Car dealer Ben Keating wanted to race his own car at Le Mans in 2017. Car builder Bill Riley had a chassis eligible to compete in the 24 Hours. Gentlemen, let's make a deal!
Keating was a relative newcomer, with only two Le Mans appearances in his logbook. But Riley had been competing at the Circuit de la Sarthe for the past two decades, usually with cars designed by his father, Bob, whose own resume dates back to the mighty Ford GTs that won at Le Mans in 1966 and 1967.
Although Keating and Riley were already working together to campaign a Mercedes-AMG GT3 in the States, their IMSA GTD car wasn’t eligible to race in the 24 Hours. But Riley had collaborated with Multimatic to build a prototype to Le Mans specifications. So Keating bought a Mk. 30, Riley put together a crew, and voila! An all-American Le Mans entry was born.
The Mk. 30 and its DPi derivative had performed credibly in IMSA races earlier this year, and it looked properly bad-ass with its deeply sculpted bodywork. Better still, the first practice session at Le Mans showed that the chassis handled superbly. But the Le Mans aero kit turned out to be excessively draggy, and since all LMP2 cars run a spec Gibson V8 engine, this translated into lap times that were about 10 seconds off the pace.
“We can’t compete on speed, so reliability is what we have to go on,” Keating said before the race this past weekend. “My view is that in a 24-hour race, every car is a long shot because so many things that happen are out of your control. You have to assume that everybody around you is an idiot. I’ve got my fingers crossed.”
Here’s how Keating and Company rolled:
2:46 p.m. Saturday. Ricky Taylor wriggles into the cockpit. Gangly and good-natured, the 27-year-old Taylor is one of America’s hottest prototype drivers, coming off overall wins at Daytona and Sebring. But the honor of starting the race here at Le Mans is a mixed blessing. “There’s no reason to take any chances,” he says, “but people start racing hard anyway because they want to look good on TV.”
2:53 p.m. Taylor takes off on his reconnaissance lap and reports that there’s no power steering. Over the radio, Riley orders him to reset the system, which magically solves the problem. Even in the most rarified forms of racing, Ctrl+Alt+Del is often an effective punt.
3:01 p.m. Green flag! The crew fills the now-empty garage with folding camping chairs. It takes a while for the Riley Mk. 30 to come past—it’s starting 30th of 60 cars—but when it does, the crew cheers. The irony, of course, is that the guys can’t actually see the car, or much of anything else, from their vantage point in the pits. Some of then have been coming here for years without ever seeing the car on track except for a sliver of the front straight.
3:32 p.m. Taylor slides to a stop and kills the engine so Bill Daniels can insert the fuel probe for the first pit stop. Only 32 stops to go. The crew had been working on the car until midnight the previous night and arrived at 6:30 a.m. this morning, so Riley encourages them to catnap whenever they can. But with car stopping at least once an hour, sleep is hard to come by.
4:01 p.m. The team’s third driver, Jeroen Bleekemolen, walks away from the pits to prepare for his first stint. A trim Dutchman who flies constantly to the States to race with Keating in the Mercedes-AMG GT3 car, Bleekemolen is an enduro veteran who won overall at the Nurburgring 24 Hours in 2013. “When I started doing 24-hour races, I didn't want to miss a minute of them,” he says. “But now I know how to pace myself.”
4:54 p.m. After handing the car over to Keating, Taylor shares his driving impressions with Bleekemolen. “I went up a little on the TC [traction control],” Taylor says. “It's still a little nervous, especially in Indianapolis. They said we’d blistered the rear tires, so that may have something to do with it.”
6:40 p.m. “Pit this lap. Pit this lap,” Riley radios to Bleekemolen. Disaster had struck about 20 minutes earlier when Keating got squeezed by a Porsche 911 RSR in Turn 1, spun a loooong way and brushed the barrier. Both the nose and the rear deck had to be replaced before Bleekemolen got in the car, and almost as soon as he got up to speed, the left-side mirror fell off. “We need Bear Bond, two inches wide by eight,” Riley tells the crew.
6:56 p.m. The adhesive has failed, and the jury-rigged mirror has fallen off again. Part of the problem is that the flat-crank Gibson V8 vibrates like crazy. “We have another plan for the next stop,” Riley radios Bleekemolen. This time, the mirror assembly will be riveted to the housing.
9:11 p.m. The mechanics sit in their chairs with their legs splayed out. Although it won’t be pitch-black until 11 p.m., some heads are already lolling. Meanwhile, Taylor lounges on top of the pit stand, looking like a kid in a treehouse. “It's calm right now,” Riley says. “Which is kind of unnerving.”
10:16 p.m. Major oh-shit moment. Keating has stopped on track. The telemetry is showing no power. There’s no radio . Naturally, the cell phone that had been wedged in the cockpit for just this sort of emergency isn’t working. Mechanics surround Riley like a football team huddled around a quarterback. “Get going and see what you can find out,” he orders Tyler Hook, the race engineer who has served as his longtime second-in-command.
