Steve has driven Rocket& ...
Steve has driven Rocket“ house” cars to victory lane in the past, primarily in limited roles and special situations predicated by travel, manpower and other logistical concerns. The Francis-Richards duo has been a lethal combination to their competitors with Francis’ continued successes playing a consistently large part of the overall sales efforts of Rocket Chassis. (See www.rocketchassis.com).
“ I am very excited with the opportunity to drive the Valvoline, MOPAR Parts Rocket house car next season,” comments Francis from his Ashland, KY shop.“ My move to Rocket as the house driver will put me back in a situation of working directly with a lot of people that I was with in 1999 when we had a very successful season,” comments Francis from his Ashland, KY shop.
Francis has essentially served as a‘ salesman by performance’ in the success encountered by Rocket Chassis for the past half-dozen seasons behind the wheel of his own Rocket, the Action Auto Mart red number 15 machine and more recently in the Valvoline/MOPAR Parts sponsored Dodge Intrepid owned by Steve Francis Motorsports. The new pairing should put added heat on the competition during the 2002 season.
“ Steve has always been one of the leaders in testing here at Rocket Chassis,” notes Mark Richards, president of Rocket Chassis and team-owner of the new Valvoline/MOPAR Parts“ Rocket 1” car. “ In the past, Steve has been able to give us solid input from his experiences at the track and when his travel allowed him to test our research and development products here at the shop’s testing grounds,” explains Richards. “ Now, with Steve’s permanent role as the driver for Rocket Chassis, it will enable us an opportunity at more testing which we hope will keep our learning stage on the cutting edge.”
The new Valvoline/MOPAR Parts“ Rocket 1” car will be unveiled and displayed this week in Indianapolis, IN as part of the Performance Racing Industry (PRI) trade show. The car will be displayed within the MOPAR Parts/Dodge booth display at the PRI show. Richards also points out that the team, which has been assembled for the 2002 season, as well as the continued involvement and support from organizations that have already been involved with either Steve Francis Motorsports or Rocket Chassis, or both will have a positive impact.
“ The depth of personnel and quality of the team was one of the most important pieces of the puzzle, the other key ingredient is Steve’s knowledge and input and his ability to communicate that information back to the team,” exclaimed Richards. “ We have the proper balance of team members for this effort with everyone having all worked together with Steve in the past. Chad Haney, Anthony Tomaro and Joe Paxton will all be involved in the team’s day-to-day activities here at Rocket Chassis while Ronnie Hackworth will work directly with Steve during the week and join the other team members on the weekends. They have all traveled with Steve before and each have proven successes in their individual and team performances.” Richards continues,“ MOPAR Parts, Valvoline and other product support companies who have been involved in the past will remain with Steve and the team’s endeavors. I feel confident that Steve will give a 100% effort and, in turn, everyone here at Rocket Chassis have a 100% commitment invested in Steve, so we have a lot of reasons to be excited about next season.”
During the 1999 dirt late model racing season, Francis nearly swept the plate clean as he won major events including, the Dirt Track World Championship, the World 100, the Big Johnson National Championship, the Commonwealth Cup along with three UDTRA wins. Francis is also the only driver in the history of the STARS Renegade DirtCar Series to claim the STARS tour title in three consecutive seasons, pulling off that phenomenal feat from 1996-1998.
During the 2001 campaign on the UDTRA tour, Francis came within a single championship point of becoming the first driver to lay claim to the national title on both the UDTRA and STARS circuits. Francis’ run for the championship came up literally a car length short of the crown as he posted his second consecutive runner-up finish in the UDTRA national championship chase. Had he been able to pull off one more late-race pass for position, the title would have been his, but all was not loss as Francis again posted impressive results.
“ One point short is a pretty tough way to loose the title,” Francis notes,“ But at least a Rocket driver (Rick Eckert) won it and on top of that he’s a very good friend,” points out Francis referring to fellow competitor and long-time friend Eckert who prevailed following the 43-race 2001 UDTRA season by the unbelievable margin of 6,535 to 6,534 championship points. “ At least it was exciting for the fans, it certainly was for myself and Rick. We’ll just try to improve by another position next year and finally get the title, that’s our goal.”
