The kid from Florida with a life-long pedigree in road racing has shown himself to be one heck of a short track oval driver. At 23, Ernie Francis Jr. is finally starting to earn the wider recognition his skills deserve, and it’s come from a form of racing that’s entirely new to the seven-time Trans Am champion.
Holding second in the Superstar Racing Experience standings as it enters its season finale in Nashville on Saturday, Francis has been a revelation in the series. Despite a total lack of oval knowledge in the all-oval series, Francis trails only three-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Tony Stewart in the race for the title. Overcoming the SRX co-founder to win the inaugural championship will be a steep challenge for Francis, but he’s made a habit out of exceeding expectations.
Our official driver standings heading into Nashville! Who will win it all!? pic.twitter.com/zTmRIx56ec
— Camping World SRX Series (@SRXracing) July 12, 2021
As the son of a Formula Atlantic club racer, Francis was thrown into his first kart at the age of four where he continued the family’s open-wheel tradition before moving onto racing more affordable touring cars in his teens. A call to Tony Parella’s Trans Am series is where Francis made his biggest waves, earning championship after championship in the animalistic machines.
Trans Am continues to serve as his current primary racing home, and with the addition of the SCCA Pro Racing’s Formula Regional Americas (F3) series and F4 to Parella Motorsports Holding’s array of series, Francis has made use of the Powering Diversity Scholarship from PMH to tackle his first season of FRA.
Like SRX, where he won the recent event at Lucas Oil Raceway Park, Francis scored his first FRA victory in late June at Mid-Ohio. If building upon his legacy in Trans Am and winning in new SRX and FRA ventures doesn’t draw team owners to his all-around talent, nothing will.
And it’s in the FRA series where Francis has found a new ambition to pursue. If the doors can be opened to the Road To Indy, this young veteran would love to see if he can earn a future opportunity in the NTT IndyCar Series.
“I definitely would; it’s never been something that was on my radar before,” Francis said. “Growing up, we didn’t have the funding to go and put me into the Road To Indy or an open-wheel car in general to go race out there. Never really had those opportunities. I never thought that I would. This past year, [racing in FRA], I found that I really like it a lot. The downforce is fine; it’s cool to race with it. And the cars are just so incredible to drive.
“I definitely think that I’d love to pursue those opportunities if something opens up there. And if the opportunity arises with either Roger Penske or something in a development role, or in the Road To Indy ladder, I’ll definitely take that opportunity and run with it.”
Thanks to his natural talent and the big ratings that SRX has captured with its Saturday night TV slot on CBS, Francis is no longer one of North American racing’s best-kept secrets.
“This SRX series has to be the biggest opportunity that I’ve had in my career so far,” he said. “There’s nowhere else where a relatively unknown road course driver can go wheel-to-wheel with guys like Tony Stewart, Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan, Bobby Labonte. I mean, these are guys that are legends of the sport, guys that are very well respected. So now to get the opportunity to race with them, and try and prove myself on track with them, it’s been absolutely incredible.
“At the start of the season, I was kind of worried, knowing that I don’t have that [oval] background. I didn’t know how I was going to perform out there. These guys have been super helpful; Tony Stewart, for example has been super awesome. He’s been so helpful with me throughout everything with this year with all these all the races we’ve been through with SRX, giving me a bunch of tips and advice for what we’ve been doing. It’s just been a great learning curve.”
And with his newfound recognition through SRX, Francis has taken a unique approach to embracing its fans.
“The reception that SRX has gotten this year, and just the fans that I’ve received over these past five races is incredible,” he said. “We went out to Slinger [Speedway] this past weekend, and I tried to spend as much time as I could out there with the fans, signing autographs, taking pictures with them. I walked through the grandstands about an hour before the race just to go see people and then hang out with them for a little bit.
“Right after the race, they let all the fans come up to where the cars were in the in the paddock and I think I was one of the last drivers out there just taking pictures with the fans and just hanging out with them. I’ve grown up around it, and I’ve been to races as a fan, and now I’m racing cars myself out there, so I understand what they feel like and they want to meet the drivers that are out there. So I try to be as open as I can with them to give them that opportunity.”
Catch the full conversation with Ernie Francis J below: