Dealer Ben Keating fell in love with racing courtesy of a Christmas present from his wife more than 12 years ago.
That gift — a weekend at Texas World Speedway — turned into a second career for Keating as a race car driver with wins at the Petit Le Mans, 12 Hours of Sebring and Rolex 24 at Daytona. He's about to race in his fourth Le Mans, and winning there would be a dream.
He's come a long way since that Christmas gift outing when he was a Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep dealer in Port Lavaca, Texas.
"I took a Viper off the showroom floor, did not take a helmet or any tools or anything because I didn't know those things were required," Keating recalled. "I ended up having to borrow a helmet. And I boiled my brake fluid, which I had no idea what that was. I had to have someone else explain to me why my brakes didn't work anymore. But I had so much fun. It was literally the funnest thing I'd ever done in my life."
These days, Keating operates 17 dealerships across Texas as part of his Keating Auto Group. His 18th store — a Mercedes-Benz dealership in College Station, Texas — is under construction and will open in December. It will be Keating's first foray into selling Mercedes vehicles, but he's been buying them to race since Mercedes-AMG decided in 2016 to bring its new GT3-spec race car, based on the Mercedes-AMG GT street car, to North America to run in the International Motor Sports Association series. Keating logged three victories in the car's inaugural 2017 season.
He was attracted to the Mercedes-AMG after seeing it sweep the podium at the Nurburgring 24 Hours race in 2016. Dodge had scrapped its factory racing program in 2014 and was set to drop the Viper altogether in 2017. A longtime Viper driver who'd also driven some Porsches, Keating was looking for a new race car.
He was blown away by the AMG's mastery of the grueling Nordschleife circuit at the Nurburgring. And the factory support available with the new car was appealing.
"I want to be competitive. I want to win championships," Keating said. "It just seemed like a perfect fit to me to be able to race a car I could win."
Though he credits some great coaches on his journey, Keating is largely self-taught as a driver.
After that initial outing at Texas World Speedway in 2006, Keating went to some Viper Days events and soon bought a Viper race car and trailer and traveled around the country to track events.
"I did not do very well in 2007. I got put on probation for being involved in too many incidents," Keating said. "But that's what I needed because I dialed it back, and, in 2008, I won the national championship in my class."
Keating began moving up classes and kept winning. He eventually moved to endurance racing only.
One of the things he loves most about racing? "As weird as it sounds, it was the most relaxing thing I had ever done," he said. In between adrenaline-fueled driving sessions, he feels "just melted."
Keating spends about a quarter of his year on the road at races. His family — his wife and two college-age children — typically join him at two or three races each season. Last year, he did 15 races — too many, he admits. In 2018, he's cutting it to 13.
The time commitment is almost "embarrassing," Keating said, "because I feel like I have all these responsibilities to the business and my family and those things. On the other hand, it is awesome that my business partners and my family allow me the time to go out and play."
While racing does reduce the time he can spend in his stores, it has helped the dealership business, Keating said.
"I have been very successful at selling what I race and making that connection with customers," he said.
Keating says he has sold cars at the racetrack and was the top Viper dealer in the country from 2009 until the car was discontinued.
He is counting on that kind of relationship to continue with a new set of customers once his Mercedes dealership opens.
"I have been building great relationships with the AMG motorsports fanatics over the last 18 months that I've raced the car," Keating said.
"I would expect that to turn into sales once I open the store."