While the odds were stacked against them, on multiple fronts, the Dodge Viper GTS-R has returned to Le Mans, but in a different guise and with different goals from its last appearance two years ago.
The discontinuation of the factory SRT Motorsports program at the end of last year left the Riley Technologies-built GTE cars parked, but an initiative from Bill Riley and Ben Keating has seen the V10-powered beast and much of its ex-factory crew back together for the French endurance classic.
“Believe it or not, [Le Mans] wasn’t even on my radar,” Keating told Sportscar365. “It almost seemed unobtainable. We talked about it in December for the first time as a ‘Wouldn’t it be neat?’
“There was really only one car available to run here. The 93 won the championship and went into the [Chrysler] museum. The No. 91 was the only one left.
“It was a matter of convincing Mopar and Dodge to allow us to use the car. I had a meeting with the [Chrysler] guys in Auburn Hills and that went fairly well. Then it was a matter of getting an invite.”
That proved to be one of the biggest challenges, as the Riley Motorsports entry was initially first on the reserve list, but sat there for more than two months until the race’s one-and-only pre-event withdrawal.
While the team pushed ahead with plans prior to being officially confirmed, securing the Le Mans entry in mid-April saw the official green light be given for the Viper’s return to La Sarthe.
“Getting the whole effort [together] is such a huge undertaking,” Keating said. “It’s pretty unbelievable that all of the stars aligned to get here.
“It’s just a surreal experience. There’s nothing like this in the U.S. anywhere.”
The Texan, who owns Viper Exchange, the world’s largest Viper dealership, wanted to go about his first Le Mans the all-American way, instead of simply just renting a ride with another team.
He’s brought his TUDOR United SportsCar Championship co-driver Jeroen Bleekemolen, as well as Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge standout Marc Miller for the effort with the ex-factory GTS-R.
“The cheapest way to do this race is to buy a seat with a European team,” Keating said. “But to bring the whole Riley team over and doing it in a Viper is a totally different experience.
“It wouldn’t be as much fun to just buy a seat in a Ferrari. To be able to run in a Viper, representing the U.S. and the Viper nation…”
Riley has flown the flag for America this week, with the No. 53 Viper qualifying fourth in GTE-Am, the best of U.S.-based teams in any class.
After taking top class honors at the Rolex 24 at Daytona in January, Keating and the team have the unique chance of winning the two cornerstone 24-hour races in the same year.
Despite having shown the potential for success so far, Keating realizes the challenge that lies ahead.
“The goal has to be a mistake-free race,” he said. “It’s not like Daytona where you have the opportunity to make up laps with a safety car that bunches up the whole field.
“If you lose 5 or 10 seconds here, the only way to make it up is by driving faster or someone else making a mistake.
“I don’t want to wish bad on somebody else to be able to do well. It means we have to have a mistake-free race. That’s the only way to make it to the podium.
“The mantra for the whole team is keep it on the blacktop and not make any mistakes.”
But above all, Keating is enjoying the experience of a lifetime and hoping to continue the Viper’s winning legacy.
“We had a team dinner [last] Sunday,” he said. “I stood up and said a few words and that was the point of the conversation.
“I’m excited to be here. I’m excited to be here in a Viper and I’m excited to be here with those guys that have been working so hard on it for so long.
“They mesh together so well. I really think our team is a competitive advantage.”