How to Win, and Lose, the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 56 Confounding Hours

Steven Cole
By Steven Cole Smith
Dec 1, 2020 | Ford, GT, 24 Hours of Le Mans | Posted in Features | From the Feb. 2020 issue | Never miss an article

Photograph Courtesy Keating Motorsports

When the call came that changed everything, racer Ben Keating was waiting at the baggage claim carousel at the Houston airport late on a Monday night, his packed-up uniform still damp and smelling of the Moët & Chandon Champagne that winners of the 24 Hours of Le Mans have sprayed around the podium since 1966. 

That’s the year winner Jo Siffert, Jeroboam in hand, accidentally doused the crowd after the cork shot out of the bottle. A year later, winner Dan Gurney recreated that moment on purpose, creating a tradition that has lived on and spread around the globe.

Tradition is important in motorsports, and it’s important to Keating, the 48-year-old owner of 19 auto dealerships in Texas. His grandfather owned a Ford store, his father owned a Ford store, and the first dealership in Keating’s portfolio was a Ford store.

So it was a proud moment when Ford decided to sell Keating—and, as of this writing, nobody else—one of its current-generation Ford GT racers. It happens to be the very car that won the model’s first race, the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s Monterey Grand Prix at Laguna Seca in California on May 1, 2016.

Of course, six weeks later, the GT did exactly what Ford intended it to do when it revived the model: win the 24 Hours of Le Mans on the 50th anniversary of the brand’s first victory there. That win is the subject of the hit film “Ford v Ferrari,” where the main character is Carroll Shelby, another Ford-loving Texan and an idol to people like Ben Keating.

Ford Came, Ford Kicked

Le Mans and its organizers, the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, rolled out the red carpet for the Ford GT in 2016, allowing four cars to enter the race despite the fact that, traditionally, a large manufacturer had to produce 100 road-going copies before the ACO would homologate a race car based on the production car. The ACO allowed the GT to race under a waiver despite the fact that Ford had no Ford GTs on the road and wouldn’t for months. Rather than base the race car on the street car, Ford and GT builder Multimatic essentially based the street car on the race car.

The ACO would not be so generous with Ford at Le Mans in 2019, the last year the company was supporting the GT program. More about that in a moment.

So just getting the opportunity to be the first privateer to own and race the current Ford GT was one Keating would treasure, regardless of the outcome of his race at Le Mans.

Photography credit: David S. Wallens

He would compete in the Le Mans GTE Am class, which requires one Bronze-rated driver, which Keating is. The Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile rates every driver in every major series based on age, success and experience. There’s Bronze, typically applied to “gentleman drivers,” like Keating; Silver, which calls for more experience but not necessarily professional status; Gold, which is professional; and Platinum, which is Lewis Hamilton.

The factory-backed LM GTE Pro class, where the Ford GT has been classed since it arrived in 2016, uses professional, paid drivers. Gentleman drivers like Keating typically pay for the opportunity, but few actually own the entire team, which Keating did at Le Mans and in six years of racing in the GT Daytona class in IMSA. 

In 2019, Ford again sent four Ford GTs to race in the Pro class, plus Keating’s Am entry. He shared his ride with Platinum-ranked driver Jeroen Bleekemolen and talented Le Mans rookie Felipe Fraga, who has mostly competed in the Stock Car Brasil series.  

Photograph courtesy Keating Motorsports

The Ford GT Pros were also-rans at Le Mans in 2019 with a best finish of fourth. They trailed the AF Corse Ferrari 488 GTE Evo in first and a pair of Porsche GT Team 911 RSRs in second and third.

But, as you’ve likely heard, the No. 85 Keating Motorsports Ford GT won in the GT Am class. Flags were waved, hands were shaken, Champagne was sprayed from the top step of the podium. 

Soaring Too Close to the Sun

Which brings us back to Keating, in his home state, waiting in the George Bush Intercontinental baggage claim, when his cell phone rang. Not unusual; his phone had been ringing nonstop with calls of congratulations. But this call was from Bill Riley, sports car legend and son of another legend, Bob Riley of Riley & Scott engineering fame. Bill Riley and Keating had been partners in IMSA for years, and he oversaw the LeMans program, too.

Riley broke the news: Keating’s team had been disqualified. 

After 24 grueling hours, Ben Keating and team, including Bill Riley, made it to victory lane at Le Mans. And then the wheels fell off. Photograph Courtesy Keating Motorsports

After the car concluded its 24 hours on the track, the ACO rolled No. 85 into post-race tech, where it spent 32 hours. So, 56 hours after Keating’s Ford GT took the green flag, it had won, and lost, Le Mans.

The problem? There were two. First, the rules stated that refueling a GT Am car could not take less than 45 seconds, supposedly as a nod to pit safety and to the fact that GT Am teams weren’t necessarily as well financed as factory teams. 

