Notes & Quotes: Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach

Didier Francesia, crew chief of the No. 14 ROKiT Chevrolet, has led an interesting life. Born in Paray Le Monial, France (near Lyon and the Magny Cours circuit), he started as a mechanic professionally in 1987. He worked his way through a variety of motorsports from Formula Renault to Formula 1 and eventually INDYCAR. Always smiling, Francesia has lived through some tough times too: two days after his father died, Francesia was burned after a gas explosion at a friend’s home. He went rock-climbing three weeks later! However, he has had some good times too like last year when he crewed the car that Castroneves drove to his fourth Indianapolis 500 victory. We asked him a few questions…

Q: What sparked your interest in racing and how did you get your start?

DF: “I started to race motorcycles when I was a teenager, then I raced rally cars briefly. I always loved speed and anything that goes fast.”

Q: Which series have you worked in and who among drivers have you worked with?

DF: “Formula Renault, Formula 3, Ice racing, Formula 1, Indy Lights, Champ car, Indy car, Sports car, Baja Trophy truck. The Drivers list is VERY long, so I’m just going to name a few. F1: Thierry Boutsen, Andrea De Cesaris, Alain Prost, Roberto Moreno, and Juan Pablo Montoya. In IndyCar: Dan Wheldon, Ryan Briscoe, Scott Dixon, Sebastien Bourdais, and Helio Castro Neves.”

Didier smiling back in 1991 at the South African Grand Prix.

Q: What are your goals with the AJ Foyt Racing team?

DF: “Goals for AJ Foyt racing are to win a few races this year and to become a championship contender in the next five years.”

Francesia handles the airjack during pitstops (pictured at rear of car).

Q: What race are you most looking forward to with Kyle and the No. 14 ROKiT team in the 2022 season and why?

DF: “Long Beach, Toronto, and, of course, the [Indy] 500. Long Beach because it’s a California race, and my heart will always be in California. Toronto, because it’s missing on my ‘palmarés’ [record of achievements], and the 500 because it would be so cool to win back-to-back.”

Q: You recently moved from California to Waller, Texas, what has that been like?

DF: “I lived in a few places in So Cal, mainly the Beach (Ventura) and the Mountains. I was in Lake Arrowhead the last five years, it’s a beautiful little mountain village. Living in Waller has been good so far, I like small towns and country living. It’s a little flat though, LOL.”

Q: What is your most memorable moment of your career thus far? Or top three?

DF: “Memorable moments? I can’t pick only one. Top 3: Qualifying P6 in F1 in Phoenix with one of the smallest teams in 1989 (driver Alex Caffi for Scuderia Italia which fielded Dallaras). Driving a chase truck, and doing pitstops at the Baja 1000. And, of course, the last lap of last year’s [Indy] 500, and climbing the fence with Helio.”

Francesia standing (fourth from right side) with his Baja 1000 crew.

Q: What is the greatest challenge you’ve faced?

DF: “Greatest challenge for me has been to move to different countries without speaking the language properly or at all, lol. I worked in England, Italy, Austria and ended up in Texas hahaha.”

Q: What are some things on your bucket list?

DF: “Racing wise: Pikes Peak and Bonneville [Salt Flats] Speed Week. Personally: Rope swinging off a huge rock face or off The Arch in Utah. I also would love to fly a jet pack.”

Three weeks after suffering serious burns (see below), Francesia was rock climbing.

Q: Do you get back to France often? If so, how often and where do you visit?

DF: “I don’t go back to France as much as I should, about every 4-5 years. mom is getting old and I’m gonna try to go more often.”

Q: What interests do you have outside of racing?

DF: “Snowboarding, surfing, anything that resembles a skateboard/long board, mountain biking, and, of course, motorcycles–my oldest passion for sure.”

Q: If you didn’t work in racing, what would you be doing?

DF: “I would probably work for Hollywood again building movie cars and props. I did that for a bit and it was super fun.”

Q: You have so many tattoos, so many stories – tell us about that ink!

DF: “Tattoos, I don’t have many, it’s only one by now lol!” First tattoo? “I was 18 — a little Ferrari horse on my shoulder.” Favorite? “The next one.” Tattoo with the most interesting story behind it: “I don’t know if it’s the most interesting, but when I got the bottom of my foot tattooed, the guy said you want a tattoo there???”

The train tattoo evolved from his younger days when he got involved in the occasional brawl. One recipient of Francesia’s right fist said, “It felt like I got hit by a train.”

Q: Do you have a personal motto?

DF: “My personal motto, I’m not sure if you can publish it, it’s ‘Don’t be a dick’.”

Q: What is something that few people know about you?

DF: “The people who really know me know that I love animals more than I love humans.”

Francesia and his fiancée Sybil have four dogs, all rescues: Sasha and Vega (pit bulls) and Bonnie and Clyde (German Shepherd and Husky mix).

Q: Have any pet peeves?

DF: “People who think they know everything. I still learn every day and I hope it never stops.”

Q: Do you have any advice for new mechanics entering the industry?

DF: “Hmmm… Stay humble, listen to the older guys, some of them at least lol, and stretch–your back will hurt later in life, lol.”

TATIANA CALDERÓN returns to the cockpit of the No. 11 ROKiT Chevrolet after sitting out the race at Texas Motor Speedway where teammate J.R. Hildebrand competed as Calderón is not racing on any ovals this season.

