The NASCAR Drive for Diversity program has provided numerous young competitors with various career opportunities, paving the way toward the highest levels of stock car racing for more than a decade now. Recently, the 12 finalists for 2017’s combine to be held at Florida’s Bethune-Cookman University and New Smyrna Speedway (FL) were announced. Among them were multiple standouts in the short track racing community, but perhaps one name stood out.
At 19 years old, Ernie Francis Jr. has accomplished more feats than many drivers could only dream of; however, they are all in the road racing realm. Nevertheless, after some thought and consideration the South Florida driver and family chose to move forward with the application process to pursue stock car racing as a possibility.
“I didn’t really know where I wanted to go with my career yet, whether with road course racing or oval racing, but I needed to expand my horizons on where I can go race and make a career out of it,” Francis told Speed51.com powered by JEGS. “I recently got behind the wheel of a Late Model at Hickory Motor Speedway just to shake it down and see how it actually is to drive around in that. With the one day test I did with the guys at Lee Faulk Racing we did really well. I was only two or three tenths off the track record there, so I really ended up pretty happy with it.”
After three consecutive championships in the Trans Am Road Racing Series TA4 class, an accessible division consisting of production American muscle cars, Francis and his Breathless Pro Racing team made the decision in 2017 to move up to the top Trans Am level. The teenager’s first season in the faster machines has been nothing short of impressive. This past weekend at New Jersey Motorsports Park he convincingly claimed race victory number eight of the year and clinched the season-long title with two events still remaining, putting his name in the record books that date back to 1966 alongside legends of the sport.
Prior to the combine that takes place October 16th through 18th and contributes to setting the Rev Racing 2018 driver lineup, Francis and the highly regarded Late Model Stock Car development team he tested with at Hickory immediately plan to work together some more and continue studying for this new challenge.
“Right after (New Jersey Motorsports Park) we’re actually heading straight down to New Smyrna,” Francis noted. “Lee Faulk is meeting us down there also to do another test. We’re going to do a two-day test there Tuesday and Wednesday just to get me situated with the car and the track itself. It will help me learn it a little bit so when we get there for the combine a week later I kind of know what to do right off the bat and show what I can do.”
With additional experience in the Pirelli World Challenge, as well as testing time in Indy Lights, the second-generation driver indicated that his first time on a short track was a completely different world from all the knowledge he had acquired to date.
“Everything I learned in road course racing, I threw it out of the window when I got out there the first couple laps in the test,” Francis said. “The way you accelerate, the way you brake, the way you turn into the turns; everything is completely different. The only thing that carries over is trying to carry speed through the turn, but you carry it in a totally different way.”
His first foray into the stock car garage was actually a debut that came together at the last minute in the NASCAR Xfinity Series over the summer at Road America, in which the Trans Am cars he runs regularly with were a support event that weekend. Francis drove one of the MDM Motorsports cars, owned by former short tracker Carl Long, up to as high as 15th position before the motor seized up due to an oil pump failure.
Despite not going the distance on that particular day, it was valuable for Francis learning the nuances of battling throughout the pack of heavy stock cars, familiarizing himself with pit stops, and leaning off of many of the drivers that have one time or another in the past worked their way up the ladder. At the same time, it was once again night and day compared to what he is already acclimated.
“Those Xfinity cars and stock cars, in general, do not handle anything like what these road course cars do,” Francis commented. “They are all over the place and have big old truck arms on them, and they don’t like to stop and don’t like to turn. It was a totally new driving style for me to get used to. I had to get used to having to try and stop the car and get it turned before you could ever think about getting back through the gas. It was an overall fun experience and I look forward to doing it again.”
Willingness to jump outside of his comfort zone in advance of this opportunity has proven to be positive. In addition to that, seeing how far Trans Am has come in recent years upon being recognized for performance has been pretty incredible for Francis to realize and leaves him poised for the future.
“For being accepted into a NASCAR program when I don’t really have any kind of NASCAR experience is pretty awesome,” Francis indicated. “I think it shows for what Trans Am is doing nowadays with the cars we’re running, how fast we’re going out there and the recognition the series is getting. I think it also shows what I’ve been doing as a driver the past couple years. I think that says a lot for what I’ve done and what we can look forward to in NASCAR.”
While a good portion of the Drive for Diversity combine is composed of a driver’s skill behind the wheel, what drivers bring to the table as part of public speaking assessments will also be important. Francis’ confidence rides high regarding the aspect of being well-spoken when interacting with media as well as motorsports fans.
“From when I started racing Pirelli World Challenge a few years ago, those races were always live-streamed and you’d do interviews after every race and before the races,” Francis continued. “Same thing with the Trans Am Series; we do Facebook Live and the CBS Sports stuff after every race. We do the media stuff with all the reporters after the races at some of the bigger ones like Detroit, Road America and Mid-Ohio. I’ve had a lot of experience with that. I’ve got some practice and I think I’m pretty decent in front of the camera and pretty good at saying what I have to say out there.”
While the ultimate goal for anyone coming out of the Drive for Diversity combine is to land a NASCAR K&N Pro Series ride with Rev Racing, Francis plans to stay versatile by regularly sticking with what got him to this point, including the 850 horsepower machines he has encountered success with this year. Such achievements altogether could potentially blaze a path to the top levels of stock car racing, but even competitors such as Drive for Diversity graduate and current NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series title contender Kyle Larson participate on a limited basis where they cut their teeth and stay on top of their game when it comes to certain driving qualities like precision and car control.
“My goal is to try and expand what I can do across all of the areas of racing in general,” Francis said. “I don’t think I’m going to give up everything I’m doing in road course racing for this. Obviously, if we make it through the combine and get the ride in K&N it’s going to be running that as the main priority and still running Trans Am races. I still probably have a Pirelli World Challenge ride next year so I’m still going to be doing things among that, and most likely doing another or all of the Xfinity road course races.
“Look for us to be out there in a bunch of different series and just trying out a bunch of different things.”
With a multitude of statistics showing how much success he has accomplished making left and right turns, Ernie Francis Jr. is optimistic that he has what it takes to add to that résumé by tackling this new challenge.
-By Aaron Creed, Speed51.com Central NY & PA Editor – Twitter: @aaron_creed
-Photo credit: Speed51.com