Bleekemolen, Keating and Bill Riley. Photo courtesy of IMSA

Post-Viper, the new Mercedes-AMG era begins for Bleekemolen, Keating

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The GT Daytona field in the 2016 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season saw Scuderia Corsa claim the title with a combination of both pace and consistency, while the team that came closest to knocking the Los Angeles-based Ferrari team from its perch was sports car veterans Riley Motorsports, with the memorable and powerful Dodge Viper GT3-R.

The Viper’s life in IMSA is now at an end and with it, a switch to Mercedes-AMG begins.

Arguably the top pairing of a true pro-am lineup within the framework of the GTD class, Jeroen Bleekemolen and Ben Keating head into their fourth consecutive season as teammates, in what is now the No. 33 Mercedes-AMG GT3, and look to finally secure a first championship. Scuderia Corsa has won the last two titles with two different lineups, while Dane Cameron took the 2014 GTD title in a BMW Z4 GT3 for Turner Motorsport.

Bleekemolen and Keating have won seven races in GTD over the last three years, two each in 2014 and 2015 before scoring three wins last year, including in the Viper’s farewell at Petit Le Mans.

The switch to the Mercedes-AMG was a natural one for Bill Riley’s group. Bleekemolen’s known for his propensity to wheel the heck out of anything he drives, but he has experience in both iterations of Mercedes-AMG’s GT3 challengers, having also spent quite a bit of time internationally in the previous generation Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG GT3.

“They’ve just improved the (new) SLS in all areas, and the SLS was already a really good GT3 car,” Bleekemolen told NBC Sports. “But they’ve just made it better all-around. I’d say the SLS always struggled in hairpins with its long wheelbase, while this car with the shorter wheelbase is a bit better there, has more aero as well, and the whole package is just a little bit better as well.

“It’s not too hard (of a switch) because this car is so nice and easy to drive. I’ve always said of the SLS, this is the easiest car I know and this car is similar in that way. It’s a very easy car to drive. You get a feel for the car pretty quick and that makes it also a good all-around car. In difficult conditions, it’s going to be good, it’s going to be easy. I love this car.”

Keating, whose Viper Exchange dealer is the country’s largest Dodge Viper and exotic cars dealership, admits the farewell to his racing baby is bittersweet, but the time was right to switch to the new car for this season.

Nos. 33 and 50 Riley Motorsports Mercedes-AMG GT3s. Photo courtesy of IMSA
Nos. 33 and 50 Riley Motorsports Mercedes-AMG GT3s. Photo courtesy of IMSA

“The first question everybody wants to ask on the AMG is how different is it? The fact is the wheelbases are pretty similar, it’s a big displacement, big torque, naturally aspirated front engine – it’s not that much different than the Viper, with two exceptions,” Keating told NBC Sports.

“The traction control and ABS systems, the electronics systems, are extremely well-developed on the AMG and the car has more downforce. It was developed a couple years later than the Viper, and the Viper needed an evolution if it was going to stay competitive. This car is at the pointy end of the stick. The AMG is phenomenal from a developmental standpoint. And it’s got just great downforce, which again makes a big difference with the traction and braking.

“And so it kind of goes hand-in-hand: it does everything a little bit better than the Viper did, except for top speed.”

It’s worth noting that as GTD has evolved, so too have the lineups within the class. Owing to the quirks and nuances of the FIA Driver Rating system, a fair number of drivers who you could accurately call full-time professionals are rated Silver owing to their recent results, their age, or the fact their results in past series don’t factor into the classifications to give them a pro (Gold or Platinum) rating.

This leaves the class with a number of theoretical “am” drivers that are far from it – Scott Pruett, for instance, is a Silver-rated driver because he’s 56 years old, rather than the fact he has five career Rolex 24 victories. And there are plenty of others who are rated Silver even though they’re pros, or potential full pros-in-waiting.

Keating, who’s the modern day equivalent of a Rob Dyson or Bob Akin in terms of having a successful business first but also progressing into a stellar race driver on his own, is one of the few remaining accurately rated Silvers within the category, so his ability to keep pace against full-time pros during his stints is what has kept the team and car in contention for race wins over the years. Keating’s also planning to pull double duty in this year’s Rolex 24, racing not only the Mercedes but also a Prototype Challenge car for Peter Baron’s Starworks Motorsport.

