Ernie Francis Jr. was 4 years old when his father got him his first go-kart to drive. The youngster wasn’t handed a wrench that day, but a lifetime of automotive instruction was underway.
Learn the equipment. Learn the craft. Learn the sport.
“It wasn’t but a few years later I was doing the work on that kart -- changing tires, changing sprockets, setting it up to race,” said Francis, who Thursday was confirmed as the driver of Force Indy’s foray into Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires. “By the time I got to (car racing), I was scaling it, tire changing, bleeding the brakes, knowing how everything works so I could be better prepared to drive it.”
Francis’ father had opened Breathless Performance Products in South Florida in the mid-1980s, developing and selling high-performance parts predominantly for Camaros and Corvettes. As the saying went, Francis’ products were so good “they’d leave you breathless,” and that was the foundation from which his son learned to work.
An offshoot of that company became the Breathless Racing Team, which offered at-track support to competitors in the Trans Am Series. Some customers would use their cars transported and serviced by Breathless, others would use the company’s cars. The house car was driven by the younger Francis, who was emerging with each year of experience.
The work emanated from the company’s 7,000-square-foot shop behind the Francis’ home in a suburb of Fort Lauderdale. Francis was engaged in all aspects, right down to driving the truck to events.
“Being so involved in all aspects helped me understand all that supports a race car driver,” he said. “It takes everything working together, from the crew to the engineer to the truck driver. It all has to work hand in hand to be successful.”
Driving the race car, Francis developed considerable skills, becoming the winningest driver in Trans Am history with 47 career wins from 2014-2020. He netted 24 premier-class wins ahead of his 24th birthday, and only Paul Gentilozzi (31), Mark Donohue (29) and Tommy Kendall (28) have won more races in Trans Am’s top division.
Last summer, Francis found himself taking a nap after a long drive to a race in Brainerd, Minnesota. His phone rang with an unfamiliar Michigan-based number, but he decided to answer it.
“At first I thought it was going to be my dad asking if we were done loading in yet,” he said. “Then I heard: ‘Hi, this is Roger Penske. Is this Ernie?’”
Imagine his surprise.
“I sat there for a second and thought, ‘No way this is real,’” Francis said. “(Penske) said hello again, and I stood up as quickly as I could. My heart was racing; I was freaking out.”
Penske was calling with an opportunity to engage with Penske Entertainment’s “Race for Equality & Change,” an initiative formed in July 2020 to welcome more a diverse audience to motorsports and the businesses that serve it. Penske had learned of Francis’ seven Trans Am class championships, his three race wins in the Formula Regional Americas Championship and his strong showing in Tony Stewart’s inaugural Superstar Racing Experience (SRX), which included a race victory at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park and a runner-up points finish in the six-race series won by Stewart and featuring Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan, Paul Tracy, Marco Andretti, Bill Elliott and Bobby Labonte, among others.
Penske invited Francis to come to Indianapolis to meet with Rod Reid, the founder of NXG Youth Motorsports, which led to the formation of Force Indy and a debut 2021 season in the Road to Indy program by fielding a USF2000 car for Myles Rowe. Rowe won a race at New Jersey Motorsports Park. This year, Force Indy is moving up to Indy Lights.
“That was a big shock to me,” Francis said of the possibility of driving No. 99 car in Indy Lights. “I literally came running out of the trailer to tell my dad.”
Since that July day, Francis has tested an Indy Lights car three times, including on the road course at Indianapolis Motor Speedway where he was introduced Thursday as a Force Indy driver. He also has tested at Barber Motorsports Park and Sebring International Raceway in preparation for an Indy Lights season that begins Feb. 25-27 in St. Petersburg, Florida.
Francis found it ironic that his first Indy Lights race will be at St. Petersburg because he made his professional racing debut there in 2013. He remembers taking a break from his Pirelli World Challenge race that weekend to walk through the INDYCAR paddock with his mother. He was just 15.
“I saw Helio there with Team Penske, and they were prepping his car,” Francis said, smiling. “He was standing there. I told my mom, ‘I want to be like him one day and do what he does.’”
Last summer during the season-ending SRX race at the Nashville Fairgrounds, Francis found himself in the company of his mother and Castroneves. He couldn’t resist telling the four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge that story.
“It just shows how it all comes back around so many years later, and now I’m on the path to hopefully one day race in the INDYCAR SERIES,” Francis said.
The Haitian American who turned 24 last week has never attended an Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, but he has competed in various series in tandem with INDYCAR, not only at St. Petersburg but in Detroit and Toronto. He has tested at Barber and the IMS road course. For a driver who previously was on a path to race sports cars at Daytona, Sebring and Le Mans, he has an open-wheel future.
“If you’d have asked me a year ago about doing this, I would have thought, ‘No way,’” he said. “But it’s starting to sink in that I’m like one step away from being in INDYCAR. Yeah, it’s a big step, but we can see the path now, and we’ll take things slowly because it’s not a sprint, it’s an enduro.
“But it’s so incredible to drive through the (IMS) gates and see the Pagoda and the grandstands. This could one day be a reality. It’s incredible.”
Yet, it’s different than all those years racing for his father’s team.
“Yeah, I haven’t touched the cars here,” he said, laughing. “I’m used to working on them, hands on.”