SEBRING, Fla. – Ernie Francis Jr. broke the Sebring Int’l Raceway track record for the second year in a row on Saturday, leading Trans Am Series presented by Pirelli qualifying in the TA class for the season-opening Sebring Speed Tour event.
Francis Jr. turned a lap of 1:59.224 in the No. 98 Future Star Ford Mustang, his 20th career pole in TA class competition. It extended his overall Trans Am record to 48 poles.
“It feels pretty great to start the season off with pole,” said Francis Jr. “The car’s been quick all weekend, but we were running on old tires. We switched to stickers for qualifying and it showed our true speed. We are really fast around this place and tomorrow our goal is to lead the whole way to secure the first win of the season.”
Tomy Drissi also broke the two-minute barrier, running 1:59.825 in the No. 8 Lucas Oil Chevrolet Camaro.
“The team’s done a good job all weekend, but unfortunately we got to the grid last and we should have been first,” Drissi said. “The team was working so hard to get everything done for the two cars. I laid back to give myself a hole. I had a pole lap going on lap two and I hit traffic. So frustrating. We still came back and managed the front row in the 1:59s. I really wanted a pole for the Lucas Oil family and the Burtin Racing team.
“All I can do tomorrow is go win.”
Adam Andretti put the No. 43 ECC/Anchor Bolt & Screw Dodge Challenger third at 2:00.647. He will be joined on the second row by Chris Dyson, who rebounded from an early spin in the hairpin to run 2:01.213 in the No. 20 Plaid Ford Mustang.
Justin Marks was fifth, followed by Simon Gregg.
Thomas Merrill captured the pole for the TA2 race, turning a lap of 2:06.524 in the No. 81 HP Tuners/Mike Cope Race Cars Ford Mustang.
“We worked hard all weekend, and my whole crew did an incredible job putting the car together,” said Merrill, capturing his second-career pole in the TA2 National class. He also has six additional poles in TA2 West.
Merrill has a personal score to settle with the demanding 3.74-mile Sebring circuit. Last year, he spun out on the final lap only a handful of turns shy of victory.
“We learned a lot from last year and coming back to the same track, we picked up where we left off, and we just got better,” Merrill said. “It’s been a really fun start to the year.”
Rafa Matos will start on the outside of the front row, running 2:07.000 in the No. 88 3-Dimensional Services Ford Mustang.
Misha Goikhberg was third, followed by Mike Skeen. Skeen retained the track record for the class by a mere .011 seconds.
Team SLR garnered the next two positions. Team owner and lead driver Scott Lagasse Jr. was fifth, one position ahead of teammate Connor Mosack.
Justin Oakes captured his third pole for his third start in the SGT category, with the Houston driver turning a lap of 2:09.878-seconds in the No. 11 Droneworks Corvette.
“We tried out Trans Am at COTA last year, had a blast,” Oakes said. “Then, we went to Road Atlanta and won, had even more fun, so the team and I talked and decided that we were going to chase the SGT championship this year. This is a good start to 2021 and our plan is to not slow down.”
Lee Saunders was second, with the defending champion running 2:12.523 in the No. 11 Droneworks Corvette. Making up the second row will be Aaron Pierce and James Candelaria.
Philip Di Pippo captured the GT pole with a lap of 2:27.937 in the No. 94 Sasco Sports Ford Mustang.
The TA2 race takes the green flag at 11:15 a.m. ET on Sunday, followed by the TA/SGT/GT event at 1:35 p.m. Both races will be 27 laps, with a 75-minute time limit.