We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Ben Keating, the bronze-rated driver behind the wheel of GM’s 2023 GTE-Am effort in the FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC). Ben is co-driver with Nico Varrone and Nick Catsburg in the #33 Corvette C8.R.
The team had a successful outing in Portimão with a class win and earned a hard-fought second place at the 6 Hours of Spa Francorchamps. That second-place finish has given the Corvette squad a commanding lead in both the Driver’s and Manufacturer’s championships with 82 points – nearly double their nearest rival. They take that lead going into the next round, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, on June 10-11, 2023.
We interviewed the newest member of Corvette Racing just before the second round in the championship, the 6 Hours of Portimão. Ben was very gracious with his time and shared with us how he got involved with endurance racing and where his career is heading.
What were the origins that led you to endurance racing?
BK – I started racing at a club-level event with Vipers in the Viper Racing League back in 2007. I did terribly in my first year but improved and eventually did well. That led to an invitation to do the 24 Hours of Daytona. Both my grandparents had just passed away, leaving me a small inheritance that allowed me to run the 24 Hours of Daytona.
I got completely hooked by endurance sportscar racing and loved the event. I love being in the same car, on the same track, at the same time, with other drivers who are better than me. I don’t know any better way to learn how to be quicker in a car.
Did you race at Daytona after racing in the Viper Racing League?
BK – I did the Viper Racing League from 2007 to 2010 and then switched to the Viper Cup, which is a spec series. If you bought a Dodge Viper ACR-X, you could race in their spec series, so I ran in that series from 2010 to 2012. I got second place in the championship in 2010 and won the championship in 2011 and 2012.
I did Daytona and Petit Le Mans in 2011. I moved up to doing the Grand Am North American Endurance Cup in 2012. In 2013, I switched to running an entire season in the American Le Mans Series (ALMS) in the GTC class, racing Porsche Cup cars.
I went to the ALMS specifically because, at the time, I was the number one volume Dodge Viper dealer in the world, and with Chrysler racing the Viper GTS-R in the ALMS, I wanted to remain very close to the Viper program. It was a good decision because I successfully convinced them to build a GT3 version of that car. I bought and raced the first two cars in the (Tudor) United Sportscar Championship. I ran the Vipers from 2014 to 2016.
When you raced at Daytona for the first time, what car were you in?
BK – I was in a Porsche, in a GT3 Cup car with The Racers Group (TRG), and my pros were Dominik Farnbacher and Lucas Luhr. It was a good car, and we were running third. We had a differential failure with an hour to go in the race. It was enough that I was completely hooked.
When you’re doing club racing, and you’re the only one in the car doing a 45-minute race, there is only so much that you can really learn about yourself. I was the fastest guy in those races – I was winning those races. I was winning those championships, so I had the impression that I was fast. When you get into a car with a pro-level driver, you quickly realize how much more you must learn. From my perspective, I thought those guys were defying the laws of physics because they were going so much faster than I thought possible. When I converted to endurance sportscar racing, my learning was on a whole new level.
Was that a game changer for you in terms of a different degree of learning?
BK – No doubt about it. The learning that I got from endurance sportscar racing is second to none. It’s hard to know what you don’t know or are doing wrong. If you’re the only one driving the car, and you’re the fastest in the group, you could think that you’re really fast. That is usually not the case. There is always someone faster than you.
You’ve driven other mid-engine and rear-engine cars. How balanced is the C8.R compared to a Porsche or a Ford GT?
BK – So I’ve driven every GTE car except the BMW. That includes the Viper, Ferrari, Ford GT, Mercedes, Porsche, Aston Martin, and now the Corvette. I think I’ve driven more of the modern GTE cars than anyone else. When I first got in the Corvette C8.R at the Bahrain test, I kept trying to figure out where it fits. I’ve got this history of cars, and I was trying to figure that out; I’ll say that it doesn’t really fit anywhere. It is very different.
The C8.R likes to carry a lot of speed into the corners, and you have to force yourself to be more patient to get on the throttle. – Ben Keating, Corvette Racing
With the Ford GT, it was a turbo car, so it rewarded you by getting on the throttle early into the corner. That gets you through that millisecond of turbo lag, so you have really good power leaving the corner. For the Porsche, you wanted to be in a lower gear and high rpm leaving the corner because the Porsche engine makes most of its power at the high end of the rpm range. The Corvette has a larger displacement V8 with a pretty good amount of low-end torque, so I found that I was going in the corners a gear too low.