TC: “It’s been a long time since St. Pete and I can’t wait to be back in the car after a long month away! It’s going to be my first time in Long Beach and I have also never been to L.A. so there’s lots of on and off track discovering to do over the week. The track looks super fun to drive and it seems most drivers love it so I can’t wait to see how it feels in reality! I have done a lot of simulator work, watched plenty of onboards in preparation for it with the team, so hopefully this will help us get up to speed quicker in Free Practice. I think I learnt a lot in the first race weekend, I had plenty of time to digest everything from St. Pete and there is plenty of work to be done. I expect another big challenge this weekend but one I definitely relish.”

Calderón Fast Facts: Age 29…Born in Bogota, Colombia and now living in Miami…Began racing karts at age 9 and has competed in Formula 2, Renault Series Formula V8 3.5 (first female on podium in Bahrein-2017), GP3, European Formula 3, British Formula 3 Series (first female podium)…Test driver for the Alfa Romeo Formula 1 team for past four years…Enjoys tennis, water skiing and drinking coffee.

DALTON KELLETT will make his second start in the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach in the No. 4

K-Line Insulators USA Chevrolet. A main focus this year is improving his qualifying runs which he has done in the first two races of the year. He posted his best qualifying run to date in St. Petersburg, starting 14th, just behind teammate Kirkwood.

DK: “I’m excited to be back at a street circuit this weekend. Long Beach is one of the classic events in the IndyCar calendar. It’s a great track to drive and the event as a whole, both on TV and at the track, is really exciting for the fans. The layout has a good mix of tight and open corners and there are some opportunities to pass. From a technical perspective, I think we have a couple good setup directions from St. Pete that we will be looking at here. Continuing with the goal of focusing on qualifying, we’ll be working up to that throughout the first two practices, so we can put ourselves in the best position for a good start to the race.”

Pay it forward! Kellett will visit a small cadre of 25 exceptional students interested in STEM careers at San Pedro High School on Thursday to talk about his racing career and encourage them to pursue their STEM studies. On Friday, Kellett and his race engineer Mike Pawlowski will address 150 STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) students from the Long Beach Unified School District in the Long Beach Convention Center prior to practice. Inspiring students to pursue STEM careers is a personal passion of Kellett’s. Since 2018, he has worked with Ten80 Education’s National STEM League (NSL), as their brand ambassador. The NSL is an international K-12 engineering design competition using remote-controlled cars. He supports the teams, representing them in INDYCAR and engaging with them at their competitions and through online learning materials.

Kellett Fast Facts: Age 28…Born in Stouffville, Canada and lives in Indianapolis…Became engaged to Nicole Westra and they plan to wed on New Year’s Eve…Graduated from Queens University with a degree in Engineering Physics…Brand spokesman for Ten80 Education’s National STEM League…Enjoys rock climbing, backcountry skiing, camping, playing guitar, cooking and golf.

KYLE KIRKWOOD is also making his first start at Long Beach driving the No. 14 ROKiT Chevrolet.

Kirkwood advanced out of the first round of qualifying in his first street course event in St. Petersburg and led laps in his first ever race at Texas Motor Speedway.

KK: “I really love street courses. Long Beach will be all new to me this year with the Road to Indy never going while I was a part of the series. I have comfort up against walls and I feel that getting up to speed quick is one of my attributes, so I don’t think lack of experience will hurt us this weekend. We’ve shown great pace in the first two events this year with no justified result, hopefully third time is a charm for us this weekend in Long Beach.”

Kirkwood Fast Facts: Age 23…Born in West Palm Beach and lives in Jupiter, Florida… Only driver to win championships in all three divisions of the Road to Indy ladder system…Began racing karts at age 5, moved to cars (F4) in 2016 and dominated the F4 U.S. Championship with nine victories and six poles in 20 races…Won the 2017 Cooper Tires USF2000 title (12 wins in 14 races) and won 15 of 17 races to claim the F3 Americas Championship…Won the 2019 Indy Pro 2000 Championship Presented by Cooper Tires with nine victories and five poles in 16 races (RP Motorsports)…Won 2021 Indy Lights title (2020 season canceled due to pandemic) with 10 victories, seven poles in 20 races.

Past Performance at Long Beach: Dalton Kellett made his debut at Long Beach last September and finished 19th. AJ Foyt Racing’s best finish came in 2013 when Takuma Sato won after starting fourth, also the team’s best start. The team has five more top-10 finishes.

Last Race: At Texas Motor Speedway, J.R. Hildebrand brought home the team’s best finish of 14th. Dalton Kellett finished 17th and Kyle Kirkwood’s promising run ended while battling Devlin DeFrancesco resulting in Kirkwood being pushed up and hitting the wall just before halfway.

The race will be broadcast live by NBC on Sunday, April 10, at 3 p.m. ET. Qualifying (Saturday, 3 p.m. ET) and practice sessions (Friday, 6:15 p.m. ET, Saturday, 11:45 a.m. ET and Sunday, 12 noon ET) will be streamed live on Peacock Premium as will the post-race show. The INDYCAR Radio Network covers all on track sessions (race, qualifying and practices) which will air live on network affiliates, SiriusXM 160, and the INDYCAR App.