Ben Keating said he’s at a “loss for words” after claiming GTE-Am class honors in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, which came with a helping hand from Ford Chip Ganassi Racing.
The third-generation Ford dealer helped take the Ford GT to victory in its first race with a privateer team in Sunday’s FIA World Endurance Championship season finale.
It came after a drama-filled final two hours that saw the Keating Motorsports team get hit with multiple setbacks.
The Texan, who had enjoyed a sizeable two-minute lead at the time, was called in by the ACO to replace the car’s nose, which was damaged in the opening hour.
It was then when team strategist Bill Riley asked for a helping hand from the factory Ford outfit next door.
“We get called in to replace the nose,” Keating told Sportscar365. “I came in, I stopped on the board and I was shocked to look out there and I’ve got Chip Ganassi guys working on my car!
“I didn’t know what was going on. I thought, ‘OK, we wouldn’t be doing it if we didn’t have to and Bill’s on top of it.'”
Riley said their “super strong” relationship with CGR, which helped prep the car alongside Keating’s season-long IMSA mechanics, paid dividends at the most crucial time.
“When it came time to do the nose change change really quick, and we were in a bit of a panic, those guys have offered anything they could do to help us win,” Riley told Sportscar365.
“So I figured why don’t we get those four guys to do it because they know what to pull and push.
“My guys stood stood down and those guys changed the nose and off we went.”
Four mechanics from the No. 69 Ford crew swapped the noses in around 30 seconds, which Riley estimated was quicker than what his crew, in their first race with the car, would have been able to achieve.
After receiving a stop-and-go penalty for spinning the tires on the exit, and his lead slashed to mere seconds over the No. 56 Team Project 1 Porsche 911 RSR of Joerg Bergmeister, Keating said he knew he had to put in the drive of his life.
“I get out on track, all those penalties were served without incident, and Bill comes on the radio and says, ‘All good Ben, we’ve still got a chance in this!’
“I’m like, ‘What the hell does that mean?’ He said, ‘Joerg is five seconds behind you and you’ve got three laps before you pit.’
“We were in fuel save mode and I dialed it into the most fuel-burning mode we could do. I turned off the A/C, the alternator, every little thing I could do to gain half a horsepower.
“I took more risks in those three laps than I did all week.
“It’s really nice to feel like I contributed at a high level to the win.”
Keating, a Bronze-rated driver, maintained his five-second lead over Bergmeister before the car’s final stop and driver change to Jeroen Bleekemolen, who extended the advantage over the Porsche factory driver.
“When they came out of pit lane, it was three seconds. Joerg is famous for some last-lap battles. I knew it could be interesting,” Bleekemolen said.
“We’ve raced a lot in the States also and he’s one of the biggest names in sports car racing. So to fight for a Le Mans win with him was going to be cool.
“But luckily we had the pace and I could slowly pull away.”
Keating, who owns three Ford dealerships in Texas, said he was joined by Ford Motor Company executive chairman Bill Ford in his pits for the closing laps.
“I’m just at a loss of words to describe how special this win is,” Keating said.
Lindsey Proud of Keating’s Achievement
Patrick Lindsey, who was part of the runner-up finishing Team Project 1 lineup, said he was proud of Keating’s performance under pressure in the closing hour.
The fellow American claimed the WEC GTE-Am drivers’ championship alongside Bergmeister and Egidio Perfetti.
“Ben, in the last little bit with Joerg breathing down his neck, and with a penalty, he was great under pressure and did a great job,” Lindsey told Sportscar365.
“Personally, I’m just really proud because he’s a fellow IMSA entrant. To see him really shine in that pressure cooker was cool. I’m really happy for him and those guys.
“It was nice to hear the national anthem over here in France.”