The Trans Am by Pirelli Esports Championship drivers delivered a double dose of thrilling race action on the virtual Daytona International Speedway Saturday afternoon.
In a field full of multiple champions, including 2004 NTT IndyCar Series champion Tony Kanaan, Tyler Kicera (No. 4 Howe Racing Ent/Carbotech Brakes) and Ernie Francis Jr. (No. 98 One South Florida Wealth Advisors) tamed the high banks of Daytona to each clinch wins in the Esports doubleheader.
“Both races were great,” said Francis Jr. “A podium in both and I am happy with that. It was a great day for points.
“I like this style of racing a lot,” Francis continued. “I’ve spent a lot of time on the sim the past few weeks with the Esports racing that Trans Am is doing. It’s a lot of fun, I’m really enjoying it more, and getting faster every week.”
The day started out just as close as it ended with the top nine drivers all clocking times under 1m45s. Francis Jr. claimed pole-position for Race 1 after edging out Kicera by .086s in the final seconds of the 10-minute qualifying session with a fast time of 1m44.313s.
But on the non-traditional Trans Am standing start, Kicera was the fastest off the line and jumped into the lead on the opening lap.
Francis Jr., with Kicera still in sight, refocused his efforts on holding onto second place as eSeries points leader Josh Hurley pressured the six-time Trans Am champion from behind. The two diced back and forth for multiple laps until Hurley, using Francis Jr.’s slipstream, swung his No. 03 Jetco Racing / McAleese & Assoc. machine around the outside, sliding into second place.
But, Francis Jr. paid back the favor exiting Turn 1 on the same lap. Not backing down, Hurley made his final move on Francis Jr. in Lap 8. Bump-drafting through NASCAR Turn 2, Hurley dove into second place for the final time.
With three laps left, Hurley started chipping away at Kicera’s lead, and on the final circuit, Hurley turned up the heat. With the nose of his machine glued to Kicera’s bumper, the two snaked through the flatout turns onto the high banks of NASCAR Turns 3 and 4. There the pair were side-by-side, drag-racing style, hurling into the final turn. Speeding to the finish line, Hurley’s wheels briefly locked with Kicera, slowing the two-time Trans Am Esports winner’s progress.
In the closest finish so far in the series, Kicera crossed the line .039s ahead of Hurley for the win. Francis Jr. finished just .759s behind the lead duo for third.
“I was sweating it the whole time,” said Kicera. “I knew Ernie Francis Jr. and Josh Hurley were going to be fast, and they were with me the whole race. I really thought that whoever got the lead on the first lap without making a mistake was going to be in the best position to win. Once I got the lead, I tried not to make mistakes. Coming to the last lap, I thought I was going to have a good gap; but all of a sudden Hurley was on me. It was pretty much nose to tail from there, but I managed to stay ahead by a nose.
“It definitely was the closest finish I’ve had racing virtually. I’ve had some pretty close finishes in Spec Miatas, but this one got my heart.”
Race 2’s inverted grid put TA2 powered by AEM rookie Kent Vaccaro (No. 26 Adirondack Radiation Therapy) on the pole, with two-time TA2 champion Cameron Lawrence sharing the front row. Off the standing start, cars were rubbing and battling for position. Vaccaro was clipped from behind and went skidding sideways, allowing Lawrence to take the lead unscathed.
Finding holes through several incidents in front of him, Francis Jr. dodged debris and off-line cars, driving from an eighth-place start to third in the opening lap. By Lap 6, Francis Jr., in second place, got a good run on Lawrence through NASCAR Turns 1 and 2 to close the gap. Making a classic overtake move using the draft entering the Bus Stop, Francis Jr. made it stick to take the lead.
Francis Jr. dominated the second half of the race to build more than a two-second lead to finish the 20-minute round uncontested for his first win in the Esports championship.
Charging up from a 10th place start, Hurley crossed the line in second with Lawrence finishing in third.
“Another interesting day,” Lawrence commented. “It was fun racing with Ernie (Francis Jr.), Tyler (Kicera) and Josh (Hurley). I know that I can race side by side with them. They’re fast, but they understand the game and know how to give people room.”
Saturday was the first time in six races over three weekends that Hurley didn’t find his way to the top step of the podium. However, his performance on Saturday was just enough to keep him atop of the standings heading into Round 4. He leads the championship with 173 points, seven points ahead of Kicera.
“That was a frustrating day,” Hurley said after the event. “Qualifying put us behind the eight ball; otherwise I think we would have had a big win in Race 1. Still, this was the most fun racing we’ve had. It takes about four laps to clear someone from a draft if they don’t make mistakes — which was like real-life Daytona. The racing is a lot of fun, but when battling for points and you’re fast, that style of close racing is frustrating. Hopefully, I won’t go one more race without a win.”
IndyCar star Kanaan finished in points position in both rounds in his Trans Am racing debut.
Round 4 of the Trans Am by Pirelli Esports Championship will be next Sunday, May 17, at 3:00 p.m. EDT. Fans will vote on what track the series travels to next, starting Monday on social media.
Full replays of the race also can be found by downloading the Trans Am presented by Pirelli app for free:
Apple App: https://apps.apple.com/us/app/trans-am-by-pirelli-racing/id1494720210