Prime Time Illuminates a Future Star
by Bobby Markos
Prime-time television broadcasting of auto racing on the big three networks (ABC, CBS and NBC) has long been an opportunity to bring the sport into new households and grow its fanbase. With the right performance, it could also be a breakthrough for young and upcoming drivers. When Tony Stewart and Ray Evernham announced that their Superstar Racing Experience would be bringing short track auto racing to the airwaves on Saturday nights, it was a shockwave felt through the racing community. And while the SRX field was mainly composed of well-established racing legends, it would prove to be a turning point in the flourishing career of 24-year-old Ernie Francis Jr. Although well known in the road racing circuit as a seven-time Trans-Am Series Champion, Francis Jr. was still building his reputation in the racing scene as a whole, and little did he know the impact running the six-race summer schedule would have not only on his career, but his life.
Dale Earnhardt Jr is the ultimate ambassador to auto racing, because not only has he had a well-decorated career behind the wheel, he genuinely loves the sport and promotes all levels of motorsports. So when a major story breaks in the racing world, Dale is usually on it, and last summer, that was road-racer Ernie Francis Jr. scoring his upset July 3rd win at Lucas Oil Raceway, over the likes of Bobby Labonte, Scott Speed, Marco Andretti and the rest of the SRX roster. On this week’s episode of the Dale Jr. Download, Dale and co-host Mike Davis invited Ernie into the Bojangles Studio to talk about his summer with SRX, as well as his dominance of the Trans-Am Series and what is next in his budding career.
The conversation begins with Ernie explaining how he got the call to fill one of the coveted spots on the SRX entry list. He had met Ray Evernham through some SCCA events, and the two kept in touch over the years. Ray had mentioned to Ernie the prospect of starting SRX, and said that if there were any road course events on the schedule that he’d like him to compete. Ultimately, the itinerary was made up of six of America’s finest short tracks, and Ernie still got the call anyway, making him the youngest driver on the full-time roster. Ernie had limited circle track, stock car experience, making a couple starts for Rev Racing in the KN East series and one start for MBM Motorsports in the Xfinity Series at Road America in 2017, but clearly had demonstrated his natural ability behind the wheel with seven consecutive points championships in the Trans Am Series from 2013 to 2020. Ernie’s quick adaptation to oval racing became the talk of the summer, as he rattled off an impressive sixth place finish at the season opener at Stafford and followed it up with a third place finish at the famed Knoxville Raceway, only his second time on the dirt.
Ernie and Dale discussed how many elements of SRX seemed “made for primetime”, but once the green flag
dropped, the racer mentality set in, and the competition became very fierce. He filled listeners in on the limited practice drivers were given at each speedway, and what adjustments could be made on the cars throughout the event card. Since the cars were built so evenly, small changes in tire pressure, wedge and spring rubber would make huge differences on track. He also pointed out that each week drivers drew their crew chiefs at random, so most times they worked on different teams. These parameters would keep the parity of the cars close, and allow the drivers’ talent to shine. As a result, the SRX programs received sterling reviews, with many drivers voicing that they’d like to be a part of the experience in the future.
Ernie continued to impress throughout the summer and came home second in the points championship behind Tony Stewart. After the success, his mind was directed towards entering the NASCAR ranks, but a phone call he received while attending a race at Brainerd International Raceway would turn his world upside down. While catching some rest between on-track sessions, he noticed a call from a Michigan phone number and answered, only to hear the voice of the Captain himself, Roger Penske. Penske informed him he had some plans for the 2022 race season and wanted to discuss them in person, inviting him out to the NASCAR date at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in August. Ernie recalled being super nervous for the meeting, and being led to Penske’s motorhome where he met both him and Tim Cindric, the president of Team Penske. It was there that Penske asked Ernie to join his Indy Lights program racing for Force Indy, with plans to develop the team into a IndyCar Championship outfit in the coming years. Suddenly, Ernie was on the path to a career in open wheel motorsports, and he credits his time with SRX with putting him on Penske’s radar.
The chat also goes back to Ernie’s start in racing, which came thanks to his father Ernie Sr, who raced in SCCA and owns Breathless Racing. He grew up around race cars, spending a lot of time at his father’s speed shop and learning to work on the cars at an early age. He received his first race car at the age of three, which was an electric Jeff Gordon Power Wheels that he raced around his driveway. The following year, he obtained his first go-kart, which he was initially scared of. But, once he started racing, it clicked and he knew he wanted to race for a living. Ernie tells the story of his father surprising him with his first spec-Miata car, which he originally thought belonged to a customer. Upon taking the car to the track, his father tossed him the keys and revealed it was indeed his first professional race car.
From spec-Miatas Ernie moved through the ranks of road racing, eventually arriving in the Trans-Am Series, where he raced for his father’s team. After winning three championships in a lower division of production chassis cars, he moved up into the TA class and won four more championships. He also analyzed the difference between racing Trans-Am cars and testing an Indy Lights car, and explained the endurance and weight-training he is doing to prepare for the coming season. Listeners can expect an interesting look at a young talent who is rocketing through the ranks of American auto racing.
During the opening segment of the show, Dale and Mike recap the Daytona 500 weekend, and their journey down to Daytona Beach to help launch High Rock Vodka. The Dirty Mo crew also says goodbye to their own Leah Vaughn, who will be leaving the company this week to move on to other endeavors. When the show opened up the floor to YouTube Live during Ask Jr, listeners asked Dale about hitting debris during races, improvements needed for the Next Gen car and under the radar drivers he's watching in auto racing. You can hear all of this and more on this week’s episode of the Dale Jr. Download - available on this website and all major podcast streaming platforms.