The win marked the first in the TA class for Ernie Francis, Jr., in the No. 98 Buoniconti Fund/ Beta Tools Ford Mustang, after stepping up from the TA4 class where he won three consecutive championships. Francis had seemed destined to secure his first win last round at Sebring after leading much of the race before having his hopes dashed by a simple oil filter O-ring. Today, at his home track of Homestead-Miami, Francis was able to put together the complete performance in front of friends and family—shooting out into the lead on the first turn of the race and never looking back.
“This couldn’t be more special," said Francis. “Winning our first TA race, on our home track, in the brand new car—I can’t even explain it. The car ran perfectly every lap out there; we were able to pull a gap out front over everyone else. When the restarts came, we still had plenty of car underneath us. The Pirelli tires were good the entire race; we had the pace in the car the entire time. When we needed it, we had the speed; and that helped us win the race."
Over the first half of the race, Francis built nearly an 8-second lead on second position, turning a new track record 1:17.496 lap in doing so. However, Francis would also have to manage traffic, two full-course yellows and a last gasp charge by fellow Miami-area local RJ Lopez, in the No. 06 Republica Brewing/ ACP Chevrolet Corvette.
“It took some extra work to manage the traffic," said Francis. “There were plenty of lapped cars, and some weren’t giving as much room as I would have liked around the track. You just had to be safe with it; it’s not worth risking the car— you make decisive passes and those are the ones that help you build up a lead out there. But we had the power and consistency from start to finish; these Pirelli tires let you turn in qualifying-like times early on and still help you over the last few laps."
The win is 24th in Trans Am, across all classes, for Francis, who is still only 19-years old. While Francis held the lead for the entirety of the race, minus the start, the top five behind him was in constant flux with Lopez, Stanton Barrett, in the No. 33 Ojai Energetics Ford Mustang, Amy Ruman, in the No. 23 McNichols Company Chevrolet Corvette, Cliff Ebben, in the No. 36 Stumpf Ford/ McMahon Group Ford Mustang, and Daniel Urrutia, Jr., in the No. 13 Ferrea Racing Components Chevrolet Corvette, all featuring.
RJ Lopez would comfortably finish second, while Urrutia would outlast Cliff Ebben for the final spot on the podium, completing a Miami-area sweep of the podium. Ebben would finish fourth, while Amy Ruman would complete the top five.
The TA class top ten also included, in order, Vinnie Allegretta, Tomy Drissi, Kerry Hitt, Steve Burns and Henry Gilbert.
In the preceding independent TA2 Muscle Car Challenge, presented by AEM, Gar Robinson, in the No. 74 Pura Vida Tequila/ 74 Ranch Resort Chevrolet Camaro, emerged victorious out of a rollercoaster-like 102.15-mile, 45 lap race that featured nine lead changes and five different leaders. Robinson began the race on pole, swapping the lead with Cameron Lawrence, in the No. 19 Class Auto Centers Chevrolet Camaro, over the first five laps before dropping back to second, as Justin Haley, in the No. 99 Justin Haley Motorsports/ Mike Cope Ford Mustang, took the lead on lap eight.
Robinson would then retake the lead on lap 13, only to be passed by Dillon Machavern, in the No. 24 Heritage Motorsports Ford Mustang, on lap 20. Robinson would fall back to third, with Haley in second, and remain in that order until lap 37 when the No. 99 of Haley suffered a broken rear end and was forced to enter the pits. Robinson would assume second position running closely with Machavern, the race leader, before overtaking the No. 24 for the lead on lap 42 and holding position past the checkered flag.
“That was probably one of the hardest races of my life," said Robinson. “It just required so much self control. I had to watch the guys go by me! But while they were up there I could watch what they were doing—and they were using up their equipment. I gambled that Justin’s (Haley) result was going to be what it was, so I waited. Once he dropped out, I just hung up there with Dillon and played it from there. I think it went pretty well!"
Homestead-Miami has proven a challenge for Robinson in the past, with the No. 74 being forced to pit for two consecutive years due to tire issues. Robinson insists that his focus remained on finishing the race on the same set of rubber as he began the race but found the speed and consistency in the new purpose-built TA2 Pirelli P ZERO™ tires to push for the win.
“The primary focus wasn’t on winning," said Robinson. “The only goal was to keep the tires under me, to finish with the same tires on the car as I started with—something I hadn’t done before at Homestead-Miami. The Pirellis worked out excellently; they gave you the speed you needed—they never really fell off. The consistency really worked out for us, so thanks to Pirelli for all the work they put in… I’m looking forward to killing off a few more of their tires this year!"
Machavern would finish second, while Robinson’s teammate Shane Lewis, in the No. 72 Pura Vida Tequila/ 74 Ranch Racing, finished third after a race long battle with Cameron Lawrence and Lawrence Loshak, in the No. 5 Pennzoil Platinum/ ETE Reman Chevrolet Camaro. Lewis’ finish gave Robinson Racing yet another double up on the podium to commence the 2017 schedule; for those efforts Robinson Racing was awarded the Pitboxes.com Crew of the Race and Crew Chief Jim Fraser was awarded the Traq Gear Crew Chief of the Weekend Award.
