Circuit of the Americas is experimenting with its first 24-hour race this weekend, and one accomplished Texas driver can hardly wait to embrace it.
Ben Keating, a Tomball native and a Texas A&M alum, is part of the four-man Black Falcon team counted as one of the favorites in the Hankook 24 Hours of COTA on Saturday and Sunday.
“The longer the race, the more I love it,” said Keating, a 46-year-old racer/businessman who owns 17 car dealerships across the state. “I’m an endurance racer, but this is a new series for me, a different format.
“In IMSA, I own the car and have been with the same team for five years. Here, it is not my car and not my team. I’m just a driver invited in to enjoy the weekend. But I’m definitely here to win.”
Keating returns to a place where his team has won multiple times, the most recent being an IMSA victory in the GT Daytona class back in May.
“You love the tracks that love you back,” he said. “I’ve found lots of success at this track. It feels like home.”
He will be driving the No. 3 Mercedes-AMG GT3 with longtime Dutch teammate Jeroen Bleekemolen, Germany’s Luca Stolz and Saudi Arabia’s Abdulaziz Al Faisal.
The 24H Series is based in Europe and races around the world. This is its first stop ever in the United States.
Typically 24-hour races are continuous, but this Dutch-based series divides them into two segments, with 14 hours Saturday and 10 hours Sunday after a seven-hour break overnight.
“I think it’s genius,” Keating said. “Those 24-hour deals wear everybody out. In this one, we all get four or five hours of sleep, which should make us sharper.”
There are plenty of nuances in the 24H Series. Slow zones replace safety cars during cautions, lining up cars in single file at 35 mph, meaning the fastest racers don’t lose their advantage. Rather than normal fuel pit stops, there are just three regular gas pumps, and it takes about 2 minutes to refill, so teams need to avoid long lines at the pump.
Keating enjoyed a big season in IMSA, winning at Sebring and COTA, placing second at Long Beach and finishing third at Daytona. His team finished second overall, but it did win the North American Endurance Cup. “My favorite trophy in all of racing,” he said.
He also captured the Bob Akin Award, given to the highest point-earning amateur, which guarantees Keating a trip to the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Off the track, Keating is a busy man with his dealerships — the nearest is in Boerne — that stock 17 different brands.
“We’ve got just about every type of car covered,” he said, “and we’re starting construction on a Mercedes-Benz dealership in College Station. We’ve got quite a few around Houston and lost some vehicles in (Hurricane) Harvey. All in all, though, it’s been a good year for sales.”
Keating’s Dodge Chrysler dealership in north Houston has been No. 1 in the world in sales for eight years running, he said.
He also has a long legacy with the Dodge Viper, which will go out of production after this year. He won the 24 Hours of Daytona in a Viper and has multiple wins at COTA in one.
“I started racing in 2006 in a Viper,” Keating said. “I love that car, am passionate about that car. I’ve been able to turn that into a really great business, selling Vipers. We’ve probably sold around 150 this year and only have about 20 left.”
The base model costs $86,000, but Keating said most people look to the high-end versions for upwards of $150,000.
So what does he drive around home?
A maroon (naturally, for an Aggie) Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8.
“It’s a sports utility and sports car all wrapped into one,” he said, “and it’s got superior power. I love pulling up to a stoplight next to a Mustang or Camaro, then take off in my Mom-mobile and blow them away.”
Spoken like a true racer.
24 HOURS OF COTA
What: 24H Series endurance race
When: Two segments. Saturday, 9 a.m.-11 p.m. Sunday, 8 a.m.-6 p.m.
Tickets: Free admission and free parking in Lot A.
Note: Fans are welcome into the paddock area and can get up-close access to drivers and teams, but many of the usual amenities at COTA will not be available this weekend.
The word from COTA: “It’ll be the best of North American racing battling the best of European racing in the 24H Series. For the first time at COTA, more than 40 teams have traveled from around the world to compete in an endurance race here. We’re excited to host it,” COTA Vice President Eric Paradis said.