The ACO had determined that No. 85 refueled in an average of 44.4 seconds. 

The ACO socked the team with a 55.2-second penalty, calculated using math only the French understand. But that wasn’t so bad: It moved the No. 56 Team Project 1 Porsche 911 RSR into first, but Keating had enough of a lead over the next car to still finish second.

But there was more. The car’s fuel cell was supposed to hold no more than 96 liters. The ACO first measured the cell at 96.1 liters, but it got different readings more than once. It settled on 96.4. 

And that was that. “The fuel capacity issue trumps the other issue,” Keating said. “You’re disqualified.” 

The official finishing order of the 61 cars that entered the race? First through 47th place were listed in order, then a 48th car was “not classified,” and the remaining 11 cars were listed as “retired.”

And then there were the 60th and 61st cars, disqualified. The No. 68 Ford Chip Ganassi GT, which crossed the finish line in fourth and was the highest-finishing of the four Pro cars, was disqualified for having a too-big fuel tank. The Pro cars were allowed 97 liters of fuel, and the No. 68 had a capacity of 97.83 liters.

Ford’s Pro GT was the 60th car listed. And in 61st, Keating Motorsports.

After running up front for 22 hours with a hole in the front bumper—and down a few dive planes—ACO officials ordered the team to the pits for repair. Photograph Courtesy Keating Motorsports

Standing there at baggage claim, Keating was gutted. “The only other time I had felt that way was when my dad died. Of course it’s not on the same level, but it’s the only time I can remember that feeling.”

In the next couple of weeks, Keating said, “I went through all the stages of grieving”: anger, sadness, looking for somebody to blame—but he realized there was no one to blame. It was nobody’s fault. 

Regarding the too-fast refueling: During all of practice and qualifying, they never used that refueling rig—basically a big elevated tank on stands, sporting a large plastic hose with a restrictor on the end where the hose clamps onto the car during pit stops. Keating suspects it all came down to the hose being full of fuel for 24 hours, “causing it to expand ever so slightly, increasing the head pressure and volume that made us six-tenths of a second too fast.”

As far as the tank size: The tank contains a rubber bladder inside its hard shell, so if the car is hit near the tank, the bladder (usually) prevents leakage.

But the tank shell is much larger than 96 liters. To bring it down to the proper capacity, teams add plastic blocks of different sizes to the tank. But it wasn’t as easy for Keating’s team as it sounds. All week, they would fill the tank, then pump out every drop into a box, weigh it, and determine exactly how much fuel it held.

And all week, “It was a moving target,” Keating said. The rubber bladders might develop a wrinkle, which trims capacity. Or a wrinkle may smooth out, which increases it. 

“And during the race, that bladder in the fuel cell is filled to brim and empties 23 times, at every pit stop. And with 24 hours of abuse and heat and vibration, it apparently gained four-tenths of a liter—about the size of this Coke,” Keating said, holding up a can. 

“All the teams know the rules,” he said. “They teched our car, and at the end of the race, it held a Coke can too much fuel.”

This is where the Monday morning quarterback says, “But wouldn’t it have made sense to err on the conservative side, setting the fuel rig at just over 45 seconds and the tank capacity just under 96 liters?”

Absolutely, Keating said. Except for one thing: “Our car was slow.”

Photography credits: David S. Wallens

In practice, they were 15th out of the 16 GT Am cars. Riley and crew—with substantial and generous help, Keating said, from Chip Ganassi’s Pro GT teams as well as Ford engineers—worked hard on the car, making multiple changes. It helped, and they qualified mid-pack, “but we were 2 seconds off the pace of the fastest car.” Indeed: During the race, the best lap by a GT Am car was 3:52.567, turned by a Dempsey-Proton Porsche 911 RSR. 

The fastest lap Keating’s car laid down: 3:55.774. That’s 3.2 seconds slower. But Keating’s team won. And it wasn’t because of the Coke can of extra fuel, or the six-tenths of a second less refueling time.

A Club Racer at Heart

In 2018, Keating rented a ride in the Risi Competizione Ferrari 488. “We had a great driver lineup and the car was perfect. But we lost to the No. 77 Porsche,” the Dempsey-Proton car, “because they had a better strategy.”

“So I wrote a script for this year,” Keating continued. “What I would have done differently. There were multiple items on the list, but the main one is intriguing. The Bronze driver on the team, as are the others, is required to race for a minimum of 6 hours. Most of the GT Am teams put the Bronze driver in the first half of the race, telling him or her to take care of the car and bring it back in one piece so the professionals can race to the front later on.

No argument: Of the three drivers, Keating was the slowest. Of course he was. He had never been on a race track until 2006, when he redeemed a $250 “track day” gift his wife, Kathleen, had given him for a day at the now-defunct Texas World Speedway. He pulled a Dodge Viper off the showroom floor to drive.

