As a two-time Trans-Am champion – with five championships across three classes in all – Ernie Francis Jr. ought to be a well-known name in the racing world. As the Trans Am Series Presented by Pirelli gains attraction and attracts a deeper pool of talented and respected drivers that Francis Jr. will surely beat in races, if not championships, that may yet come to fruition.
Francis Jr. has won the last two Trans Am championships. Although the 2019 season in his Breathless Racing/Frameless Shower Doors Ford Mustang is off to a rough start with a mechanical issue that cost him a bunch of time in the pits at Sebring and a malfunctioning brake light that brought a black flag at Road Atlanta, he’s hopeful that he can win another one, even as championships in the series get harder to pull off.
“It’s a great feeling; winning a championship alone was amazing, and then winning a second time kind of solidifies what we did, what we worked for over the first year,” he says. “Trying to defend it again is tough, because more guys come in that are all gunning for you. Some of these teams are spending a lot of money and putting a lot of development into these cars trying to make them faster. It makes it tougher and tougher for us to keep up. I think we have a pretty fast car and it’s going to be a great season trying to defend the championship.”
In the two races run so far this year, Francis Jr. has shown he certainly has the speed, if not the luck, to continue winning races and fight for the title. He credits chassis builder Mark Meissen and working with JJ Furillo at Ultimate Performance on the JRi shocks for a lot of that.
“Our advantage is getting the car handling great. No matter what these guys are doing, we’re still able to catch them in the turns, catch them in the brake zones. Our car just outhandles them everywhere. It’s a mix of the chassis setup that we have going on and the suspension setup on the car just really works well with what we’ve got. And I have a lot of time in these cars and I understand how to drive them pretty well and modulate the throttle,” Francis says.
As new teams like Chris Dyson Racing come in, as existing teams such as Burtin Racing and Ruman Racing step up their game with time in the wind tunnel and trying to wring everything possible out of the Trans Am platform, the challenge gets tougher. Francis knows that what has worked before may not continue to be enough to get the job done, so he’s working on a new engine program with Katech that he hopes will be implemented by the third round at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. That, and a continued burning desire to win, may do the trick.
“I think everybody in the Trans Am category looks at Ernie as the rival,” says series chief steward and former champ Dorsey Schroeder. “Ernie is still young, he’s won a bunch of championships and I think he’s probably just as hungry as he’s ever been. And he pedals that car around like nobody’s business. I think 2019 is going to be a great battle.”
For Francis, that’s something he relishes, and he loves doing it in cars with the brutish appeal of a Trans Am car.
“The Trans Am Series has always been a place that I’ve called home with my racing career. It’s one of the first series that I started pro racing in, and I think I just have a love for the series. The officials are all super nice, we get along with everybody out there and it’s just a fun series to drive in.
“You don’t get to drive cars like these very often anymore; a lot of the cars in pro racing have traction control, ABS … They’re nowhere near as raw as the the Trans Am cars are. These things have 800-something horsepower, sequential transmissions, no traction control, no ABS. It’s really just everything that you can do to get power out of the car and get lap time out of it,” he explains.
Francis and the rest of the Trans-Am crew will make their first trip out west for the series’ inaugural event at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca on May 3-5.