out and boiled my brake fluid, and had a thrilling ride across the pasture. I had to borrow a jack and borrow tools and make new friends to help me bleed the brakes.” The upside? “It was the funnest experience I had ever had.”

While a Viper may seem like a clinically insane choice for a first-ever track machine, Ben cites it as proof that he had no idea what he was doing. He notes that he was able to drive the car home without damage on what was left of the stock brake pads.

“Fortunately the 2002 Viper is much friendlier than a 1992,” he adds. “It was a demo with two or three thousand miles. It may be the reason for my success in other cars: When you learn in a car that is difficult to drive, maybe it makes you a little better.

“The fact is it’s a really good sports car; it does everything well,” he says, adding a warning: “If you overdrive it, if you don’t know what oversteer feels like, it’s gonna bite you in the ass.”

Warmup Laps

With adrenaline from his debut track event fresh in his blood, Ben became a late-blooming motorsports addict of the highest degree. One perk of discovering the addiction later in life is that you haven’t yet misspent your youth and all your money on race cars. In fact, you might already have a car dealership or 10 to help soften the financial blow of that new passion. Age can also foster the tempered wisdom necessary to set up realistic racing budgets that leave funds for luxuries like food and shelter.

Rather than waste time bleeding subpar brakes at track days, Ben promptly bought a 2000 Dodge Viper race car for use in the Viper Racing League. He won the championship in 2008, just a year after that first track day, but he notes the class was very, very small. He yearned for something more competitive.

“I moved into a Viper Competition Coupe,” he explains. “That put me in a slightly different class with more competition, but I won the national championship [in that class] in 2009. I decided I wanted to take my car and get into World Challenge, the only place you could race a Viper at the top level at that time.”

After Ben had prepped his car for the 2010 Pirelli World Challenge season, Chrysler announced the Dodge Viper Cup spec series. Given his position as a Dodge dealer, he felt that it made even better business sense to participate in the new Viper series. So he shifted gears and ran both the Viper Racing League (to the championship victory) and the Viper Cup (where he scored second in yearend points). In 2011 and 2012, Ben won the Viper Cup championship outright, and he also got his first taste of something even grander: the Rolex 24.

“I feel like I’m continuing to improve. I want to see how good I can get,” Ben says of his mindset at the time in 2010. “I want to keep exploring additional challenges. In 2011 I got an invitation to run the 24 Hours of Daytona with Kevin Buckler in a Porsche at TRG.”

Remember all that stuff about the wisdom afforded by age and the financial security of business success, and how they can combat racing’s powerful addictive properties? Cue reality in three, two, one: “I will say at that time, making plans in late 2010, I am completely strapped for cash,” Ben confesses. “I can’t afford to go do the Daytona 24. But both my grandparents passed away the year prior and left me a little money, and that was about equal to the amount that it would take to go do Daytona. So I decided I could live without the inheritance. I decided that my grandparents would love for me to go do something like that. It’s easy to justify that kind of thing.”

Green Green Green!

Participating in his first Rolex 24 made a considerable impression on Ben. “To this day that’s my favorite race of the year,” he notes. “That incredible experience caused me to start figuring out how to go back again and again.”

For the 2012 season, Ben bought a Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car and raced with Grand-Am. For 2013, Ben finessed his budget to race a Viper not in the Viper Cup, but in the GTC category in the American Le Mans series.

For 2014, Ben’s efforts to get Chrysler on board with IMSA’s then-titled Tudor United SportsCar Championship paid off, and through 2016 he raced a Viper in the series that brought him back to the Rolex 24 At Daytona. It was during this period that he earned his first Rolex 24 victory, when he and co-drivers Dominik Farnbacher, Al Carter, Kuno Wittmer and Cameron Lawrence brought their Riley Motorsports Dodge Viper SRT to the checkered flag in the GT Daytona category.

“That was a really special race for me, something I always wanted,” Ben recalls. But he adds a bit of realism: “Even though I owned the car and put the team together, I only did one stint at the beginning of the race, and I didn’t feel extremely involved as a driver.”

In fact, his fondest memory behind the wheel came a bit further south–at the Sebring race later in the season. “Our car was just really set up; I was really comfortable in the car. I was able to lead that race against a lot of top-level drivers for 2 hours. It’s those kind of experiences that are memorable to me because it feels good to be successful against the best in the business.”

Unfortunately, 2017 is the final production year for Chrysler’s V10 sports car. It was time for Ben to find something new. As a result of his squad’s strong driver lineup and their ties with Riley Motorsports, several manufacturers were interested in partnering with them. Ultimately, it was the Mercedes-AMG GT3 that impressed Ben the most.

