This isn’t your grandfather’s Trans Am Series, of course, but today’s version features drivers of a range of ages, racing experience, talent and even career goals.
There are plenty of NASCAR connections in this year’s Detroit doubleheader, including Cup driver Daniel Suarez.
Points leader Thomas Merrill says, “I think Trans Am should be where it was, and I think our involvement can help it grow.”
Reigning Trans Am Series TA2 Class Champion Thomas Merrill knows a good thing when he sees it.
And right now that good thing is the state of the Trans Am series presented by Pirelli.
Merrill, the 37-year-old driver of the No. 26 Mike Cope Race Cars Ford Mustang leads the points standings going into the 3 Dimensional Service Group sponsored doubleheader on the streets of Detroit. He records a win at Lime Rock – his first win in four races this year in the ultra-competitive TA2 class.
This isn’t your grandfather’s Trans Am Series, of course, but today’s version features drivers of a range of ages, racing experience, talent and even career goals. There are plenty of NASCAR connections in this year’s Detroit doubleheader, including Cup driver Daniel Suarez. Cup Series team co-owner Justin Marks, who won the TA race at Lime Rock last week, is also in Detroit for the TA2 test.
Then there’s two-time series champion and former Indy 500 Rookie of the Year Rafa Matos, who will face 15-year-old Brent Crews and 16-year-old Connor Zilisch. Crews and Zilisch are currently an impressive second and third in the points. Another driver to watch is Austin Green, son of 1994 NASCAR Xfinity Series champion David Green.
A native of California, Merrill is one of the field drivers who has found a home in Trans Am.
“My career has always been about taking opportunities and capitalizing on them,” said Merrill Car week. “I was lucky enough to join Trans Am about five or six years ago and really built a career for myself. I am on the older end of the spectrum compared to most drivers, but it took me a long time to find that possibility.
“I consider myself a Trans Am driver. A lot of drivers come through Trans Am on their way to NASCAR or elsewhere. I think that adds to it because it’s really competitive.”
How competitive? Well, it doesn’t get much better than four different winners in the first four races. Just ask Matos, Crews, Zilisch and Merrill.
Merrill has seen some kind of transformation in his more than five years on the series — and a positive one.
“When I got to the series, it was much smaller than it is now,” Merrill said. “My hope is that myself and some of the other Trans Am stalwarts can help grow Trans Am to what it was in its heyday, when it was a premier series, when we had manufacturer involvement.
“I really think it’s one of the best racing series out there, and as it continues to grow I hope it can get more exposure.”
Trans Am, especially in the 1980s and 1990s, had a lineup that included some of the greatest sports car racers of all time. Champions included Scott Pruett, Hurley Haywood, Tommy Kendall, Paul Gentilozzi, Scott Sharp and Boris Said.
Merrill, who was on the podium at Le Mans last year and won the Rolex 24 this year, says the fact that drivers from other series are watching Trans Am again shows that the series is moving in the right direction.
“My hope is that guys like Mike Skeen, who is at the top of the IMSA ladder every time he races in that series, will continue to come to our series and add some exposure like a Tommy Kendall used to,” said Merrill. “Following in the footsteps of Tommy Kendall has been an absolute dream for me.
“I think Trans Am should be where it was, and I think our involvement can help it grow. I’m trying to take ownership of my role in the series to help it grow, because it’s done so much for me in my career.”
John Clagett is the president of the Trans Am Series and he too likes what he sees.
“What it was in the ’80s, when we would race in Detroit, it was a one-class championship,” Clagett said. “And now it’s a five-class championship and TA2 seems to be shining at the moment.
“That’s for a lot of different reasons. It’s a price cap championship that’s technologically smart. It’s also kind of zeroed in as a NASCAR graduate school, so that’s made it very appealing to a lot of drivers who have aspirations to become NASCAR- to do racing.
“About 20% of the Daytona 500 grid was former TA2 drivers. They can touch it for a race or half a season or an entire season, but it turns out to be of value. The Trans Am category in the ’80s was so to IndyCar and NASCAR – that brought us Scott Pruett, Scott Sharp and Kendall.
“The TA2 is just on fire right now.”
Clagett adds that the excitement is also in the youth of the fields.
“We had 50 entrants in the two fields (TA2 is in Detroit this weekend) and more than half of our drivers were rookies or young guns 25 or younger,” he said. “That’s phenomenal. You let the karting kids come along, because a lot of them already have ambitions to become drivers at the NASCAR or IndyCar level. The migrations from karting to TA2 are underway. We have, Brent Crews, who came from karting to TA2 at the age of 14, have four victories.”
Crews is currently a Toyota Development driver for NASCAR, while rival Zilisch is in the Chevrolet Development p
Austin Green, age 22, is one of those “young guns” trying to make a name for himself in Trans Am. Green says Trans Am “definitely” could be a path to NASCAR.
“Especially in the last two or three years, Trans Am has really gotten more attention,” says Green, who drives the No. 89 Chevrolet Camaro. “And with the level of competition, we have fields of 30, 33 cars each weekend (30 are entered this weekend in the TA2 field in Detroit), there are probably 10 to 15 drivers who have a good chance of winning. The field is really strong.”
Green is currently 10th in points with a second-place finish in the season-opening race at Sebring.
“I don’t think we’ve ever positioned the Trans Am Series the way we do now,” Clagett said. “There are opportunities for those who want to go somewhere, but it’s also, as Rafa Matos says, ‘It’s a destination now.’ He doesn’t want to go anywhere else, it’s where he wants to be.
“You had a bunch of guys, maybe five years ago, it was like, ‘What am I going to do now?’ While now, now that it’s grown up and around them and the competition is so fierce, it’s like, ‘I don’t have to go anywhere.’
“You couldn’t have planned it to come out this way. We are very happy.”