Meet Ernie Francis Jr., the 23-year-old racer running with today's motorsports legends

Steven Cole
By Steven Cole Smith
Apr 5, 2022 | Ernie Francis Jr., SRX | Posted in Features | From the Nov. 2021 issue | Never miss an article

Photography Credit: Wayne Riegle

When the SRX Superstar Racing Experience announced, last December, a partial driver lineup–and Ernie Francis Jr.’s name appeared among drivers like Bill Elliott, Helio Castroneves, Bobby Labonte, Michael Waltrip, Paul Tracy, Willy T. Ribbs, Tony Kanaan, Greg Biffle and Marco Andretti–plenty of people asked, “Ernie who?”

As you’d guess, his phone has been ringing since the six-week series ended. There’s plenty of interest in a kid who’s 23, has seven straight Trans Am championships, and is now also an SRX race winner. More important, he finished the series in second place, behind NASCAR champ Tony Stewart.

Francis is “an amazing talent,” Tony says. “Ernie Francis is going places,” Michael Waltrip adds.

SRX is a made-for-TV series that uses 750-horsepower, late-model-style cars that Ray Evernham, former NASCAR champion crew chief for driver Jeff Gordon, designed and built. 

The six races aired in prime time on CBS–not CBS Sports, but on the mothership network, albeit on the lowest-rated night of the week during one of the lowest-rated months of the year. Ratings were good from the start, nearly matching NASCAR’s and surpassing those of F1 and IndyCar. Four times the audience exceeded 1.3 million, and a second season, one that likely includes a road course or two, is in the works.

Tracks ranged from the paved oval of Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis, where Ernie won despite minimal oval experience, to Stewart’s unpaved Eldora Speedway, where Ernie held his own despite having no experience on a dirt track–aside from one night at the local speedway in a borrowed street stock car–and where, incidentally, he won his heat and feature.

Do the math: Ernie Francis Jr. is now 23 years old. In 2013, he was already driving at the pro level, taking that year’s top rookie honors in the Pirelli World Challenge. The following year, he drove the black Camaro to his first of seven Trans Am titles. Photography Credit: Ray Schneider

The SRX series began June 12 at Stafford Speedway, a paved oval in Connecticut, where Ernie finished fourth in his heat, sixth in the feature. Next was Iowa’s Knoxville Raceway, a dirt track, where Ernie took second in his heat, behind dirt master Scott Bloomquist, and third in the feature. 

Then came the tough Eldora circuit, where Ernie started and finished eighth in the feature. Next up: Indianapolis, where he started sixth and won the feature. At bowl-like Slinger Speedway in Wisconsin, he earned sixth in the feature. And in the finale at the paved Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway, he finished second in a heat behind Castroneves and sixth in the feature, good enough for the runner-up spot in the overall season.

Ernie’s grin, coolness under fire and beyond-his-years analytical take on races in his interviews, along with his occasionally pointed comments about Paul Tracy’s driving style, endeared him to a lot of people who now know who Ernie Francis Jr. is.  

Breathless Performance operates as a family effort, with Ernie supported by his dad and soon-to-be stepmother, Monica Zima. “As you can imagine,” Monica says, “we’ve been to every SRX race.” Photography Credit: Monica Zima

It’s just amazing the talent this kid has, the years of experience. Being able to feel everything the car is doing contributes to his success. He comes into pit lane knowing what to fix. He doesn’t describe symptoms, he says what the problems are,” says Monica Zima, his soon-to-be stepmother and an important part of the team.

After all, Junior has been racing constantly since he was 4 years old. Search for him on YouTube and you’ll find an interview with a Miami station that showcased Ernie at 14, racing–and winning–in a Miata in the NASA series. His car carried a sign where the license plate goes: “You’ve just been passed by a 14-year-old.”

Monica credits Ray Evernham, co-creator with NASCAR’s Tony Stewart of the SRX series, with getting Ernie an invitation to compete. Evernham raced with the SCCA in his purpose-built “Ghost,” which looks like a street rod from the 1930s but is underpinned with state-of-the art racing equipment that has propelled the car to 196 mph at Pocono. 

Junior’s win in the 2019 SCCA GT1 Runoffs “put Ernie on Ray’s radar, and he got invited directly by him,” Monica says. Evernham got his start in pro racing in the defunct IROC series, which, like SRX, paired diverse drivers with identical cars. It worked once. Why not again?

