Whenever the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship goes to Detroit, as it will again this week for Saturday’s Chevrolet Sports Car Classic, the importance of the race to competing manufacturers in the Motor City dominates the conversation.
But the importance of this race goes beyond manufacturers, as Detroit is really the U.S. headquarters for the entire automotive industry, which includes suppliers and dealers as well. And for one dealership owner, the return to Belle Isle brings back some happy memories.
Ben Keating, who recently was featured on the cover of the influential industry publication, Automotive News, operates 17 dealerships in his native Texas through his Keating Auto Group. Late this year, he’ll add an 18th dealership, this one a Mercedes-Benz store in College Station, Texas.
It’s fitting, as Keating also drives the No. 33 Mercedes-AMG Team Riley Motorsports Mercedes-AMG GT3 race car in the WeatherTech Championship GT Daytona (GTD) class. He shares the car with longtime co-driver Jeroen Bleekemolen, with whom he’s co-driven to most of his 12 career IMSA victories, including a win on the 2.35-mile Belle Isle circuit two years ago.
“When I look at Detroit as a race, I have fond memories, because we have won there,” Keating says. “Any street race is really hard to pass at, so usually our wins or our good performances there have come from really good pit stop strategy and being quicker on the tire change than most other teams are able to do.”
Keating is cautiously optimistic heading into this week’s race. While he and Bleekemolen already have one podium result this season with a third-place showing in March’s Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Presented by Advance Auto Parts, he believes the team has yet to hit its stride.
“As I look back at our history, the third-place finish that we got at Sebring is my best finish in a year,” he says. “That is not how I envision our team, so I’ve been on a tear lately to figure out what we need to do to have better finishes.
“I think Detroit, because it is a street race, it is one of those places where I would expect us to have a better finish. Our suspension tends to handle the uneven pavement better than some of the other cars. Also, our car is very well behaved and easier to drive quickly than some of the other cars. I think that’s a competitive advantage at a street race because you’ve got to think twice before you go for that extra 10 feet of braking or that extra tenth of a second in a corner.
“I am hopeful that we’ll do well at Detroit, possibly even a repeat win. That would be magical.”
This weekend also kicks off one of the busiest stretches each year for Keating and his teammates. Immediately after the checkered flag falls on Saturday afternoon, Keating and several others from the IMSA paddock will hightail it to the airport for an overnight flight to France to participate in Sunday’s 24 Hours of Le Mans Test Day.
Keating will be competing in his fourth consecutive 24 Hours of Le Mans, which he will do this year alongside Bleekemolen and endurance racing teammate Luca Stolz in the No. 85 Keating Motorsports Ferrari 488 GTE. He will stay in France from the June 3 test day through the race, which finishes on Sunday, June 17.
“One year I had to come back for four days because I had business stuff I had to take care of,” he said. “But after doing that one year, I decided that I much prefer just to stay there.”
And as soon as Le Mans is over, the focus shifts back to the WeatherTech Championship and Keating’s efforts to score an elusive GTD title. His team finished second in the season standings each of the past two years,
“It’s no secret, my goal is to win a championship,” he said. “I’d love to win races. I love winning Detroit, it’s a fun one to win. But I want to win the championship.”
He and Bleekemolen are currently third in the standings, trailing the class-leading No. 48 Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3 co-drivers Bryan Sellers and Madison Snow by 15 points.
“I have to keep saying to myself, ‘We’re only three races in,’” Keating says. “We’ve got eight races to go, and that’s a lot. I guess I have high expectations as we go into July. I’m looking forward, even past Detroit. I’m more looking at July and going, ‘OK, that’s when the rubber hits the road. That’s when we’ve got to be able to make it happen.’”
The first chance to start making it happen comes in a 100-minute battle this Saturday.