“It was a brand-new car in 2016, and I was watching the success ofthat car in Europe: watching what it does well, where it’s weak,” Ben says. “What I saw was that it does a lot of things really well and it doesn’t have many weak spots. Having run against these other cars for the last three years, knowing the tracks we go to, I feel like the AMG GT3 car is the best weapon to go into battle with.”

Up to Speed

The Rolex 24 At Daytona is the longest race of the yearlong championship, as grueling a test of a team’s mettle and metal as you can find in a racing series. The team had every confidence in the factors they could control, but Ben still entered this year’s race with a heavy dose of skepticism as a result of the Balance of Performance.

“I did not feel comfortable going into this year’s Rolex 24,” he confesses. “I’ve done enough to know that Daytona is all about top speed; you’ve gotta be able to pass on the banking and keep other cars behind you. At the Roar [Before the Rolex, a weekend test session before the race], IMSA got everybody together and said ‘Stop sandbagging and show us what you’ve got.’ We believed ’em, and we did it and we got hurt.”

IMSA officials reviewed the data from the Roar to hand down several adjustments to teams, including a new restrictor for the Mercedes-AMG GT3. Teams fielding the car were required to go from a 36mm intake restrictor to a 34.5mm piece, the smallest of any in the GTD field. “That 1.5mm is worth a few mph on the straights,” Ben notes. In comparison, the Lamborghini Huracán and Lexus RC F were fitted with 38mm restrictors, and the Porsche 911 GT3 and Audi R8 LMS GT3 had 39mm pieces.

After qualifying, Ben’s Mercedes-AMG GT3 was set to start the Rolex 24 in 19th place out of 26 GT Daytona class racers. The best Mercedes-AMG qualified about a tenth of a second quicker in 18th, and a third car landed in 24th–far from a dream beginning to the season.

“Everybody says, ‘It’s a long race, it’s 24 hours, you’ll figure it out’–all the patronizing stuff folks say to the slow guys,” Ben quips. “I felt like we had a 12th or 15th place car. There was a good chance of rain, and that was good for us. At that point all you can really do is run a clean race.”

The rain did come, on and off through the night and into the morning, for nearly 10 out of the 24 hours. The No. 33 Mercedes-AMG team found their rhythm and ticked off lap after lap, with Ben’s co-drivers Jeroen Bleekemolen, Mario Farnbacher and Adam Christodoulou handing their business with aplomb. As the hours passed without incident, all those seemingly empty platitudes about the long race started seeming like a genuine chance, despite tricky conditions that had sidelined, damaged or delayed many of their competitors.

“This was my seventh time to run the Rolex 24 At Daytona,” Ben explains, “and far and away this was the cleanest, [most] mistake-free, flawless race I’ve ever done. We never lost the lead lap. We never had any off-track excursions. We never had a flat tire. We never had a bad pit stop. We never lost a lug nut.

“It’s tough for that many people to never make a mistake through 30 pit stops and 24 hours,” continues Ben. “I started in 19th and drove for three stints–my goal was to have 5.5 hours in the car by midnight. I brought the car in the first time around 10th, got out while my co-drivers did four stints, got back in around 9:30 p.m. and it had started to drizzle. I got in in ninth place and was able to bring it in after 3 hours in the rain in sixth place. I don’t feel like that was because of incredible driving by me or my teammates, or because we had a really fast car, but because we were racing really clean and had a good strategy.”

Podium Bound

Ben grabbed a few winks of sleep in the wee hours of the night, and he woke up to the rather joyous news that they were leading in GTD. “We ran in the top three for hours,” notes Ben. “Any time you can wake up in the top three on the lead lap, you’ve got a chance.”

The No. 33 Mercedes-AMG crew continued to nail their pit stops and strategy, and the drivers churned out fast and consistent laps despite the weather. The Mercedes-AMG remained on the sharp end of a tight race for the class win. With just a sprint race to go, their car shared the lead lap with a Porsche, a pair of Audis and an Acura NSX.

“The last 30 minutes were pretty exciting for us,” Ben says. Their car had been passed by two of the faster machines, relegating them to third, but Ben started putting hope in the silver lining of having the tightest restrictor in the GTD field. “The fact is, to make all that power you burn more fuel. We thought that the two cars that passed us might be short on fuel. We were right at the limit, but with 20 minutes left to go, the yellow flag came out, and that gave them the grace period.”

