MILLVILLE, NJ. [October 8, 2017] – As Ernie Francis, Jr., took the checkered flag for the New Jersey Trans Am 100 at New Jersey Motorsport Park, he not only secured his eighth win of the 2017 season—he clinched the TA class championship with two races remaining. Joining Francis in celebrations were TA4 class victor Brian Kleeman and TA3 winner Neal Walker, while Gar Robinson claimed victory in the TA2 class' New Jersey Muscle Car Challenge earlier in the day.
And while the weekend ended in jubilation for Francis and the Breathless Pro Racing team of the No. 98 Buoniconti Fund Ford Mustang, the early stages were nothing but hard work after the No. 98 suffered an engine failure in testing. The entire crew, and Francis himself, worked to switch to a backup engine for qualifying, just in time to secure pole for the race— a position he would hold through 101.25 miles of multi-class traffic on the NJMP "Thunderbolt" track before bringing home the TA class win and championship.
At 19-year-old Francis becomes the youngest TA class champion, overtaking series Chief Steward Wally Dallenbach, Jr., who won the title in 1985 at the age of 22. The championship is the fourth of Francis' Trans Am career, with three TA4 class championships already under his belt.
"I'm at a loss for words on how to describe this right now," said Francis. "We didn't really think this could happen early this season. We were going to try for it, but we didn't expect to be able to win a championship this year or really this early in the season. To accomplish this, it took a team effort from everyone. Our sponsors, our engine builders, our transmission builders— they did a great job all season long. But it definitely wasn't easy for us, this last race was tough."
Francis would build up a substantial lead over the first 31 laps before a full-course caution came out for the retrieval of the No. 86 of John Baucom stopped in an unsafe position; with the field collected behind Francis, the Breathless Pro Racing team was informed the No. 98 had been assessed a 30 second penalty for jumping the start. When the field restarted on the 35th lap, Francis proceeded to build a 36-second lead over the remaining 10 of the 45—crossing the finish line with the time in hand to remain in first position after the penalty.
"We had the lead pretty well locked down; then the caution came out," said Francis. "Then over the caution we were told we had a 30-second penalty for accelerating early on the start. So we knew we had to build up a 30-second gap over the rest of the field before the finish line—so we pushed as hard as we could and ran qualifying speed laps. We opened up a 30 second gap over second place and came home with the championship."
"This weekend was a big effort by the crew," said Francis. "The engine went out on just the first test session about 10 laps in. We spent that day changing the engine, making sure everything was good to go. The second day we just did two data laps then went straight out to qualifying. We were amazed by the pace of the car; it is an old reliable engine—it won most of the races early in the season and went back in at Mid-Ohio for another win. It has some luck; we're going to get it rebuilt and bring it over to Texas."
Simon Gregg, in the No. 59 Derhaag Motorsports Chevrolet Corvette, would finish second after starting fifth, for his best finishing position of the season, while Jim McAleese in the No. 03 McAleese & Associates Chevrolet Camaro, secured third for his first podium finish of the year.
Amy Ruman, in the No. 23 McNichols Company Chevrolet Corvette, and Vinnie Allegretta, in the No. 41 TA Sights & Sounds Chevrolet Corvette, both held second position throughout the race but saw their days ended after separate incidents that saw both machines retire from pit lane.
Tim Rubright, in the No. 4 BlueKnobAuto.com Ford Mustang, and Mary Wright, in the No. 6 Derhaag Motorsports Chevrolet Corvette, would finish fourth and fifth, respectively.