10:22 p.m. Riley suddenly hears from Keating, who’s managed to restart the car before Hook and three mechanics reach the car. “He’s rolling,” Riley tells the crew. “Okay, everybody back to the box, ASAP. Back to the box.” Nobody has any idea what the problem is. “The good news is that he’s on his way,” Michelin tire engineer Robbie Holley murmurs.
10:25 p.m. The car squeals to a stop in the pits. After a quick check, Riley orders a driver change. “Ricky!” somebody yells. “Ricky! Where’s Ricky?” Taylor emerges from the bathroom wearing a sheepish grin. “I didn’t even get to go,” he complains good-naturedly as he pulls on his balaclava.
10:32 p.m. Keating looks bemused, relieved, chagrined, exhilarated and pissed, all at the same time. While sweat rolls down his face, he breathlessly tells the crew what had happened. “I was two turns away from pit lane when I lost power,” he says. “Completely dead. I tried everything. Nothing worked. Finally, I got out of the car. The crowd’s going ‘Wooo! Wooo!’ I walk around checking everything. I can’t go more than 10 meters away from the car or they’ll disqualify me. I notice this little red button on the side of the car. I push it in. Nothing. I was ready to give up. I really was. But I went back around the car one last time. I don’t know what made me think of it. But I thought, ‘What if I pull that red button instead of pushing it?’ So I pulled it. And the car went whooosh! And then pinggg!” He climbed back into cockpit, and the car started right up. Keating shakes his head. “That was a pretty good Le Mans moment,” he says.
10:35 p.m. Hook and three other crewmen hustle back into garage. Riley explains that, by freak accident, a piece of debris had depressed the clutch-interlock button, a mandatory safety device that prevents the car from being started while it’s being refueled. When Hook hears this, his shoulders slump and he blurts out “Fuck!”
11:15 p.m. Bleekemolen sits in the garage while the alternator housing is reworked and reinstalled. During practice an alternator belt had come off because the vibration of the Gibson engine shook the housing loose. Now, it’s happened again despite strengthening the fitting about 12 hours ago. “We’ve already got 10 tubes of RTV silicone and a bunch of red Loctite in the car,” Hook says. Still more adhesive is applied before Bleekemolen returns to the track.
1:22 a.m. Sunday: Pit photographers wearing firesuits and helmets take the obligatory endurance-race shots of crewmen slumped in their chairs. “I think I’m going into hibernation mode,” says Jim Menego, a longtime fly-in guy who’s helping with the tires.
7:30 a.m. Keating unwinds after a long session fighting the glare at sunrise. “You can’t see anything, and neither can the people around you,” he says. “So I'm always scared to pass anyone.”
9:29 a.m. Yet another alternator belt issue. While the crew Shop-Vacs gravel and other debris from the car, Daniels asks Hook, “Do you want me to Bear Bond it or drill it?” “Drill it,” Hook tells him.
11:29 a.m. After Taylor pits, the car is wheeled backward into the garage so the rear suspension can be thoroughly examined. “At the end of the straights, it’s hard to keep it in one lane,” Taylor tells Bleekemolen, who’s the next man up. “It wasn’t so bad at the beginning [of the stint], so maybe it was just the tires. But I think the shocks are going.”
2:17 p.m. Bleekemolen has handed over to Keating, who will get the honor of taking the checkered flag. Bleekemolen and Taylor watch the live TV feed, which is showing Taylor’s brother, Jordan, locked in an epic battle with an Aston Martin for the lead in the GTE Pro class. “Is that Jordan in the Corvette?” Bleekemolen asks.
“Yeah,” Taylor says.
2:39 p.m. Keating makes a final fuel stop. “The car is worn out,” Riley says. “There must be some sort of bad resonance from the engine. But I feel worse about the car not being competitive than I do about all things we had to deal with.”
2:55 p.m. Everybody's eyes are riveted to the TV monitor, where Jordan Taylor is barely—barely—holding off the seemingly faster Aston. “Block him, Jordan!” somebody yells, and the crew breaks into spontaneous cheers when he does. A few minutes later, they groan collectively when the Corvette gets a flat, and the Aston Martin sweeps into the class lead.
2:58 p.m. The crew hustles across pit lane and scrambles onto the pit wall. As Keating trundles past, mechanics cheer and snap photos with their phones. Then they return to the garage and exchange hugs and fist bumps. Thanks to all the unscheduled stops, the car has finished a distant 47th, second-to-last of the cars that are still running. But despite all the problems, the car made it to the end, and everybody is too tired to dwell on the negatives. “The results vary,” crew chief Matt Bejnarowicz says. “But it’s always the same amount of work.”
3:10 p.m. The crew is in full-on packing-up mode. Some of them have been in France for three weeks, and all they want to do now is get the hell out of Dodge. “I’m always glad to get here,” Daniels says. He smiles wearily. “And I’m always glad it’s over.”