Ernie Francis Jr. and Mike Skeen set the fastest times, securing pole to lead their respective Trans Am Series presented by Pirelli fields for the main events in the Ryan Companies US presents Jed Copham Tribute Race Weekend at Brainerd International Raceway.
Francis Jr., the six-time Trans Am champion and 2016 Brainerd winner put his No. 98 One South Florida Wealth Advisors Ford Mustang atop the TA-class timesheets with less than two minutes remaining in the 20m session with a lap of 1m27.191s. His Breathless Racing crew opted to hold their driver in the pits until very late in the session, giving him a gap and clear track behind his competitors.
“It’s nice to be back at Brainerd,” Francis Jr. said. “We were trying to wait for a clear track. We went out on the first couple of laps to get a clear track without anyone out in front of us. We were able to do that again (near the end of the session) and walked away with the pole.”
Francis Jr.’s 46th-career Trans Am pole came at the expense of Tomy Drissi (Lucas Oil Chevrolet Camaro) who was at the top at the five-minute mark. His 1m 28.261s best secured his front-row start.
“I was looking forward to the pole, but we still scored a couple extra points in second,” said Drissi. “We have some work to do if Ernie (Francis Jr.) could do that on a slick hot track. They have a good car. Hopefully tomorrow we can find that little something we are missing and go to battle.”
Drissi, who has seven career poles in Trans Am plus another five in the Trans Am West Coast series, last raced at Brainerd in 2010, finishing second in a Jaguar.
“Brainerd is really amazing,” he said. “It is fast. It is sweeping. It is smart. It is challenging. It’s a perfect storm with the Trans Am track. Drivers have to think of everything here. We’re thinking of [late track owner] Jed [Copham], his wife Kristi and their kids; we are all thinking about how great this track is. I barely recognized it when I came in. It is way better than it was 10 years ago.”
Two-time Brainerd winner Amy Ruman was third fastest with a 1m29.144s flyer set early in the session.
“It felt good to be back at Brainerd,” said Ruman, who won here in 2012 and 2015. “It got a little hot this afternoon, and we had that black flag during qualifying that messed up the rhythm a little. Luckily, we got going early on and laid down a pretty good lap.
“We are happy with P3,” Ruman continued. “It’s been awhile since we’ve been up there in qualifying. I’m really excited to get the No. 23 McNichols Co. Chevrolet Corvette back up there, and I’m looking forward to the race on Sunday.”
Ruman will be joined on the second row by Chris Dyson (1m29.223s) in the No. 20 Plaid Ford Mustang.
Shortly after Drissi took the provisional pole, the black flag waved following a spin with contact in Turn 8 involving Kerry Hitt’s Advanced Composite Products Cadillac CTS-V. The track returned to green with four minutes remaining, opening the door for Francis.
TA2 powered by AEM: Skeen on a roll
Mike Skeen turned a late-session lap of 1m30.853s in the No. 77 Liqui Moly Camaro to lead the 15-car TA2 powered by AEM field in a 20-minute session slowed by a pair of black flags for incidents.
It was the second pole of the campaign for Skeen, who shattered the Sebring track mark in qualifying for the 2020 season opener to win his first pole since 2010 at Road Atlanta.
“It’s been fun, I enjoyed picking up the track,” Skeen said. “It’s a real fast place. It’s been a good challenge. I’m really excited to get the Liqui Moly Camaro back on the pole. Looking to come back strong here, get some points and build on that championship lead.”
Skeen said that his early runs were marred by traffic or black flags.
“With five minutes to go after the last caution, my goal was to just get out there with the fastest out lap that I could do to get a timed lap in,” Skeen said. “That was strong enough.”
Skeen will be joined on the front row by Thomas Merrill (1m31.211s) in the Diehl-Merrill Racing / HP Tuners / Mike Cope Racing Ford Mustang. Sharing row two are Scott Lagasse (M1 Racecars Camaro), 1m31.238s, and Rafa Matos (Silver Hare Racing Camaro), 1m31.844s.
Cameron Lawrence’s crew discovered a broken rear wing on his 3-Dimensional Service Group Ford Mustang on the pre-grid. Lawrence planned to pit after one lap per the rules for the team to correct the problem, but he crashed on his first lap, causing rear-end damage and triggering the first of two black flags.
Second-generation driver Dylan Archer – who won at the virtual Spa with an impressive run in the inaugural Trans Am by Pirelli Esports Championship held during the COVID-19 layoff – qualified 11th for his Trans Am debut in the ForgeLine Wheels Camaro.
XGT: Second consecutive pole for Thwaits
Ken Thwaits captured his second-consecutive XGT pole, running 1m29.289s in the No. 5 Franklin Road Apparel Audi R8 GT3 Ultra.
“It’s my first time here and I love it now,” Thwaits said. “I’ve heard stories about how fast it is and it kind of freaked me out. (But) I like fast circuits and so does the Audi. We just adapted. We had a game plan in going into testing, practice and then qualifying. Happy to take that pole position and the extra three points.”
Thwaits’ Showtime Motorsports Audi teammate Kevin Long was second with a 1m33.259s.
SGT: Ninth career pole for Saunders
Sebring winner Lee Saunders captured his ninth career pole to lead the SGT competitors, turning a best lap of 1m32.641s in the Landsearch LLC Dodge Viper. He will be joined on the front row by Aaron Pierce (Logical Systems / Sam Pierce Chevrolet Corvette), 1m35.152s .
Currently second in the SGT points, Adrian Wlostowski blew the engine in his F.A.S.T. Auto Ford Mustang during Thursday testing and failed to qualify. Undeterred, his crew trailered his GT-1 spec Corvette 800 miles from New York City to Minnesota. Wlostowski borrowed tires and additional parts to make the Corvette SGT spec. He is coming off a career-best second in the recent round at Mid-Ohio.
The TA2 powered by AEM race is set to take the green flag at 11:15 a.m. on Sunday for 40-laps, 100 miles of racing. The TA/XGT/SGT event – also at 40 laps – starts at 1:35 p.m. All times CDT.
Fans can watch the live stream of the races by downloading the Trans Am by Pirelli Racing App.