Knoxville win continues special year for Francis
By Todd TurnerDirtonDirt.com managing editor
KNOXVILLE, Iowa (Sept. 29) — Last year’s runner-up finish at the Lucas Oil Late Model Knoxville Nationals was a bright spot — and richest weekend of the season — for Steve Francis during a frustrating, winless campaign among the longest of his 29-year career. | Complete Knoxville coverage
This year’s validating victory at Knoxville Raceway — and again his richest weekend of the season with $47,000 — cemented 2012’s comeback for the 45-year-old Ashland, Ky., driver as he continues one of the most satisfying seasons of his career.
The late-career blending of Francis, one of the sport’s most successful Dirt Late Model racers over the past 20 years, and Cowpens, S.C., chassis builder Barry Wright, a Hall of Famer fielding a national touring team for the first time since the 1990s, has etched itself among 2012’s top storylines.
The Francis-Wright combination enjoyed its seventh major victory of the season Saturday at the Sprint Car Capital of the World as Francis led the final 30 of 100 laps to rank among the career highlights for the accomplished racer from northeastern Kentucky.
“I’ve had a very, very fortunate career if I don’t win another race,” Francis said. "I’ve won Eldora, I’ve won the Dirt Track World Championship, I’ve won Charlotte the $50,000 — and I’ve just won Knoxville tonight. No disrespect to any of those other races, but this is probably the biggest win of my career.”
Like any racer competing more than 50 races per season over more than two decades, Francis has hit highs and lows. His No. 15 has racked up multiple series championships and reached victory lane in the sport’s biggest events. And a devastated Francis learned to race on following the unexpected death of Chris Francis, his brother and long-time crew chief, 11 years ago at age 32.
Recent seasons included the upheaval of being the rare driver to switch national tours as Francis jumped from the World of Outlaws Late Model Series, where he’s the fourth all-time winningest driver, to the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series. And after more than 15 years with Rocket Chassis, Francis struggled to get comfortable in different chassis brands. He endured 2011’s winless season while fighting of mechanical bugaboos that including losing an air cleaner late in his second-place finish at Knoxville.
But the Francis-Wright combination clicked right out of the trailer at Florida Speedweeks with three victories, quickly injecting confidence into the team that Francis has complimented for its big-picture vision instead of post-race finger-pointing.
“This is probably the most fun year I’ve had since my brother passed, and I think that has a lot to do with it,” Francis said Saturday after his $40,000 victory at Knoxville. "I’ve had some great car owners throughout my career, but driving for Barry and (his son) Lance ... it’s like there’s no pressure. Barry, we sit in the truck and argue — we sat in the truck and argued after we hot-lapped tonight.”
After third- and second-place finishes in Thursday and Friday’s preliminary features, the team had made some changes to improve the car for Saturday evening practice. But Francis was nearly a second-per-lap off the pace off the fastest cars.
“We were in a fire drill putting her all back the other way,” Francis said. "We changed one or two small things on the race car to try to help ourselves.”
The fixes weren’t perfect — a “push” hampered him for a few laps after restarts — but when he overtook Brady Smith on the 71st lap, it was soon clear Francis was driving the winning car.
He’s grateful the union with the Wrights has been successful, but he reminded fans in victory lane that it’s not because they’ve blown the budget.
“We’ve got everything over there that looks nice, but what a budget Barry and myself race on,” Francis said. “We’ve had two race cars and two motors all year long.”
It’s turned out to be just what Francis needed.
“It’s been a lot of years ... I know how lucky I am. How many people get to make a living doing exactly what they wanted all their life,” he said. "There are sacrifices ... my daughter doesn’t get to come as much as she would like. There are sacrifices with this sport, but nights like tonight make it all worth while.”
Twenty-nine years ago isn’t too long to remember his teen-aged misadventures in trying to steer a Late Model for the first time.
"My first race, it was 1983 when I went to my first race,” he recalled, "and I had a pickup truck, I had a little toolbox in the back that had three drawers in it — one of those little three-drawer Craftsman — and a spare front tire and a spare rear tire, and no tire rack or nothing on my trailer and a little pickup truck I pulled it with.
“To come from that to what we’ve been fortunate enough to get now ... The Lord’s blessed me. I know how lucky am I to be where I’m at.”