And he was bitten. Badly. His first race ever was at Sebring International Raceway in 2007, at age 36. He had, he said, no business being in his race group, but his car had run in that group before, so the organizers assumed he was ready. He was not. He learned a lot, quickly, on his way to a DNF.

Keating already owned the largest Viper dealership in the world, so he started racing, and winning, in a Viper-only series. By 2011 he was competing in the Rolex 24 At Daytona, and then in the American Le Mans Series and the Grand-Am series—now the IMSA WeatherTech series, created when the ALMS and Grand-Am combined.

And, like every grassroots racer (Keating found time for a 24-hour ChampCar race this season), he dreamed of competing on the world’s biggest stage: Le Mans. This was his fifth trip there. Last year, with the Risi Ferrari team, he finished third.

In 2019, with the Ford GT, he and his team went for it. They set the refueling rig to exactly 45 seconds and the fuel tank at what they thought was 96 liters. “At our speed, we had no margin to give.” Had they known how the race would unfold, they never would have cut it so close.

Photograph courtesy Keating Motorsports

But how could they know Keating’s strategy would work? It did, and here’s how: Instead of putting the slowest driver—Keating—on the track for the first half of the race to burn up his 6 hours, he drove during the last 9 hours of the race in two stints, leaving an hour at the end for Bleekemolen (above), a rocket in everything he drives.

Why? Because when there’s a caution at Le Mans, the field is so huge that they send out one pace car for the first half of the field and another for the back half. Since GT Am is the slowest of the four classes, it’s unlikely one would make it to the first half of the field. But if it did, it would give that car a massive advantage over any car that was caught in the back half, behind the second pace car, which starts a good 20 seconds behind the first group.

Bleekemolen and Fraga drove every lap like it was the last one, and sure enough, there was a yellow flag. Out came the pace car, and the Keating Motorsports Ford GT was, just barely, in the front half. And being in that front half for the first caution made it easier to be there for the second, and the third, because you gained so much on the back half of the field—where the competition was stuck with their slowest drivers.

And after the third caution, Keating’s car had a startling 2-minute lead on the GT Am field. But not by speed, by strategy, he stresses: “I’m uncomfortable when people say we dominated that race. We didn’t. We were a long way from having the fastest car. Our lead was due to our strategy, and luck.” 

That said, in the first hour, Bleekemolen hit some sort of debris that put a hole in the car’s nose and knocked off a dive plane—a little wing that adds downforce. The team drove the whole race slowed by the damage, but it wasn’t bad enough to take the time to repair.

Or was it?

Photograph courtesy Keating Motorsports

As Keating neared the end of his stint, ACO officials told Bill Riley to call the car to the pits, or else. They demanded that the team change the nose of the car because it had a hole in it. As it had for 22 hours. At a time when some other cars looked as though they’d been through a war. “Bill argued with them, but it was no use,” Keating said. “So I came in.”

They changed the nose. Keating’s big lead was shrinking, but it wasn’t gone. Then he made a mistake: In IMSA, drivers are allowed to launch out of the pits as hard as they want, leaving streaks of smoke and rubber behind. You can’t do that at Le Mans. As Keating left the pits, he squealed the tires. 

The penalty: a stop and go. He made a lap and came back in the pits. The 2-minute, 50-second lead was gone. 

“I went back out, and Bill said on the radio, ‘I think we still have a chance.’ I said, ‘What the hell does that mean?’” Turns out they still had a lead—5 seconds—over the Team Project 1 Porsche 911. 

Even though the team's Ford ran up front for most of the race, Ben Keating is quick to say that they didn't have the dominant car. He credits strategy. Photograph courtesy Keating Motorsports.

But behind that wheel sat Jörg Bergmeister, a longtime Porsche factory driver who’d been racing at Le Mans since 2002. The German had a win and three second-place finishes to his credit, and he didn’t want a fourth. It would be easy for the Platinum driver to run down and pass the old Bronze guy, right?  “That’s what everybody thought,” Keating said. 

Keating had been cruising around, saving fuel—no reason to push with a lead of nearly 3 minutes. Suddenly, that changed. He had to switch from endurance racing mode “to qualifying mode, driving every lap as fast as I possibly could.”

One advantage: the new nose, without a hole in it, with the dive plane restored. Until then “the car had been pushing—understeering—like crazy. But with the nose, it was the best it had been all day,” Keating recalled. Plus, he just needed to drive his last mandated 15 minutes before they’d pit again and put Bleekemolen in the car, so there was no need to save fuel. But he had to keep ahead of Bergmeister.

 “I have a world champion Porsche factory driver on my tail in the biggest race in the world, and I’m driving what was, to me, one of the most important race cars ever,” Keating said. “As a gentleman driver, you dream about the idea that there’s 1 hour left and it’s all on your shoulders, racing against a pro like Jörg.”