And every week during the SRX competition, “it has just skyrocketed. Every week it picked up more traction. There are so many superstars he’s racing against,” Monica notes. Ernie says he just wants to race for a living, but he’d love a legitimate shot at NASCAR, IndyCar or a factory-supported ride in IMSA. “His father has been working toward this for so long,” she says. 

When it comes to his career, Junior “is pretty open right now,” Monica continues. “Whatever makes him happy. His fan base has grown so much thanks to the exposure he’s been getting on SRX.” Regardless, he doesn’t plan to leave Trans Am. “The car is here and ready,” Monica says. “I’m sure he’ll do as many races as he can.”

Meanwhile, says Ernie’s father, the work goes on at Breathless Racing in Dania, Florida, near Fort Lauderdale. Ernie Sr., an engineer by trade, owns and manages three companies that build and sell parts and entire cars, including custom hotrods; he owns arrive-and-drive cars that he and his crew manage for gentlemen racers, and he built and maintains the Trans Am car that Junior races. 

In addition to Trans Am and the SRX series, Ernie’s 2021 season also includes a seat in the Formula Regional Americas Championship Powered by Honda thanks to the inaugural PMH Powering Diversity Scholarship and backing by Future Star Racing and Wings and Wheels. Photography Credit: Monica Zima

It’s a fire-breather. Ernie Sr. says Trans Am TA cars like the ones his son drives are pushing 900 horsepower and have no electronic driver aids to help tame them. The cars are powered by 358-cubic-inch carbureted V8s and are the kings of the six classes Trans Am operates.

They may be legal in other Trans Am classes, but active suspension, telemetry, traction control and ABS brakes are prohibited for TA cars. “They aren’t easy to drive,” Senior says. They have to be muscled around the track in an old-school way, with not much help from aerodynamics or massive, sticky tires. 

It may be the most extreme class of cars racing in America today,” Ernie Sr. says. “The cars teach you to conserve. With nearly 900 horsepower, you can waste the tires in a few laps.” You have to learn patience–not Junior’s strong suit, say several drivers who raced in Trans Am against him in his early years.

The Francis family often works “15- and 16-hour days,” says Monica, a CPA by trade who has been part of Breathless for four years. “There’s so much behind the scenes, so much that people don’t see.”

Covid-19, Ernie Sr. says, “really wasn’t that bad for our companies,” as the slowdown gave them–and Ernie Jr., who can be found with a wrench in his hand every day at the shop–a chance to catch up on building parts and projects.

As for Ernie Jr., “It’s pretty crazy. To show that I can hang with these guys, I’d be happy with just that, but when we won the race at Lucas it showed a lot of people that I can adapt to most any driving style and be competitive.”

Ernie finished second overall in this year’s point race for the SRX series, a six-stop affair featuring spec machines. Four-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves wound up fifth.  Willy T. Ribbs, Ernie’s mentor, finished 10th. Photography Credit: Wayne Riegle

Writes Jenna Fryer of the Associated Press: “SRX raced this summer at Indianapolis Raceway Park, where Trans Am superstar Ernie Francis Jr. won and SRX nailed one of its main story lines: Francis was in the field as part of a David vs. Goliath scenario, and the 23-year-old beat the established stars to earn the most attention of his career.”

The most attention so far. Let’s see what tomorrow brings.

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Comments
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GCrites80s
GCrites80s HalfDork
10/27/21 8:54 p.m.

Very impressive season, especially considering how most of the other drivers in the series have been oval racers for far longer.

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
1/21/22 9:24 a.m.

Yeah, he definitely jumped into a deep pool and swam with the front-runners. 

And at 22 he won his seventh-straight Trans Am title....

trigun7469
trigun7469 SuperDork
1/21/22 10:12 a.m.

I hope the indy lights package comes together for 2022, but can understand the allure and money from Nascar.

grafmiata
grafmiata UltraDork
1/21/22 12:36 p.m.
trigun7469 said:

I hope the indy lights package comes together for 2022, but can understand the allure and money from Nascar.

He'll be running the full Lights season for Force Indy.

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
1/27/22 10:19 p.m.

The latest news on that Force Indy ride.

84FSP
84FSP UltraDork
1/31/22 8:10 p.m.

Always good to see fresh young guns come to challenge!

racerfink
racerfink UltraDork
2/2/22 2:43 p.m.

I'd really like to root for the kid, I really would,  but his dad makes that impossible.  Hopefully with the Force Indy ride, his dad will be less involved.

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