Wednesday, June 15, 2022

FEATURE: Ernie Francis Jr. taking it one weekend at a time in debut Indy Lights season

Francis' car after Indy Lights qualifying at Road America
PHOTO: William Soquet

by William Soquet Staff Writer

Before 2021, the name Ernie Francis, Jr. was not a widely-known one outside of the Trans-Am world. Sure, a diehard NASCAR fan may have recognized the name from the occasional start with Rev Racing or MBM Motorsports. But the vast majority of motorsports fans would not have batted an eye at the mention of the name.

A year-and-a-half later, Francis is one of the hottest prospects in the American open-wheel racing scene. He was the lone up-and-coming driver to compete in the debut Superstar Racing Experience season on a full-time basis, and it is safe to say that the results of that rather unorthodox decision have paid great dividends. After running impressively during the series, Francis nabbed a call from Roger Penske, asking him to drive for the Force Indy team in 2022. He also landed a guest appearance on the Dale Jr. Download, putting his name and story in front of a wide swath of NASCAR fans.

As high as the hype was at the beginning of the 2022 season, a new type of car and some increased competitiveness in Indy Lights has proven a tough challenge for the Floridian. “These cars drive so much differently; the Trans-Am cars have such a different driving style, all about exit speed, these cars it’s just as much entry speed as you can carry into every turn. So it’s trying to retrain my brain every time I turn a different lap around here,” Francis told me at the track on Saturday. “This is really only my second year doing open-wheel racing, I ran an F3 [Formula 3] car last year, but that’s nowhere near the level of what these Lights cars are. So it’s been a big learning curve learning to drive with the downforce, being able to trust that the car will hold where I need it to.”

Most drivers that race in IndyCar come through the three-tiered "Road to Indy" ladder system, designed to take drivers from karting all the way through to IndyCars. But Francis jumped straight to the top of those three rungs: Indy Lights. Over the first six races of this season, he's scored six finishes between seventh and tenth place – not exactly lights-out, but consistent enough in a young series to land him sixth in the point standings despite never finishing in that position.

Francis has a wealth of experience at Road America, which is a staple of the Trans-Am circuit. He has also run the four-mile circuit in an SCCA sports car and in a NASCAR Xfinity Series stock car. Despite all of that, Francis told me that the only advantage he can take from all of that is the knowledge of the track. Following in the theme of his season, Francis qualified tenth for the Road America Grand Prix and finished there after an opening-lap brake lockup necessitated a new front wing.

As for his first season in the Road to Indy system, Francis is keeping his goals simple. “Every race we get better, I think we’re gonna keep on improving. Hopefully this weekend we can put up some pretty good results and then move onto the next race.” It is worth noting that this is Force Indy’s first Indy Lights season following a 2021 campaign spent in the USF2000 series. Francis is also returning to SRX for some of the contests that do not conflict with his Indy Lights duties. He told me that SRX is the perfect blend of play and practicality.

“I think it’s a bit of both. SRX taught me a lot about being able to race on short tracks. I didn’t have a ton of experience with that, so it helped out there. But at the same time it was a lot of fun. Being able to race with guys like Helio [Castroneves] and Tony Stewart and Tony Kanaan, guys I’ve looked up to my whole career and got to know last year racing with them in SRX, it’ll be fun to see them all again and have some fun racing.”

From sports cars to stock cars to open-wheel cars, Francis has cut a unique development path throughout the American motorsports ecosystem. Despite that, he remains true to the same form that won him championships in Trans-Am while driving for a family team: he was checking the most minute details of the car before granting an interview, and he remains focused on one simple thing: the next set of laps in front of him.

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