Keating went out with a 5-second lead; he brought the car back with a 3-second lead. He lost 2 seconds in 15 minutes to one of the best sports car drivers in the world, who was in his 17th straight Le Mans.

“It was one of the most special moments of my life. It was,” Keating pauses, searching for the right word, “it was magical.”

Photographs Courtesy Keating Motorsports

He had been turning leisurely laps in excess of 4 minutes, but during his last 15 minutes he laid down a 3:55.9, “the fastest lap I’ve ever turned at Le Mans.” That includes the two times he’s raced LMP2 Prototypes, which are faster cars. “And I did it without screwing up, without sliding into the gravel pit. I don’t think anybody expected me to pull it off, and I did it, and it was awesome.” 

You have to know Ben Keating to realize that if it sounds like he’s bragging, he isn’t. Not in his nature.

“I got to celebrate with [Ford Chairman] Bill Ford, with [Multimatic legend] Larry Holt, with Bill Riley, my wife, with all the Ford GT owners who were there. It was absolutely magical. And nothing will ever take that away.”

Châtiment: French for Retribution

This is a good place to mention what Keating calls the “conspiracy theories”—that the ACO and Le Mans were not as welcoming as they were in, say, 2016. But some suggest that leading up to that Le Mans, the Ford GTs had been sandbagging, not showing all their cards so they wouldn’t be penalized under the balance of performance rules. The rules were designed to add or subtract weight, increase or decrease turbo boost, or order any number of alterations in an attempt to level the playing field.

That Ford showed up with a brand-new car and finished first, third and fourth was bad enough, but Ford filed a protest late in the race, pointing out that the second-place Risi Ferrari’s leader lights, a series of small LEDs that display a car’s race position, weren’t working properly. Ford demanded that the officials call in the Ferrari for repairs, which would have given Ford a one-two-three finish. 

The flagman waved the appropriate flag at the Ferrari, which ignored it and kept racing. Ferrari filed its own protest and was allowed, of course, to keep second place. But Ford’s nitpicky nature left a bad taste in a lot of French mouths.

Photograph courtesy Keating Motorsports

Photography credit: David S. Wallens

And certainly, Le Mans and the ACO were put off by Ford’s complete departure from sports car racing this year: It came, it conquered, it quit.

Apply all that to the call for Keating to come in and replace a nose that had apparently been satisfactory for 22 hours. The team is still waiting for a logical explanation. There are other hints that no, the ACO did not particularly want the Ford GT’s exit strategy to be a triumphant one in any class, and after 32 hours of teching Keating’s car, it maybe wasn’t.

“But we made it too easy for them,” Keating said. The two penalties were deserved. Still, you have to wonder how many of those 61 cars could pass a 32-hour tech marathon.

Acceptance and Moving On

This seven-figure season is over and done, and Ben Keating has moved on in several ways. After IMSA’s season-ending Petit Le Mans, Keating, Bleekemolen and Fraga celebrated the team’s third straight North American Endurance Cup championship, a series within a series that counts finishes only in the four long races: Daytona, Sebring, Watkins Glen and Petit at Road Atlanta. Their No. 33 Wynn’s Mercedes-AMG GT3 finished seventh in GT Daytona-class points, with a win at Virginia International Raceway.

What’s next for Keating, after class wins at the Rolex 24 At Daytona, the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, and—face facts—the 24 Hours of Le Mans?

He has already started it: Rather than race full time in IMSA, he signed on with the FIA World Endurance Championship for the 2019-’20 season, which began at Silverstone in England on September 1 and winds up seven races later at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. 

So yes, Keating will be back, most likely with the team he’s with now—Team Project 1, which ran the Porsche that, technically, won Le Mans after Keating’s car was DQed. They formed a second team for Keating, Bleekemolen and, in the longer races, Fraga, now rated a Silver driver. Keating is third in WEC points after three races. 

Those three drivers plan to be back in IMSA in 2020 part time to defend their four-race Endurance Cup championship, starting with the 2020 Rolex 24 At Daytona. Their ride: the familiar Mercedes-AMG, fielded by Bill Riley.

Keating isn’t about to quit. “In high school, I went through drug rehab twice. I’ve been sober now for 31 years. My personality hasn’t changed a bit, but my drug of choice is different today. I’m blessed enough to be able to afford it, and to be in a business that allows me to feed the addiction.”

Another Texan with an addiction to racing and fast cars, Carroll Shelby, would be proud.

Even after the ACO ruling, Keating isn't giving up on racing. He's currently running with the FIA World Endurance Championship and plans to be at Daytona. Photograph courtesy Keating Motorsports.

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P3PPY HalfDork
9/21/20 2:00 p.m.

Soooo that is a SUPER motivating story! I got all pumped emotional reading about how he staved off the Porsche driver, too. Man. Great read!

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