Interview: Ernie Francis Jr. Dominated Trans Am TA1

In his first year stepping up to the Trans Am TA series in a new Katech-powered, Mark Meissen-built Mustang race car, Ernie Francis Jr. drove away with double-digit wins and a championship. (Photo Credit: Trans Am)

I went into the Trans Am series the next year when I turned 16 and won our first championship. — Ernie Francis Jr.

In recent memory there have been a lot of Ford racing success stories, but not since Tommy Kendall’s 11 consecutive Trans Am wins in 1997 can we recall a dominating performance like Ernie Francis Jr.’s 2017 season in the Trans Am TA1 class, where he won 10 of 13 races.

“It’s been crazy,” Ernie said after his win and the last race in Daytona. “A year ago we were just starting to think about this, trying to put together a TA program that could compete or even win a race. It was a far off dream to win a championship, never mind 10 races. The first season in the TA class, with the No. 98, it’s just been incredible and we look forward to next year.”

To see how this 19-year-old wunderkind got to this point and where he is headed, we chatted with him…

FordNXT: What is your background in racing?

Ernie Francis Jr.: “I started off in go-karts when I was four years old. My dad really got me into it when I was a little kid. He had been racing all of his life, so it was kind of a family sport that we did. After I did go-karting, I moved up into Spec Miatas when I was 13 years old, and raced some amateur racing in NASA and SCCA. From there, we wanted to take it to the next level, so that’s when I raced my very first pro season when I was 15 years old. I went into the Trans Am series the next year when I turned 16 and won our first championship. We won four championships in the Trans Am Series, Rookie of the Year in the Pirelli World Challenge and a bunch of other stuff.”

Trans Am Engine Specs

• 358 cubic inches

• Ford Performance block

• Ford Performance D3 cylinder heads

• 12:1 compression ratio

• Mahle pistons

• Bryant crankshaft

• Pankl connecting rods

FN: How did your early racing experience set you up for success in Trans Am?

EF: “The go-karts and Spec Miatas are really what helped me a lot with my career and helped me learn how to drive cars. Those cars have very low horsepower so it’s important to carry speed through the turns. In any form of racing, you want to carry speed and maintain speed as much as you can. Even in the 850-horsepower Trans Am cars like a drive now, you still want to carry that speed.”

FN: Why did you decide to step up to Trans Am TA this season?

EF: “It was kind of a mutual decision between my dad and I. About midway through last season we were looking at what we wanted to do and race for this next year. We saw the TA cars at Detroit and thought they were pretty cool and we wanted to see what it would take to race one. Me met up with Mark Meissen an excellent chassis builder and he got us going with a brand-new chassis before the start of the season and the rest is history.”

After years in go-karts and Spec Miatas, Ernie quickly adapted to powerful, rev-happing Trans Am cars. Before winning the TA championship this year, he had already earned three championships in the lower tiers of the Trans Am series.

FN: How did you decide race a Ford and work with Katech for engines?

EF: “We had a relationship with Ford the year prior in the Trans Am series. We had switched from the Camaro T4 car to the new Mustang Boss 302. We really liked what Ford was doing with us and we really wanted to continue that relationship and try and build off of it. Katech had been the engine supplier for our Trans Am program since I started doing it, so it was kind of a no-brainer going with them to build our engines.”

It was a whole new kind of car that I had to learn how to drive, but I think I learned it very quickly. — Ernie Francis Jr.

FN: How does driving this race car compare with your previous race cars?

EF: “…These TA cars are just all about high-rpm pulling to an 8,600-rpm redline. I had to get used to that, but Katech did a great job building us a reliable engine that makes power throughout the RPM band and really put us out front at almost every race. The Boss 302, being a production chassis car, the way it drives is so much different. It’s a lot softer chassis than these TA cars. They are tube-chassis, they are very stiff, and low to the ground. They have a very low center of gravity. They handle amazingly well. They have a lot of high-speed grip and, surprisingly, a lot of low-speed grip. It was a whole new kind of car that I had to learn how to drive, but I think I learned it very quickly.”

FN: What are your plans for the 2018 racing season?

EF: “So far 2018 looks like a busy year for me. I will be doing some Trans Am again, as well as some Pirelli World Challenge and I was accepted into the NASCAR driver diversity program, so I will be racing in the K&N East series in the road-course races that they have with NASCAR. So it’s going to be a jam-packed year for me.”

After an incredibly successful run in 2017, it will be exciting to see what Ernie can do racing Fords in Trans Am and World Challenge as well as stretching beyond into the larger series, including driving an IMSA Ford GT at the Rolex 24 in Daytona next month.

About the author

Steve Turner

As Executive Editor of FordNXT and Ford Muscle, Steve Turner brings decades of passion and knowledge to Power Automedia. He has covered the world of Ford performance for over 20 years. From the swan song of the Fox Mustang to the birth of the Coyote, Steve had a front-row seat.
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