As noted by Richards, Francis’ new union with Rocket Chassis will also see the return of sponsoring partners The Valvoline Company and MOPAR Parts with powerplants supplied by Dodge through Gary Stanton Racing Engines once again in 2002.
“ Valvoline has been a real pleasure to work with,” says Francis. “ They have quality products which we use in our racing program and the opportunity to work with their corporate representatives in promotional and charitable matters have been both rewarding and educational to me as a person and a professional racer,” Francis points out. “ The MOPAR Parts contribution to our team is a unique one with a lot of horsepower in regards to support. They have provided us with proven engines and strong engineering support which is channeled to our team through Gary Stanton Racing Engines. I’ve known Gary for quite a while and have a lot of confidence in the pieces that he provides. It goes without saying that the MOPAR Parts support has had a strong impact on the continued strength of our racing program and we are certainly appreciative of their backing.”
Francis won’t close the doors entirely on his family owned racing program, Steve Francis Motorsports, as he plans on operating the team in a limited role throughout the 2002 season.“ We’ll keep one race-ready car at my shop in Ashland that I’ll race in several events next year,” says Steve.“ Teaming up with Mark Richards and Rocket this season will give me more time to spend with my family. My wife Angie and our daughter will be able to travel on the road with me in the motor home. That will be a positive change that I have been seeking to give me a better balance between my responsibilities to the team and my family and I’m looking forward to that.”
Family is one thing that Francis certainly understands. It was during the stretch run of his championship drive in August of this past season when Steve and the team lost one of its key members with the sudden and unexpected death of Steve’s brother, crew chief and business partner Chris Francis. The shock of the loss bore a tremendous hurt and burden on Steve, but sheer determination and a tenacious grit to try and win the title in memory of his brother fueled Steve’s efforts throughout the balance of the season. The example shown by Francis’ perseverance through the tragedy earned the respect of a lot of folks within the stock car world and clearly exhibited the true nature and personality of Steve Francis as a winner, both on the track and in life.
“ Steve had a great season, even though it was a really rough year in some ways for him," commented 2001 UDTRA Champion Rick Eckert. "Losing a brother and partner there late in the going, was very tough on him. He’s a really good guy and we’ve traveled up and down the road together for probably four or five years and hang out when we’re not racing.” Eckert adds,“ When it comes down to racing our goal is to win and that’s how both of us are. I forgot who it said it, but I think it was a racer who once said the only thing better than beating an enemy is beating a friend,” Eckert says with a laughs,“ And there’s some truth to that as I learned this year, but I’m looking forward to racing with Steve again next year and I know that he is going to be one of the guys to beat and that he will try to return the favor in 2002."
Veteran racer Freddy Smith, one of short-track competition’s winningest drivers of all-time, had his observing eyes on Steve Francis throughout the season and was impressed with the‘ never give up’ approach taken in the midst of the challenging turn of events brought on by the death of Chris Francis.
“ Steve took that situation in stride and it had to have been very tough on him emotionally,” Smith observed. “ He didn’t quit and by not stopping it had to have been hard on him cause he was so used to his brother being there with him and taking care of the car and all,” continues Smith. “ He didn’t wear it on his sleeve and he kept his chin up all along and showed what kind of person he really is. I don’t know if I could have done it, what would you have done?” Smith asks, then answers his own question,“ No, I can’t imagine what it was like for him to deal with the situation,” says Smith,“ I’ve just never had to walk in those shoes before. Usually when we are on the road as a group of racers and families, Steve likes to stay to himself and doesn’t really mix around with the crowd. He studies hard at what he and his team are doing with their car and that’s what it takes, but he seldom comes around to check on what your doing. Maybe if you’re running really good and he thinks you’ve hit on a certain setup, he might come over and talk for a little while, but he respects the work of other people too,” added Smith. “ Francis gave it everything he had to try and win that championship and I’m sure that his brother had to be on his mind the whole time, but until someone is in that kind of situation, you don’t know how they will react. We all saw how Steve acted and it took a lot of courage to continue. He showed a lot of people what kind of person he really is,” concluded Smith. “ he’s more than a good racer, he’s a good person.”