“Last year, I went back to the Viper Racing League in NARA and did a club race with my friends that I raced with five, six, seven years ago,” Keating explained. “I did well with that group, but they were competitive. And, I was racing a car that wasn’t as much as car as those other guys, and I lapped the entire field except one. It was unbelievable to me to recognize that I’ve gotten so much better.

“But when you’re here with such a competitive field, it’s hard to tell that necessarily. And you’ve got different types of cars that like different types of tracks. It’s hard to say how much is driver and how much is car, and how much is BoP or whatever. So, it was really nice to have that comparison.

“The fact is I have gotten a lot better. It’s the ability to compare myself with Jeroen, one of the best in the business, it’s having such much better engineering, car setup, team strategy, pit crew over the wall, everything adds up – little bitty amounts adds up to being up front. It’s a whole lot easier to be upfront and stay upfront, than it is to start in the back and get upfront. So, I’ll say I’ve gotten a lot, lot better and I’ll say my team makes me look good.”

Bleekemolen has hailed Keating’s advancement the last few years.

“We will be fine because Ben is doing just a great job,” he said. “He’s been on the pace with the pro’s last year as well. I have big confidence in him that he can be competitive. He’s been fighting guys like Andrew Davis last year and other people like that who are that good. Ben’s raised his game year after year, and he’s really at a good level now where we can fight for wins, even though he’s a true amateur in that respect.”

The No. 33 car has Mario Farnbacher, given a lifeline after The Heart of Racing program ended last year, and Mercedes factory shoe Adam Christodoulou as extra drivers at Daytona.

Riley Motorsports also has added Farnbacher’s Alex Job Racing teammates from WeatherTech Racing to the stable this year in a second car. Cooper MacNeil and Gunnar Jeannette lead the No. 50 Mercedes-AMG GT3 entry, with MacNeil reuniting under the same tent with Bleekemolen after the two won an ALMS GTC title a few years ago – incidentally beating Keating. Mercedes veteran Thomas Jaeger and Australian Supercars wizard Shane van Gisbergen complete that lineup.

NHRA Bristol: Schumacher, Capps, Coughlin Jr. take home wins

Tony Schumacher, from left, Jeg Coughlin Jr. and Ron Capps. Photo and videos courtesy NHRA
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You’ve heard of classic rock, right?

Well, Sunday’s 18th annual Fitzgerald USA NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals at Bristol (Tennessee) Dragway was classic drag racing – old school style, you might say.

Drivers who have combined for 14 national championships between them emerged at the top of the heap, with eight-time champ Tony Schumacher taking Top Fuel honors, former champ Ron Capps took Funny Car honors and five-time champ Jeg Coughlin Jr. grabbing Pro Stock honors.

In Top Fuel, Schumacher earned his sixth career win at Thunder Valley, as well as his first win overall of 2018.

Known as “The Sarge” due to his U.S. Army sponsorship, Schumacher marched through the field to reach the Winner’s Circle.

Schumacher (3.946 seconds at 313.58 mph) defeated Mike Salinas in what would prove to be Schumacher’s third final round of the season and the 150th of his career.

He now is 6-2 in career final round showings at Thunder Valley.

“We have had little things bite us this season, but we knew we had to overcome adversity and we knew we had a great car that was capable of winning,” Schumacher said. “I’m proud of my team for sticking to our plan, and I know our team is going to be a factor for the rest of the season.”

Schumacher was the No. 2 qualifier in the race and defeated Terry McMillen, Pat Dakin, points leader Steve Torrence and Salinas to take the win.

It was the first runner-up finish of Salinas’ career, defeating Leah Pritchett, No. 1 qualifier Clay Millican and Scott Palmer before meeting Schumacher in the final.

In Funny Car, like Schumacher, Capps won for the first time this season on the NHRA national event circuit. It was also his second consecutive win at Bristol, having won last year’s event there.

Capps earned the 59th win of his career with a pass of 4.234 seconds at 296.37 mph, defeating Bob Tasca III.

Capps also earned Don Schumacher his 300th career nitro victory as a team owner.

“This is a great facility, and when you roll into this place you get a special feeling,” Capps said. “Getting to the Winner’s Circle at a track like this is even more special because you feel like you really had to earn it, and this weekend I am proud of what my team accomplished in some tough conditions.”

Capps went to the top of the Funny Car mountain starting from the No. 11 qualifying position, defeating 16-time NHRA Funny Car champ John Force, 2017 Funny Car national champ Robert and J.R. Todd before defeating Tasca in the final round.