Third place was still a highly respectable podium finish, even more impressive considering it was the team’s first outing with new hardware. And while coming so close after such a long race is bittersweet, Ben can honestly report that this was an event where he and his teammates gave their all. “It’s so rare that you can say that about a 24-hour race,” he notes, “but absolutely there was nothing we could have done differently.”

Like most experienced racers, Ben’s already focused on the road ahead, and he’s even more encouraged for the remainder of the season. The Mercedes-AMG GT3 should be stronger at tracks that aren’t as straightaway-heavy as Daytona, and the car clearly has the reliability and durability to give its drivers confidence. As Ben puts it, “Everybody’s excited–AMG, Mercedes-Benz USA, Bill Riley. We feel like we have the perfect storm to go out and win the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.”

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Comments

View comments on the GRM forums
mazdeuce
mazdeuce MegaDork
7/28/17 3:30 p.m.

A neat article, I do love those cars.

Two_Tools_In_a_Tent
Two_Tools_In_a_Tent New Reader
7/28/17 3:41 p.m.

A neat article times two !

I was up at Black Swan Racing dropping off a windshield that they were bringing South for another. Got a terrific tour of their facility, crawled all over their GT3 Mercedes and grabbed a hat on the way out.

Those Mercedes SLS AMG GT3s are just amazing ! ! ! I was somehow hoping that the body might actually be polished aluminum but it was a vinyl wrap. Still—AMAZING ! ! !

yupididit
yupididit Dork
7/28/17 4:46 p.m.

Damn that's awesome! Good on him and his success in life! I find it interesting in 2010 he was strapped for cash then bought a 911 gt3 in 2012. 2011 must've been hell of a year!

759NRNG
759NRNG HalfDork
7/29/17 11:03 a.m.

Know him and the family well..... not name dropping just sayin'...and the Viper Exchange is not more than 20 mins. from the house. Always root for him and Joeren whenever they turn a wheel.

mazdeuce
mazdeuce MegaDork
7/29/17 9:16 p.m.

In reply to 759NRNG:

These cars still use the M156, right? Because I just happen to know a guy who knows those things inside and out.

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
7/29/17 9:40 p.m.
mazdeuce wrote: In reply to 759NRNG: These cars still use the M156, right? Because I just happen to know a guy who knows those things inside and out.

Anyone we know?

bmw88rider
bmw88rider SuperDork
7/29/17 9:52 p.m.

In reply to mazdeuce:

It's actually the M159 in the car. I went through the car pretty in-depth when Pappas was in town last year.

I'm a Ben fan too. Talked to him a good long time the first year he raced at COTA and every year since. They have had a tough year so far.

mazdeuce
mazdeuce MegaDork
7/30/17 8:23 a.m.

Well poop. This is what I get for playing with old tech.
I really should make an effort to go to one of the events at COTA and check the cars out. Mercedes is back in sportscar racing and their AMG product lineup is pretty solid and way more diverse than any of the other performance groups. I feel like they're just a few tweaks away from building a community that is as enthusiastic about driving the cars and they are about being seen in them.

yupididit
yupididit Dork
7/30/17 9:44 a.m.

Mercedes community love driving their cars. As much if not more than being seen in them. They're also down with working on them as well.

mazdeuce
mazdeuce MegaDork
7/30/17 10:08 a.m.

I wanted to disagree, but then I thought about AMG owners I've met in person, and they do indeed love driving their cars. And they community does seem to like the problem solving aspect of fixing things. I guess I meant to say they are underrepresented in the forms of recreational driving that requires helmets.
No matter, I'm glad to see them racing, I'm glad to see their product lineup, and I enjoy driving the one I have.

759NRNG
759NRNG HalfDork
7/30/17 5:09 p.m.

In reply to mazdeuce: does this response mean you're back in northhoustonish??

mazdeuce
mazdeuce MegaDork
7/31/17 7:54 a.m.

In reply to 759NRNG:

It means I've started packing. The trip home is long and winding and involves a battered Airstream, tubing behind a pontoon boat and a county Fair. I'll be very happy to replace the cam sensor on the van and get back to my AMG sport seats.

Aaron_King
Aaron_King PowerDork
7/31/17 9:27 a.m.

Got see a few of those up close this weekend at Mid Ohio for the PWC race and they are cool up close.

Two_Tools_In_a_Tent:

Black Swan had the best livery and Hero card, I will try to get a pic posted later.

collinskl1
collinskl1 Reader
7/31/17 11:16 a.m.
Two_Tools_In_a_Tent: Black Swan had the best livery and Hero card, I will try to get a pic posted later.

They also have the best press releases..

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