That torque also works in reverse. The engine braking was slowing me down too much. Then, because I was going too slow into the corner, I was getting on the throttle too early. With that low-end torque and getting on the throttle early, I was breaking the tires loose and complaining about oversteering. It was all about me having to learn how to drive the car.
Would you say that in the long term, that will be better for you?
BK – I would say that the longer I am in the car, the better it will be. I am still learning. Whether you like it or not, you develop habits or tendencies based on what you learned. I am not a left-foot braker. Most people that are really quick in mid-engine cars are left-foot brakers. They use both pedals at the same time to make the weight transfer work for them.
Because I am a right-foot braker, I have some time between the brake and the gas, which limits my ability to work both pedals and really work on the weight transfer. I need to be on the brakes longer than I think. I can go into the corner with a little more entry speed than I think is possible and force myself to be more patient with the throttle because I carried more entry speed in. If I don’t, then the problems just compound themselves.
This might be a loaded question that touches upon the mandated GTE-Am rules in the WEC regarding things like ABS. What are some of the aspects that you do not like about the C8.R?
BK – I really love the class structure of GTE-Am for WEC. I really like it because it requires one bronze, one silver, and one pro. I personally feel like the biggest difference-maker between the bronze drivers is the braking skill. It is not that I don’t like the ABS. I think that having ABS makes every bronze a hero in the braking zone, and it takes what I believe is currently the biggest separator between the bronze drivers and makes everyone close because you’re allowing the computer to do the work for you.
It is somewhat similar to traction control. If you have the traction controls set up well, you’re letting the computer maintain the grip for you, so ABS is just doing the same thing – you’re just letting the computer figure out the optimal grip in braking. I have learned the skill of braking by not having ABS.
I also love racing right now in this modern GT class because every car has a confidential tire. Michelin has worked with each manufacturer to design a tire built explicitly for that car’s characteristics. It makes such a big difference when you know you have a tire designed for your specific car.
That is opposed to IMSA, where everyone is on the same tire. It levels the playing field from that standpoint, but you have different problems when you don’t have a tire specifically designed for your car.
What tracks do you think might suit the C8.R, and which tracks do you think you might struggle at?
BK – I expected to be middle of the pack at Portimão. I predict we will do very well in Monza. I think some of the other cars, like the Porsche and maybe the Aston, may be a little better in Bahrain. The biggest question mark is Le Mans. I don’t know yet. I experienced the car at Sebring, but that place is so different than any other place we go, and it’s all about how a car handles the bumps. Everything else is a nice smooth track surface.
I think I’ll have a better feel for how this car will handle various tracks when I see how we stack up against other cars at Portimão. I’ve been delighted because we’ve been able to be a little bit forward of the middle of the pack so far this weekend, so that is what is making me think we will be really good at Monza, as an example. I think there are some features of this track that are similar to Fuji. I think the degradation and or grip level in Bahrain is very high. We will see. It’s a really good car for every track.
You’re in the car business. You own Chevy dealerships. Have you driven a new C8 Z06, and how would you compare it to the C8.R race car?
BK – I will say that I have not driven a C8 Z06 yet. I have 62 people on the waiting list to get a Z06, and I want to take care of my customers. I don’t feel it is proper for me to take one when I have many customers waiting on them, so I haven’t driven one yet. I suspect that it is very similar. The balance of this car is incredible. The change in the driving characteristics of having the mid-engine is really dramatic.
Do you have your name on a 2024 C8.R GT3 for next year, and where is your racing career headed moving forward?
BK – I do not. My current plan is to not convert to GT3 in either WEC or IMSA. I want to do Le Mans at least one more time. I would like to do it in LMP2, but I don’t think I’m going to have that opportunity. I suspect that I will do LMP2 in the US, and I am also really looking forward to driving some of the race cars that I still have in my garage; the Ford GT, the Viper, the AMG, or, hopefully, I’ll have a Corvette C8.R in the garage at the end of the year.
I hope I’ll be able to go play with those cars in some historic races or something like that. I still have a lot of fun, but I would like to spend less of my year at a racetrack and more with the family, the business, and other types of recreation. Right now, I am spending about one-third of my year at a racetrack.
Would you say that this is the culmination of all your racing aspirations?
BK – Absolutely! Last year I won the World Championship. I won Le Mans, and you kind of look at it and go, what else is there? The answer is you do it again the next year. We will see how it goes this year, but I do feel like it is the culmination of 16 years of wanting to get better and better at being a racecar driver. We’ll see how it goes.
We will definitely be watching how it goes when Ben and the rest of the Corvette Racing team go against the best of the world at the upcoming 24-hour race at Le Mans. Good luck to the team and Viva La Corvette!