Viper Exchange and Riley Motorsports have been granted an official entry to the 24 Hours of Le Mans, June 13 – 14, where the team’s No. 53 Dodge Viper GTS-R will be co-driven by Ben Keating, Jeroen Bleekemolen and Marc Miller in the GTE-Am class.
The Viper Exchange entry, which had been listed as the first reserve on the entry list for the 83rd running of the Le Mans classic, was confirmed as official earlier today by the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO) after another competitor withdrew.
Viper Exchange and Riley Motorsports followed the news of the entry confirmation with the announcement that Miller, an established American sports car racing driver, has been signed as the team’s third driver. Keating and Miller will be making their Le Mans debuts while Bleekemolen, one of the world’s top sports car endurance racing drivers, won in the LMP2 class at Le Mans in 2008.
Now officially in the race, Keating and Viper Exchange have a rare chance to earn victories in both of the world’s premier 24-hour endurance races in the same year. In January, Keating, Al Carter, Cameron Lawrence, Kuno Wittmer and Dominik Farnbacher drove a Dodge Viper GT3-R, sponsored by TI Automotive and Viper Exchange, to victory in the GT Daytona (GTD) class in the 53rd Rolex 24 At Daytona IMSA TUDOR United SportsCar Championship race.
Although more than one reserve entry has been named to the Le Mans field in each of the past few years, Keating and the Viper Exchange team still knew nothing was guaranteed as they patiently waited more than two months for confirmation.
“We had history on our side, but until you are a confirmed entry you still never know,” Keating said. “There is a first time for everything. Now the craziness begins! The planning and logistics to get an entire team and equipment across the Atlantic Ocean, set-up, and ready to go is a huge undertaking.”
A key part of the plan was finding a qualified “bronze” rated driver to fill the No. 53 Viper’s third and final driver slot. Le Mans allows only three drivers per entry, and the GTE-Am class regulations call for a specific mix of both top-tier and sportsman drivers of various driver ranks. Miller brings the right qualifications and the “bronze” ranking to Viper Exchange.
“There are a bunch of great bronze-rated drivers, but we believe Marc will do really well for us,” Keating said. ‘He had a great test in the GT3-R with us and adapted to the car very quickly. Plus, Marc is a great guy to be around and we believe we have a great team of drivers, which is critical. Because of the structure of the racing at Le Mans, every driver is key. You don't get to make up lost time in a safety period like you can at Daytona. If we lose four seconds per lap with one driver, then we won't ever get the chance to easily get that time back any other way than driving faster in the future. We all have to be on our game.”
Beginning his career in go-karts over 20 years ago, Miller has experience in everything from Formula Fords to CASCAR stock cars and, in the last few seasons, the ultra-competitive IMSA Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge in the Street Tuner (ST) division. Throughout, he has stayed active in karting as both a coach and driver in national and international competition.
“Even the consideration of being a part of such a strong Le Mans effort I would humbly consider as a career highlight,” Miller said. “When you start adding up all the variables and look at the team, the drivers involved and the strength of the car, it really does become a movie dream sequence for me. This opportunity that Ben Keating and Viper Exchange have given me is something that I don't hold lightly.”
Miller is in his fifth season as a race-winning driver for CJ Wilson Racing, a top IMSA Continental Tire ST team. He also has winning Mazda MX-5 Cup experience, a series in which Miller and Riley have achieved some success together after first meeting while racing shifter karts 15 years ago.
“I met Bill long ago racing shifter karts and was quickly drawn to his personality and work ethic,” Miller said. “I stayed in touch with him over the years and often asked him advice on whatever project I was working on. In 2009 I asked him to help me engineer our MX-5 Cup cars, and he was on the radio when I won my first pro race at Road Atlanta. I have spotted for him at the Rolex 24 and tested on occasion.”
In addition to the 2008 Le Mans LMP2 class victory, Bleekemolen, won two GTD races last year with Keating in a Viper GT3-R in the IMSA TUDOR Championship.
“When I did Le Mans for the first time 10 years ago I just knew I wanted to come back as many times as possible,” Bleekemolen said. “It will be my 10th consecutive start and I can't wait. It always is a highlight in my season. The race, the history, the track, the fans, it is all just amazing. Such a cool atmosphere, always one of the best weeks of the year.”
Riley has decades of experience at Le Mans and returns to Circuit de la Sarthe after most recently running the two-car SRT Dodge Viper GTE-Pro team in the 2013 edition of the 24-hour race.
“To go to Le Mans with Ben Keating and Viper Exchange with a Viper is really quite an honor,” said Bill Riley, Riley Motorsports Director. “Everybody that has touched this program over the years is so pumped up for us. It was really great, after we got the official invitation, to get all of the emails and texts that came through for the team today. It was really quite touching.”
Keating had a chance to shakedown the Viper GTS-R the team will campaign at Le Mans during last weekend's North American Road Racing Association (NARRA) Viper Exchange Grand Prix of Road Atlanta.
“The shake down was interesting,” Keating said. “I expected the GTS-R to be very similar to the GT3-R, but it was definitely unique. The cars look the same from the outside, but they are very different in the way they handle and the way you get speed out of them. I was only able to do limited laps due to weather, and I am looking forward to more seat time in the car. I can be a slow learner sometimes, and I want to make sure I am as ready as possible when the green flag waves. The shake down was a small nibble of the best tasting dessert you ever had. I want more!”
Next up for the Viper Exchange/Riley Motorsports team is GTD Round 3 of the 2015 IMSA TUDOR Championship at California’s Laguna Seca Raceway, May 1 – 3. That event’s featured Continental Tire Monterey Grand Prix can be seen live on FOX Sports 1, Sunday, May 3, at 4 p.m. EDT/1 p.m. PDT.