American sports car racing is set for significant change next year with the consolidation of the American Le Mans Series and Grand-Am Rolex Series into the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship, but that spirit is even more pronounced for the SRT Viper program. The new GT3-R version of the V10-powered supercar – the first mass-produced GT3-based car designed and manufactured in the U.S. – will join its works GTS-R stablemate in USCC competition, representing the marque in the new GT Daytona class.
The first GT3-R entrant to be confirmed is itching to get started. Houston native Ben Keating, who won the SRT Viper Cup championships in 2011 and 2012 with a Viper ACR-X (BELOW RIGHT), made the jump to the pro ranks this year in the ALMS with a GTC-class Porsche, but he leapt at the chance to return to a Viper cockpit with backing from ViperExchange.com and Client Command.
“In the last six years – basically my entire racing career – I've raced the Viper,” Keating explains. “The last three years I did Chrysler's spec racing program, the Viper Cup. I got second my first year and I won the championship the last couple years, so I knew I wanted to move up and there wasn't really a place for me to race the Viper. So this year I did a full season in the ALMS in the GTC class, to learn about the tracks, drivers and cars. It turned out to be a great move because the GTC class is already a pro-am structure and I got to learn a lot more than I anticipated in terms of strategy. And, every race I've gone to, the SRT folks are there, Riley is there, so it's allowed me to stick close to those relationships.”
Those relationships helped forge an arrangement under which Keating's Viper will be jointly managed by the owner-driver and Bill Riley, vice president of Riley Technologies, and maintained at the Riley Technologies shop in Mooresville, N.C.
“The Viper GT3-R is a good progression from a customer-based Viper,” says Riley. “The parts are now available worldwide. We're talking to a lot of different customers here in the U.S. and worldwide about 2014.”
The first of those customers exemplifies the thinking behind the car, as well as the GT Daytona category.
“I'm a car dealer by trade – I've got a bunch of dealerships around Texas and I'm the number one volume Viper dealer in the nation,” Keating (LEFT) explains. “My goal was to get back into racing what I'm selling. And I'm excited about the fact that the new GT Daytona class is going to be a pro-am-type setup, because I've proven that I can compete very well against other bronze and silver drivers, and I think the whole class is really set up for our success.
“On top of that, even though it's a privateer program, I am working with Riley to run the car and the program. If we were starting from scratch on a brand-new car at this level of competition, I would say it would take us a year before we're competitive, but with all this knowledge, I'm expecting to find success a lot sooner than I would on my own.”
“Sooner” is especially significant in this case: “The first time that we will put the car on a track will be mid-October,” says Keating. “We expect to publicly debut the car at the USCC official test in November.”
Riley (LEFT) acknowledges that the additional effort of conducting the GT3 program in addition to the SRT cars in GTLM will boost an already heavy workload, but reckons that's a net positive.
“It'll be more work, of course, but that's what we do,” he says. “I think it's a big advantage for our GT3 car that we're running one – having a heavily supported team from Riley Tech helps out the whole program because if we see something we want to change or updates we want to make, we can make them right away.”
Riley notes that close association with a privateer team has worked well for the company in the past: “It's pretty much the same business model we did with the Daytona Prototype when we ran the SunTrust Racing team for Wayne Taylor back in 2004-'06.”
While the new model features key racing DNA from its GTS-R sibling, it also incorporates aspects from the production Viper that the GTLM-class car does not.
“The GT3-R uses the same body molds, the same basic aero platform,” Riley explains. “It's tuned up a bit from GTE because the rules are a bit more open, so it has a bigger rear wing and some different underbody treatments for some more downforce.
“The suspension is very similar but the damper is a bit more affordable than what we use in the GTS-R program, and the driveline is completely different. Where the GTS-R uses an engine that's tuned for sonic restrictors, and an X-Trac magnesium-case transaxle, with the GT3-R we have a more production-based engine tuned by aero, with a different fuel-metering system; and we use an X-Trac 6-speed sequential transmission that's bolted onto the back of the engine, rather than a transaxle. Then at the rear of the car, it uses a stock differential housing from the Viper, with a different differential manufactured by EMCO.”
Riley says accommodating the evolving USCC regulations has been relatively easy so far: “The GT3 rules are fairly open; it's less restrictive than the GTE rules, so we're able to base the car off both the GTS-R and the stock Viper. We had a fairly good game plan going into it of what we wanted to do. There are some differences but they're not big rules-wise. And Gary Johnson from SRT has been going to a lot of the rules meetings keeping up on the latest lines of thinking and which way we need to go to get the car to conform to the new rules that are coming.”
Still, the inevitable uncertainties have his co-team manager keeping his feet on the ground about the team's prospects out of the gate.
“It's hard to have much expectation about our success just because the BoP (Balance of Performance adjustments by USCC) is going to be all over the board,” Keating says. “It's going to be impossible to really get the cars competitive from a BoP standpoint – and our first two races are the biggest races of the year, a 24-hour and a 12-hour – so it's going to be hard to tell what's up. But by the end of the year I'm confident we'll get the BoP dialed in – there'll be some tracks that will favor our car and some that favor a Porsche, Ferrari or whatever.”
On the other hand, Keating is brimming with confidence that he's positioned to maximize the car's potential, as endurance racing veteran Jeroen Bleekemolen (LEFT) has been named primary co-driver for the team.
“Most people don't know that one of the first championships Jeroen ever won was in a GTS-R Viper in FIA GT [with ORECA in 2001 –Ed.], so he's got experience racing the Viper, “ Keating notes. “I was looking for successful endurance racers with front-engined experience.”
Bleekemolen certainly fits that bill – the Dutchman won the 12 Hours of Sebring earlier this year and was on the winning team the past two years in the GT3 class at the 24 Hours of Dubai with a Mercedes SLS. He also literally fits in: “We're about the same size, which helps in this particular car,” Keating adds.
Keating also expects his own driving to gain both by his association with Bleekemolen, and by his return to a more familiar car.
“It always helps,” he says of pairing up with a pro ace. “This [ALMS season] is my first time racing a Porsche, and I've definitely gotten quicker as the year's gone on. I do expect that I'll be quicker in a Viper, just because that's what all my experience has been in. The areas where I'm slower in the Porsche, it's because I'm trying to drive it like it's a Viper! The areas where [co-driver] Damien [Faulkner] has been faster than me, it's where if you did that in a Viper, you'd be spun around in a heartbeat! So I expect to be up to pace a little better.
“It's unrealistic I think for me to be up to Jeroen's pace, because he's doing it every weekend and he's one of the best there is. But that's one of the reasons I'm so excited about the structure of the class. My role is to win the race among the silver drivers and then to hand over to Jeroen to go and finish it off. It's a great storyline for me with my experience, being Viper Cup champion the last two years and also for being a Viper dealer. Everything's a perfect fit.”
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