The weekend I beat the world’s best amateur racer—twice
When the Joad family, featured in the 1939 book The Grapes of Wrath, left the Oklahoma dust bowl in the Depression era, they started out from Sallisaw. That’s on the state’s eastern border, so I imagine they passed through a scorching Hallett, spurring them on to a hopefully cooler, damper life in California.
I have seldom been more miserable, nor more hot, than the weekend of August 14 and 15, 2010, at the near-shadeless Hallett Motor Racing Circuit. My rental car thermometer said it was 108 degrees F in the pits, and a TV broadcaster measured the heat in one of our race cars at 158 degrees. You can see it on a YouTube video of the Dodge Viper Cup race here.
Viper ACR-Xs are excellent race cars. Second only to their V-10’s ability to generate 640 horsepower is its ability to generate heat and transfer it directly to the driver. You will never freeze to death in an ACR-X.
Having no fancy cool suit, I instead relied on my usual fallback: a lifelong ability to operate at the 50th percentile, when everybody else is trying, and often failing, to perform at the top of their game. I can just mosey along like the Joad family in their Ford.
This unenviable talent guided me to victory over a man who was still years from becoming arguably the best pure amateur race-car driver in the world. His name was Ben Keating, then king of the Dodge Viper Cup racing series. I will not tell you that I won either race of that weekend’s doubleheader, because I didn’t. But let the record show that I beat Mr. Keating, whose car may or may not have suffered mechanical maladies in both races. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
Keating went on to win championships in IMSA and the World Endurance Championship, plus class victories at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona, and the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring. More about him in a moment. But first, more about me.
Dodge created the Viper Cup to showcase its homegrown super sports car in a series of racing events. Being short on celebrities, I got a ride in one for that August weekend, along with 10 other entries. Not having iRacing or a suitable computer simulator on which to learn the track (which I hadn’t driven on in 15 years), I found an in-car YouTube video shot from a fast Corvette lapping Hallett in about six minutes. I studied the video for a couple of days until I knew every corner.
When I arrived at Hallett I said to myself, “Why the hell is the flag stand on that side of the track?”
Turns out Hallett is one of the few tracks that can operate either clockwise or counterclockwise. The Corvette video I watched ran clockwise. My races would be run counterclockwise. I not only had to learn a new track on the spot, I had to also forget what I had learned from studying the video.
As you might expect given the circumstances, I was slow, qualifying 10th out of the 11 cars and finishing that first race in 10th. In 11th, points leader Ben Keating, whose car had expired from the heat. The official record says Smith 10th, Keating 11th. Don’t ask me any difficult questions.
Race two: Qualifying was in the rain, and I was positioned seventh. The track was dry and even hotter than before, and the air more humid. Keating qualified on the pole. But leaking fluid—possibly again from the heat—coated his rear tires and he spun several times, dropping him to eighth. I had figured out where the track went by then, and I held the position in which I qualified. Smith seventh, Keating eighth. A sweep!
None of us knew then how good Ben Keating would be. Remember, he was 35 in 2006 when he turned his first laps on a race track, courtesy of a one-day driving school, at the old Texas World Speedway, that his wife had bought him for Christmas. We live in an era in which the pro drivers of tomorrow start competing at age four.
The Christmas-gift driving school triggered something in Keating, “and after that day, I knew what I wanted to do,” Keating told Hagerty.
Keating was at the time a small-town car dealer in South Texas. One of his dealerships was Dodge, and he checked a Viper out of the inventory to take to Texas World Speedway. “I had such a blast,” he said. “It really resonated with me.”
He spent the next few years learning everything he could about racing, often at great expense, competing in mostly amateur series like the Viper Cup and the Viper Racing League. He owned TheViperExchange.com, the world’s largest Viper store, and his late-discovered talent at the wheel of Vipers was good advertising. Keating’s company now owns 29 dealerships, including a Hyundai store just acquired in Waco. Technically, his racing remains a hobby. Technically.
The bug truly bit in 2011, when Keating rented a ride in a Porsche 911 and competed in the Rolex 24, finishing 27th overall alongside co-drivers Dominik Farnbacher and Lucas Luhr. He came back in 2012, actually driving shifts in two separate cars, something he has done multiple times since then. In 2013, he moved to the final season (before NASCAR bought it) in the American Le Mans Series, winning at his home track at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, and at Virginia International Raceway.
Keating then moved to what would become the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship in 2014, winning twice. This earned his team an invitation to the world’s foremost sports car race, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, in 2015. For those keeping score, it took him nine years to go from raw beginner to Le Mans.
He has raced at Le Mans every year since then, finishing third in class in 2018, winning in his own Ford GT in 2019 until the victory was disallowed because his fuel cell had swollen during the race and contained a Coke can’s worth of extra fuel. He came back and won his class in 2022 and 2023, most recently with the factory Chevrolet Corvette team.
The soft-spoken Keating said his addictive personality—he had a pair of drug-rehab stints while still in high school—has been well attended to by motorsports. “I like to say I just traded one addiction for another.” An additional addiction is fitness: He’s in superb physical shape, agile as a cat. I’ve seen him spring fresh as today’s laundry from a car after a two-hour stint in an endurance race, only to feverishly pace around until he could get back behind the wheel.
At 52 he’s driving as fast as ever, so Keating has no plans to hang up his helmet. Next year he’ll be racing in IMSA in the LMP2 class for United Autosport, and he plans to make his 10th straight appearance in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. He’ll be going for his third straight class win. He’ll also race in the Rolex 24 at Daytona in January and the Twelve Hours of Sebring in March.
“As long as I can be competitive,” he said, “I’ll be out there.”
As you may have already inferred, I won’t.