Capps qualified 11th for the event before defeating John Force, defending Funny Car world champion Robert Hight and J.R. Todd on his path to Winner’s Circle.

Tasca was the No. 4 qualifier and defeated Tim Wilkerson, Cruz Pedregon and points leader Courtney Force to reach his first final round since at Seattle in 2013.

In Pro Stock, Coughlin earned his second win in the last three races. It took an effort of 6.709 seconds at 205.10 mph to defeat points leader Greg Anderson in the final round.

“My team has made some transitions this season and now we are running much faster, and it feels pretty great to be on the right track now this season,” Coughlin Jr. said. “Winning at Thunder Valley is historic and it feels fantastic, so to be crowned a champion here is really special.”

Coughlin qualified No. 2 and beat Tommy Lee, Chris McGaha and Drew Skillman en route to overtaking Anderson in the final round.

Anderson now has two runner-up finishes this season, but continues to seek his first win of 2018.

The NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule moves on to its 12th race of the season – the halfway mark of the 2018 campaign – next weekend at Summit Motorsports Park in Norwalk, Ohio, from June 21-24.

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FINAL FINISHING ORDER:

TOP FUEL: 1. Tony Schumacher; 2. Mike Salinas; 3. Steve Torrence; 4. Scott Palmer; 5. Pat Dakin; 6. Doug Kalitta; 7. Antron Brown; 8. Clay Millican; 9. Brittany Force; 10. Leah Pritchett; 11. Shawn Reed; 12. Richie Crampton; 13. Dom Lagana; 14. Bill Litton; 15. Terry Totten; 16. Terry McMillen.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Ron Capps; 2. Bob Tasca III; 3. Courtney Force; 4. J.R. Todd; 5. Robert Hight; 6. Jack Beckman; 7. Tommy Johnson Jr.; 8. Cruz Pedregon; 9. Tim Wilkerson; 10. Del Worsham; 11. Jonnie Lindberg; 12. Shawn Langdon; 13. Jim Campbell; 14. Matt Hagan; 15. John Force; 16. Jeff Diehl.

PRO STOCK: 1. Jeg Coughlin; 2. Greg Anderson; 3. Tanner Gray; 4. Drew Skillman; 5. Erica Enders; 6. Vincent Nobile; 7. Tim Freeman; 8. Chris McGaha; 9. Jason Line; 10. Bo Butner; 11. Alex Laughlin; 12. John Gaydosh Jr.; 13. Wally Stroupe; 14. Alan Prusiensky; 15. Deric Kramer; 16. Tommy Lee.

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SUNDAY’S FINAL RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: Tony Schumacher, 3.946 seconds, 313.58 mph def. Mike Salinas, 5.251 seconds, 152.18 mph.

FUNNY CAR: Ron Capps, Dodge Charger, 4.234, 296.37 def. Bob Tasca III, Ford Mustang, 4.300, 286.98.

PRO STOCK: Jeg Coughlin, Chevy Camaro, 6.709, 205.10 def. Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.741, 205.07.

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FINAL ROUND-BY-ROUND RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: ROUND ONE — Mike Salinas, 4.023, 295.53 def. Leah Pritchett, 4.011, 287.72; Scott Palmer, 4.017, 304.39 def. Bill Litton, 4.172, 261.07; Clay Millican, 4.018, 295.14 def. Terry Totten, 4.542, 182.58; Tony Schumacher, 3.917, 316.82 def. Terry McMillen, 5.112, 141.40; Antron Brown, 3.897, 316.82 def. Richie Crampton, 4.057, 297.22; Doug Kalitta, 3.998, 286.38 def. Brittany Force, 3.942, 307.51; Steve Torrence, 3.970, 303.71 def. Shawn Reed, 4.018, 283.25; Pat Dakin, 4.015, 307.30 def. Dom Lagana, 4.107, 272.12; QUARTERFINALS — Salinas, 4.035, 299.20 def. Millican, 9.938, 76.57; Palmer, 4.067, 302.41 def. Kalitta, 4.292, 230.92; Schumacher, 4.028, 288.64 def. Dakin, 4.041, 298.14; Torrence, 4.232, 253.33 def. Brown, 5.090, 155.65; SEMIFINALS — Salinas, 4.042, 301.07 def. Palmer, 4.356, 211.89; Schumacher, 4.038, 297.02 def. Torrence, 4.104, 254.04; FINAL — Schumacher, 3.946, 313.58 def. Salinas, 5.251, 152.18.

