This isn't your grandfather's Trans Am Series, to be sure, but today's version includes drivers who run the gamut of age, racing experience, talent and even career goals.
There's 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 weekend 3 Dimensional Service Group-sponsored doubleheader on the Streets of Detroit. He's coming off 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, to be sure, but today's version includes drivers who run the gamut of age, racing experience, talent and even career goals. There's 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 last week at Lime Rock, is also in Detroit for the TA2 test.
Then there's two-time series champion and past Indy 500 Rookie of the Year Rafa Matos, who will battle the likes of 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.
Merrill, a California native, is one of the drivers in the field who has found a home in Trans Am.
"My career has always been about taking the opportunities and running with them," Merrill told Autoweek. "I've been fortunate enough to join Trans Am about five or six years ago and really built a career for myself. I'm on the older side of the spectrum compared to most drivers, but I spent a long time kind of finding that opportunity.
"I consider myself a Trans Am driver. A lot of drivers come through Trans Am on their way to NASCAR or somewhere else. 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 race. Just ask Matos, Crews, Zilisch and Merrill.
Merrill in his five-plus years in the series has seen a transformation of sorts—and a positive one at that.
"When I joined 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 into what it was in the 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'm hopeful it can gain more notoriety."
Trans Am, especially in the 1980s and '90s sported a lineup that included some of the greatest sports car racers of any era. 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 at the Rolex 24 this year, says that the fact that drivers for other series are looking at 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 notoriety like a Tommy Kendall used to," Merrill said. "To walk in Tommy Kendall's footsteps 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 is the one that seems to shine right now.
"That's for many number of reasons. It's a price-capped championship that's smart technologically. It's also been kind of zeroed in as a NASCAR finishing school, so that's made it very attractive for a lot of drivers that have aspirations to to NASCAR racing.
"About 20% of the Daytona 500 grid was former TA2 drivers. They may touch it for one race or half a season or a full season, but it is showing to be of value. The Trans Am category in the '80s was like that 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 competitors in the two fields (TA2 is in Detroit this weekend) and more than half of our drivers were rookies or young guns 25 years or younger," he said. "That's phenomenal. You're getting the karting kids coming up because a lot of them already have aspirations of wanting to be a driver at the NASCAR or IndyCar level. The migrations from karting right into TA2 is happening. We've got, Brent Crews, who came went from karting to TA2 at 14 years old, and he has four wins."
Crews is currently a Toyota Development driver for NASCAR, while rival Zilisch is in the Chevrolet Development program.
Austin Green, at 22, is one of those "young guns" trying to make a name for himself in Trans Am. Green says that Trans Am "absolutely" can be a path to NASCAR.
"Especially the last two or three years, Trans Am has really gotten more attention," said Green, who drives the No. 89 Chevrolet Camaro. "And with the competition level, we have fields of 30, 33 cars any given weekend (30 are entered in the TA2 field in Detroit this weekend) there's probably 10 to 15 drivers that have a good shot at the win. The field is really strong."
Green is currently 10th in the points with a runner-up in the season-opening race at Sebring.
"I don't think we've ever had the Trans Am Series positioned like it is right now," Clagett said. "There's opportunities for those who want to go somewhere, but it's also, as Rafa Matos says, 'It's now a destination.' 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 next?' Whereas now, as it's grown up and around them and the competition is so fierce, it's like, 'I don't need to go anywhere.'
"You couldn't have planned it to come out this way. We're very happy."