“The crew has always been just excellent," said Robinson. “I can’t say enough good things about them. You have to understand, I’ve been with them since I was born. They’ve always been the best crew I’ve ever known. Jimmy (Fraser) has been like a second father to me; I think my crew is one of the best in Trans Am and I think one of the best in racing. Between Norm, Jimmy, Dave and Ross you have over a century’s worth of experience in Trans Am— and the results show that!"
Dillon Machavern’s drive from 10th up to first and eventually finishing second was declared the COOLSHIRT Systems Cool Move of the Race. The TA2 top five was completed by Lawrence Loshak, who finished fourth, and Cameron Lawrence, who finished fifth.
The TA2 top ten also included, in order, debutant Moses Smith, Louis-Philippe Montour, Tom Sheehan, Carlo Falcone and Matt Parent. The fast lap of the race, a 1:21.141, was turned by Justin Haley, surpassing the previous TA2 race record handily, a 1:22.961. In fact, all but four of the TA2 cars logged fast laps quicker than the previous track record.
TA3 and TA4 also competed on the weekend, joining the TA class in the multi-class with Randy Kinsland, in the No. 11 Kinsland Racing Chevrolet Corvette, and Brian Kleeman, in the No. 07 DWW Motorsports Ford Mustang, securing wins.
For Kinsland the TA4 class win marked a career first in his tenth appearance after five second place finishes and several occasions of last-lap heartbreak. Today, Kinsland put together a complete race— starting on pole and leading every lap, managing the No. 11 through traffic and heat alike, and turning a new class record 1:23.346 lap as well.
“It’s a great feeling to finally make it to the top," said Kinsland. “You get down to those last few laps, and you’re wondering, ‘what’s going to break now?’ Then I started to suck a little air, so I was wondering if I was going to run out of gas too. So the car made the distance— I didn’t really want to see the cautions, but I think they ended up helping me out."
Kinsland was joined on the TA4 podium by Sebring victor, Mark Boden, in the No. 46 Fall-Line Motorsports/ Calypso Porsche 911 GT3 Cup, who finished second and Conor Flynn, in the No. 95 Irish Mike’s Automotive Porsche 997, who finished third. Fall-Line teammates, Tim Kezman, in the No. 4 Fall-Line/ Calypso Porsche 911 GT3 Cup, and Tom Herb, in the No. 16 Fall-Line/ Calypso Porsche 911 GT Cup, would finish fourth and fifth, respectively.
Brian Kleeman’s victory marked his second in a row, setting him up for an early lead in his pursuit of the TA4 Championship. Kleeman’s No. 07 suffered a blown rotor in practice, with the team scrambling to rebuild the car in time for qualifying— a successful effort. Kleeman would set pole, survive an early race battle with Todd Napieralski, in the No. 39 Tremec/ SKF Chevrolet Camaro, and set a track record 1:25.296 lap on his way to the top step.
“That was a strategy race for us if there ever was one," said Kleeman. “I mean, tire-wear, heat, traffic— we were just trying to manage everything, trying to get out in the lead and then just not burn up the tires. The yellow flags helped us out a little bit, but also let Todd (Napieralski) catch up. And as good as these Pirellis are, they just get beat up at this track and they were pretty done by the end of the race. This feels like the start of something for us; the guys have really dialed in the car and put in so much work this weekend. It looks like we should do pretty well this season, so I’m pretty proud of that."
Napieralski would finish second while TA4 debutant JR Pesek, in the No. 00 Rennsport KC Ford Mustang, finished third. Chris Outzen, in the No. 97 DWW Motorsports Ford Mustang, and Steven Davison, in the No. 2 DaVinci Plastic Surgery Aston Martin Vantage GT4, completed the top five with fourth and fifth place finishes, respectively.
Napieralski’s Total Performance Racing team was awarded the Pitboxes.com Crew of the Race for their effort in fielding the No. 39 this weekend after having a motorist clip their trailer between races, leaving the team with a rental hauler fielded by a single crew member. Tim Kezman was awarded an additional COOLSHIRT Systems Cool Move of the Race for finishing fourth after a last minute arrival, forcing the No. 4 to miss qualifying.
The TA2 race was completed with a caution. The TA, TA3 and TA4 race underwent caution twice: a first full-course yellow that lasted from lap 31 to lap 36 after the No. 33 of Stanton Barrett hit the wall in turn five after a cut tire, and an ensuing yellow from lap 37 to 40 after the No. 99 of Lawrence Lepurage was stopped on course in turn eight. Both races ran for 102.15-miles, 45-laps around the 2.27-mile, ten turn modified road course.
The 2017 Trans Am Championship will return to the track next at Road Atlanta on May 13th alongside Formula Drift.