FUNNY CAR: ROUND ONE — Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, 4.757, 227.23 def. Jeff Diehl, Toyota Solara, 5.978, 124.51; Courtney Force, Camaro, 4.169, 307.65 def. Jonnie Lindberg, Ford Mustang, 4.382, 262.18; J.R. Todd, Toyota Camry, 4.213, 300.26 def. Del Worsham, Camry, 4.362, 252.61; Bob Tasca III, Mustang, 4.133, 303.09 def. Tim Wilkerson, Mustang, 4.183, 289.82; Cruz Pedregon, Camry, 4.582, 229.00 def. Jim Campbell, Dodge Charger, 5.030, 159.02; Ron Capps, Charger, 4.243, 296.37 def. John Force, Camaro, 5.824, 128.57; Jack Beckman, Charger, 4.283, 281.30 def. Shawn Langdon, Camry, 4.569, 266.37; Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 4.253, 291.26 def. Matt Hagan, Charger, 5.381, 142.06; QUARTERFINALS — C. Force, 4.197, 298.14 def. Johnson Jr., 5.139, 158.45; Tasca III, 4.233, 292.90 def. Pedregon, 5.757, 126.33; Todd, 4.203, 295.92 def. Beckman, 4.333, 277.49; Capps, 4.208, 299.33 def. Hight, 4.233, 300.73; SEMIFINALS — Capps, 4.242, 298.93 def. Todd, 4.372, 285.65; Tasca III, 4.219, 298.60 def. C. Force, 4.271, 286.62; FINAL — Capps, 4.234, 296.37 def. Tasca III, 4.300, 286.98.

PRO STOCK: ROUND ONE — Vincent Nobile, Chevy Camaro, 6.739, 204.45 def. Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.776, 204.45; Chris McGaha, Camaro, 6.736, 205.32 def. Deric Kramer, Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Erica Enders, Camaro, 6.729, 204.88 def. Jason Line, Camaro, 6.726, 203.95; Tim Freeman, Camaro, 6.787, 202.58 def. Alex Laughlin, Camaro, 6.823, 201.94; Tanner Gray, Camaro, 6.754, 205.13 def. John Gaydosh Jr., Chevrolet Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Drew Skillman, Camaro, 6.715, 204.23 def. Alan Prusiensky, Dodge Dart, 9.845, 93.14; Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.716, 204.35 def. Wally Stroupe, Camaro, 7.027, 176.70; Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.719, 205.10 def. Tommy Lee, Camaro, Broke – No Show; QUARTERFINALS — Gray, 6.789, 204.94 def. Freeman, Foul – Red Light; Coughlin, 6.740, 205.26 def. McGaha, 16.733, 48.09; Anderson, 6.723, 204.73 def. Nobile, 6.755, 204.29; Skillman, 6.727, 203.98 def. Enders, 6.743, 204.54; SEMIFINALS — Coughlin, 6.750, 204.51 def. Skillman, Foul – Red Light; Anderson, 6.768, 204.91 def. Gray, 6.764, 205.19; FINAL — Coughlin, 6.709, 205.10 def. Anderson, 6.741, 205.07.

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UPDATED POINTS STANDINGS:

TOP FUEL: 1. Steve Torrence, 896; 2. Clay Millican, 786; 3. Tony Schumacher, 760; 4. Doug Kalitta, 717; 5. Leah Pritchett, 663; 6. Antron Brown, 588; 7. (tie) Brittany Force, 552; Terry McMillen, 552; 9. Scott Palmer, 461; 10. Mike Salinas, 421.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Courtney Force, 937; 2. Jack Beckman, 736; 3. Robert Hight, 717; 4. J.R. Todd, 694; 5. Ron Capps, 693; 6. Matt Hagan, 669; 7. Tommy Johnson Jr., 606; 8. Cruz Pedregon, 508; 9. John Force, 502; 10. Bob Tasca III, 500.

PRO STOCK: 1. Greg Anderson, 823; 2. Tanner Gray, 768; 3. Vincent Nobile, 758; 4. Erica Enders, 738; 5. Drew Skillman, 679; 6. Jeg Coughlin, 671; 7. Chris McGaha, 659; 8. Bo Butner, 642; 9. Deric Kramer, 627; 10. Jason Line, 569.

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