DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Ben Keating’s imagination is running wild just thinking about what his No. 85 Ford GT will look like at June’s 24 Hours of Le Mans.
“With the purple and the pink and the orange, I mean, it just makes a great-looking race car,” said Keating, who confirmed last week that Wynn’s, which sponsors his No. 33 Mercedes-AMG GT3 in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, also will support his recently confirmed Le Mans program on June 15-16. “I’m really excited to see what we come up with as a livery for our Ford GT.”
The excitement doesn’t stop there for Keating, longtime co-driver, Jeroen Bleekemolen or their endurance teammate Felipe Fraga. After all, they’re going to be racing a Ford GT at the Circuit de la Sarthe – a car that longtime Ford GT driver and 2016 24 Hours of Le Mans GTE Pro winner Joey Hand says was specifically designed to race at Le Mans.
And they’re going to be the first privateer team ever to get their hands on a Ford GT.
“It’s surreal,” Keating said. “I’m a third-generation Ford dealer. I grew up in the Ford business. My grandfather and my father and all my uncles, they were all Ford dealers, and my very first dealership ever was a Ford dealership. So, I had this deep history with Ford and Ford obviously has a deep history at Le Mans.”
A large part of that history was four consecutive Le Mans victories from 1966 through 1969 by Ford GT40 race cars. Among those who worked on that program was respected racing engineer Bob Riley, whose son, Bill, has fielded Keating’s WeatherTech Championship programs for the past several years and will guide the Keating Motorsports efforts this year at Le Mans.
“I’ve known the Ford people my whole life,” said Bill Riley. “I’m a Ford kid. I was born in Dearborn, Michigan. My dad was a Ford employee and he worked on the Ford GT program in the ‘60s. So, to get the opportunity to be with Ben and run the Ford GT at Le Mans was pretty special.”
Bleekemolen is the only one of the drivers who knows the special feeling of winning at Le Mans, having scored an LMP2 class victory there in 2008. Fraga is making his first run this year and Keating’s best outing in four previous appearances was third in the GTE Am class last year in a Ferrari he fielded in partnership with Risi Competizione. With this car, Bleekemolen knows he has a great shot at winning again.
“Yeah, the whole effort is there to try and win it,” Bleekemolen said. “We finished third last year, so we know where to improve. I think the whole package is unbelievably strong. It’s a great car. It’s won Le Mans in (GTE) Pro before.”
The specific car they’ll be using is the same one Richard Westbrook and Ryan Briscoe drove to three straight WeatherTech Championship GTLM victories at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, Watkins Glen and Canadian Tire Motorsport Park with Ford Chip Ganassi Racing in 2016. Riley and the Ganassi team are working closely together, rekindling a relationship that goes back more than a decade in GRAND-AM Daytona Prototypes.
“Between Chip Ganassi and Multimatic and Ford Performance, with their support and them telling us what they’ve learned through the years, we should have a pretty good setup,” Keating said. “We should have some pretty good support and we expect to do great things.”
With that support, all three drivers got their first taste of the Ford GT at Sebring Int’l Raceway during testing.
“That was great,” said Bleekemolen of the first test. “We had the whole Ganassi team there, they were testing their own cars and we gelled right in there. The car felt really good. All three drivers drove – Felipe and Ben as well – and the pace was good. I almost feel that we’re already ready to go for Le Mans.”