GT Daytona class winner Ben Keating said Sunday’s Michelin GT Challenge at VIR offered the “exact opposite” of the “disastrous luck” he and Jeroen Bleekemolen have experienced in recent IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship races.
Keating and Bleekemolen scored their first GTD class victory of the season, and their first in over a year, co-driving the No. 33 Riley Motorsports Mercedes-AMG GT3.
It came after Keating made up several positions in his opening stint, before Bleekemolen executed the move of the race on the No. 86 Meyer Shank Racing Acura NSX GT3 Evo of Mario Farnbacher to slot into the lead.
The Riley Mercedes has been a regular fixture in lead battles this season but had failed to finish on the podium until Sunday’s win.
It was on track for a high result last time out at Road America, where Keating claimed his first career GTD pole, but the race unraveled when the Mercedes’ suspension broke.
“We have had a great car and a great team, and a great strategy. Everything has gone so well from the performance aspect of this season, but we have had disastrous luck,” said Keating.
“Today it was almost the exact opposite. We qualified seventh, which I was very disappointed with because there are big sections on this track where it’s single file.
“It has a tendency to create big long trains where one car has tire degradation and slows down a bit: twice in my stint this afternoon, I had three or four cars sitting in front of me.
“But they got into each other, the waters parted and I got to drive through. I’d love to say that I was really fast and passed a bunch of people on the track, but the fact is that I was pretty good at staying out of trouble.
“I’m just really glad to have been on the other side of all those situations. Last year we were in the lead, but we were punted [out] from the lead, so it’s really nice to win.”
Keating explained how the Riley team’s tire strategy provided Bleekemolen with the tools to catch and pass Farnbacher for the lead of the race with 50 minutes remaining.
“Jeroen did an excellent job, just biding his time. We pitted two laps earlier than the No. 86 because we felt like we were going to lose the race on pit lane because we were going to take on more fuel.
“We gambled by pitting early and getting the position with the plan of saving fuel. It was really tight. We came out of the pits behind but we had hot tires and they were on cold tires.
“Mario did an unbelievable job the first half of the lap but going through Oak Tree he went a little wide. That enabled Jeroen to get a run on him going all the way down the back straight.
“From that point in time, once you have the position of being in the lead, it’s a bit easier to save fuel. This is one of those tracks where you can save fuel if you’re not really fighting for position.”
Bleekemolen went on to take the checkered flag by half a second from Farnbacher, who shared the Acura with Trent Hindman.
The Dutch driver’s fuel-saving in the run to the flag was aided by a late full-course caution after an accident for Katherine Legge, but Keating said it also heightened the tension for those in the Riley pit box.
“We really did not want that final full course yellow,” he admitted. “That merged everybody in. But it all worked out well, and it’s great to be here [in victory lane].
“It’s not just our first win, but anywhere on the podium. I just like to smell like champagne.”