Longtime North American sports car racer Ben Keating made his 24 Hours of Le Mans debut last year in a Riley Motorsports-prepped Dodge Viper GTS-R, and had every intention of returning for another go-round in 2016.
Those plans were dashed when the entry list for this year’s running of the twice-around-the-clock endurance classic was released with Keating and the Viper Exchange team as the 7th reserve.
Rather than giving up on the dream of Le Mans, Keating reached out to Bill Riley himself, who promptly brokered a deal for the Texan and his two co-drivers Jeroen Bleekemolen and Marc Goossens to make the return trip to the famed Circuit de la Sarthe in a Murphy Prototypes Oreca 03R Nissan LMP2 car.
“We had put everything in place since the end of last year to prepare to race the Viper GTS-R in Le Mans again this year,” Keating told Sportscar365.
“We put in the application and the ACO decided that we were a 7th reserve candidate, which we were really disappointed with.
“We spent about two hours being very disappointed, and the went to the list of people who did get in to see about a Plan B.
“Because of Bill Riley building the LMP2 and LMP3 prototypes, he has a lot of connections with those guys. So he called [Murphy Prototypes owner] Greg Murphy, and Greg had all three seats available in his car so we decided to take the whole car.”
Keating’s co-driver during the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season, Bleekemolen, will be in that same role at Le Mans for the second consecutive year. He said that once Riley got involved, the wait was a short one.
“Things moved quickly,” said the 2008 Le Mans LMP2 class winner. “We were watching the nominations for Le Mans live online, and then as soon as I saw we were only seventh on the reserve list I thought, ‘Whoa, this is going to be tough.’
“We were in touch [with Bill Riley] right away and it felt good right away. We got a good couple of options within a few hours. The plan was to go with Ben and it’s great that we worked this out.
“I’m really enjoying working with the whole Riley team, and especially working with Bill himself. I’m getting to know him better and better over the last three years, particularly now as he’s running our car [in IMSA].”
While Riley was instrumental in putting the deal together and missed the IMSA race weekend in Detroit to be at Le Mans for the Test Day, where saw Keating and Bleekemolen claimed their first WeatherTech Championship victory of the season.
Keating isn’t sure how active of a role the Riley would take on race day at Le Mans.
“He’s going to pick me up at the airport, he’s going to carry my helmet to the pits, and he’s going to make sure I have dinner reservations, but I don’t know what else!” quipped Keating.
“I’m excited to have Bill over there, and I can tell you that Bill is excited to be there and experience some of the things that he’s never been able to do because he’s always been working.”
Along with Riley, Keating will have the experience of Greg Murphy’s operation to fall back on.
Last year, the team’s entry charged from 13th on the grid to a 5th place finish in class with Nethaneal Berthon, Karun Chandhok, and Mark Patterson at the controls.
The open-cockpit Oreca 03R is one of the oldest car in the field, but Bleekemolen said the tried-and-true package, coupled with Murphy’ expertise, gives them a shot at a good result.
“You should be realistic always with your chances, and I think the Oreca 03 is not the quickest car anymore, but it’s not far off,” he said.
“It’s still a great car. We have a great engine, we have a great lineup, we have a good team, so I think the whole package is pretty good, but you have to be realistic.
“I don’t expect us to be anywhere near the front two rows in qualifying, but over the distance I think we can be quite good.”
This marks the first time that Keating has raced in a prototype class after a career spent in GT cars, but after a recent European test in the Oreca 03R, as well as a test run in an Prototype Challenge car stateside, he said the transition has been a smooth one.
“I’ve really loved it,” Keating said. “I feel like the prototype fits my driving style, maybe even better than the GT car. I’ve been really quick in the prototype and I’ve really enjoyed it.
“Everything happens a lot faster but it’s been a lot of fun.”
Bleekemolen was in full agreement.
“It was good to get familiar again with an LMP2,” said the Dutchman. “It had been a few years for me.
“Ben is getting on really well in those kinds of cars. He didn’t know what to expect but he really likes them. His lap times were great right away, and I mean really, really fast.
“He’s probably going to be one of the quicker Silver drivers our there, and with me and Marc [Goossens] out there we should be alright.”