The question on everyone’s mind as the 2019 Trans Am Series by Pirelli opens is whether anyone can stop Ernie Francis Jr. who has won a Trans Am championship of some kind in each of the last five years, including the last two TA titles.
But Francis Jr. continuing to excel is only one of the storylines as the season begins this weekend at Sebring International Raceway.
“I don’t know that there’s a series that has a better lineup of venues, when you look at what we’ve added for this season – WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca and Lime Rock,” says John Clagett, president of the Trans-Am Race Co. “The national tour is now going to the West Coast, which I think is an appropriate step now that the series has grown and has a fairly solid full-season commitment.
“Racing on the classic, and perceived best, venues is very important to the series,” Clagett continues. “That in itself draws your competitor base. We’ll have three of the four champions in a position to defend their titles. And I think that’s another good selling point, resuming what you know are good rivalries.”
That list includes all who are trying to take down Francis Jr. and the Frameless Shower Doors Ford Mustang fielded by his Breathless Racing team. Trans-Am Chief Steward Dorsey Schroeder says the young Floridian’s accomplishments are already far beyond what many his age have achieved, and notes that he’s hungry for more.
But new challengers have arrived and some old ones are stepping up their game.
“Chris Dyson was brand new to the series last year, with only one start prior to that. He learned a lot and I’m certain that’s one team that’s going to apply what they learned and come to the table with a great effort,” Clagett explains.
“Then there’s Claudio Burtin’s [Chevrolet Camaro] team with Tomy Drissi,” he adds. “Drissi has won championships in the West and can definitely win races.”
Dyson scored one win and a slew of podiums in 2018 and has the potential for more in his Plaid Mustang. Drissi is expected to campaign a full season in the Axalta Chevrolet Camaro.
Clagett also points to 2016 champion Amy Ruman as one who has had some recent struggles but is certainly capable of producing wins. The same is true of David Pintaric and his Kryderracing Cadillac CTS-V. Rounding out the list of leading contenders is Vincent Allegretta in the TA Sights and Sounds Chevrolet Corvette. Allegretta raced in another series last year after finishing second in the championship to Francis Jr. in 2017, but is back to challenge again.
The TA2 category remains strong, full of established stars and talented up-and-comers. This category is ideal for learning and proving oneself as a driver, notes Schroeder.
“The TA2 car is a highly regulated, low technology machine. It’s still got an H-pattern, 4-speed gearbox; if you abuse it, it will break,” says the 1989 Trans Am champion. “It’s still got, by today’s standards, a low horsepower engine — I mean, there are street cars that have double what a TA2 car has. It’s got rudimentary tires and brakes — enough to do the job.
“You have to drive a car like that. You have to get up on the wheel and make it do what you want it to do.”
The TA2 field is stacked with former champions and drivers who have proven themselves in other forms of racing. It starts with 2018 champion Rafa Matos, looking to repeat in the 3Dimensional.com Camaro. Then there’s 2016 TA2 champ Tony Buffomante (Mike Cope Racing Mustang), who had a couple of wins last year and finished second to Matos.
Slated for a full-season run after a few previous starts, Marc Miller will be campaigning the Prefix/Stevens-Miller Racing Dodge Challenger. A couple of others who could make an impact are Misha Goikhberg (BC Race Cars Chevrolet Camaro); Dillon Machavern (Liqui-Moly Prefix Mustang); Doug Peterson (3Dimensional.com Mustang) and Scott Lagasse Jr. (SLR/Fields Racing/M1 Racecars Camaro).
Finally, Schroeder says he’s seen young newcomer Willis Woerheide race in vintage machinery, and could be a force with some experience.
“TA2 will likely settle into a three-team super battle, where Mike Cope is coming to the series with four to six cars on any given weekend — he has some NASCAR development drivers coming along the way,” says Clagett.
“And then Matos and Peterson in the Coleman cars. It’s a lot more even throughout the whole TA2 program, so guys that are anywhere in the top 10 can win races there. I think it’s a championship that’s going to be defined by consistency and the ability to keep a car on the racetrack.”
In addition to two new tracks, another change for this season is a new name for TA3 and TA4, now known as GT and Super GT. Mark Boden, who finished first or second in nearly every race he entered in 2018, has to be considered a favorite for the Super GT title, depending on how many races he runs in his Beverage Flavors International Porsche 991 GT3 Cup.
After Sebring, the series moves to Road Atlanta at the end of March, then hits the two new tracks — Laguna Seca in early May and Lime Rock Park on Memorial Day — before racing at the Detroit Grand Prix in June. Indianapolis is once again on the schedule, as are Mid-Ohio, Road America, Watkins Glen, VIR and COTA before the series wraps up at Daytona in November.
A classic racing series on America’s most classic road courses, with growing fields setting up a classic question: Who will win?