Seems Eckert and Smith are not alone in their assessment of Steve Francis. Several recent postings to the Dirt Late Model Fan 4M of the www.chasinracin.com message board as to who should be named the Dirt Late Model Racer of the Year serve as examples of a large consensus of fans on Steve Francis’ 2001 efforts.
‘ I would nominate Steve Francis; he is an amazing driver, consistent, professional, a terrific competitor who faced the greatest adversity this season and still had the focus and determination to continue to compete at the highest level and come within one point of the UDTRA championship. A true champion in my book. (Dayton, TN)
'I am a diehard Mike Duvall fan and think Scott Bloomquist has immense talent. But when it comes to having a successful year while overcoming over-whelming adversity I feel my vote could only go to "The Kentucky Colonel" Steve Francis. (Union, SC)
The mention of Mike Duvall brings up another topic that is near to Steve Francis’ heart. Following the sudden death of Chris Francis, Steve and a key group of leaders in the Dirt Late Model world got together in order to form a benevolence fund which would offer support to the immediate financial needs of those needing aid while also memorializing Chris. The‘ Chris Francis Memorial Fund’, a benevolent project for Late Model Drivers, Crews and Families through DIRT RACING OUTREACH Ministries was established. The fund’s first recipient was Mike Duvall following a hard crash in a late-season race at Cherokee Speedway (Gaffney, SC) in which Duvall was seriously injured and hospitalized. Fortunately Duvall is now recovering and is truly grateful for the fund and the assistance, which it has provided his family.
“ The gift that our family received from the Chris Francis Memorial Fund was a blessing to my heart and to the family,” comments Mike Duvall from his Cowpens, SC race shop. “ It stunned me when I opened the envelope and there was the check and that picture of Chris enclosed. It brought tears to my eyes when I opened it and looked at that photo of Chris standing on that tire rack,” Duvall exclaims. “ Anyone who knew Chris knew that he was a die-hard racer and we all know that he would be proud to have his name associated with such a good cause. That boy was a good person and none of us know why he was taken from us, but I now know firsthand that the Lord is using his memory to help others. The memorial fund is very needed, it’s a good thing not just because it helped me out personally, but because we’ve needed something like this for a long time and I’m very grateful and appreciative that it was there to help me out when I needed it.” Duvall added,“ There was something about that picture of Chris that really got to me and let me know what a blessing the fund provided.”
Board members of the‘ Chris Francis Memorial Fund’ include racing champions Mike Balzano, Ray Cook and Steve Francis, as well as Debbie Reed of the DIRT RACING OUTREACH Ministries and Rhonda Hackworth Francis, the widow of Chris Francis. Complete details, contact and donation information on the‘ Chris Francis Memorial Fund’ can be found by visiting www.stevefrancismotorsports.com and clicking on the appropriate logo for the fund or by going directly to the fund’s site at www.dirtamerica.com/chrisfrancis.htm. Currently a silent auction is being conducted to increase contributions to the benevolence fund at the web site of DIRT RACING OUTREACH Ministries, www.4dro.com. The fund-raising auction is scheduled to continue through the 9th of December, with bids and donated items still welcome.
“ Initially there was a little confusion over the purpose of the fund,” says Steve Francis on the memorial benevolence assistance named in memory of his brother Chris. “ Thankfully Chris’ family was taken care of through other means, but there are a lot of people out there that run into hard times due to misfortunes on or off the track or other untimely situations. This fund is designed for those people and I am certain that Chris would be proud of that fact,” states Steve. “ We have formed a board which makes the decisions based on the individual circumstances and everyone in the racing community has been extremely supportive of the positive opportunity which our misfortune has created for others. I’m just glad to know that we can all help each other when needed and especially glad that the fund was able to help Mike (Duvall) in his time of need,” Francis concluded.
In other news related to the Francis racing efforts, the brand new Steve Francis die-cast model of the Valvoline Extreme Machine dirt late model has been unveiled and is available for purchase from the team’s souvenir retailer by calling Trackin-N-Dirt Racing Collectibles at (870) 862.1118 or by sending a message via the team’s web site at