Sebring is a punishing track, and winning races there is often as much about survival as it is about fast lap times. This year, Thomas Merrill had both, and an extra helping of luck on his side, as his Wilwood brakes helped him go from nearly last to win the Trans Am Series presented by Pirelli TA2 season-opener February 21st. This victory was particularly sweet after a mechanical failure last year while leading the race.
Heartbreak at Sebring 2020
At the Sebring Trans Am 2 race last year, Tom Merrill was fastest in practice, qualified in 3rd, and lead most of the actual race. But the trophy doesn't go to the driver who leads the most laps if they don't cross the finish line first at the checkers. On a restart before the last lap, while in the lead, something broke in the differential, and as if that weren't bad in itself, the broken piece locked up the rear wheels and spun the car.
Just before the car came to rest with the wheels locked, it went backward and dislodged the piece jamming the rear end. Merrill was able to get the car into gear and continue, slowly, but was passed by 13 other cars before he could cross the finish line. Of little consolation after leading right up until the end, he did manage to finish on the lead lap, ahead of 14 other cars.
Thomas Merrill placed 4th in points at the end of the abbreviated 2020 Trans Am TA2 season.
Sebring Sequel 2021
Thomas Merrill started his 2021 Sebring run better even than last year, qualifying on the pole. Things got hectic at the start, though, with Mike Skeen and Scott Lagrasse Jr (fourth and fifth qualifiers, respectively) sandwiching Merrill between them, heading into turn three on the first lap. Thomas got tapped enough to spin but luckily did not damage the car and avoided the tire barrier and gravel trap. He quickly rejoined the race but was scored in 24th out of 26 cars by the end of lap one.
Sebring is a reasonably long track, but Merrill was still lucky to get back on the track, racing without going a lap down. Merrill's good luck worked against Jim Gallagher on the third lap, as Gallagher got too hard on the brake and spun with help from the infamous Sebring bumps. His car was undamaged, but it wouldn't fire up again, and it was half on the racing surface, so a full course yellow was flown to tow it off. When green flag racing resumed on the sixth lap, Merrill was listed in 17th place, thanks to attrition and some skillful driving in the laps before the caution.
Bunched up behind the pace car, the front runners were within sight, even from the back of the pack. Not surprisingly, as the car and driver with the fastest qualifying time, it did not take Merrill long to move up toward the front. On the first lap after the restart, he passed five other racers to be just out of the top ten. He was into eighth by the end of the next lap and shortly after that made it up to fifth.
Thomas Merrill maintained his fifth-place position until lap 13 when he was able to take 4th. Every lap, he was closing in on the rest of the leaders, with consistently clean, fast lap times. On lap 20, Merrill passed Connor Mosack to get into a podium position, challenging Mike Skeen for second place. Only a few laps later, lap 23, Skeen relaxed and let Merrill pass him for second. This probably seemed the smart move with five whole laps to go and the leader more than seven seconds ahead of them. Why keep pushing and blocking, putting strain on car and driver, if neither of them would be able to catch Rafa Matos, the leader?
It was a fantastic show of driving on Merrill's part to be able to go from nearly last to the second position, all under green. With 20 minutes of racing time left (the race is run for 75 minutes or 27 laps), it was anybody's guess if he was going to be able to reel in the leader. Thomas Merrill's lap times were consistently fastest on the track, but Rafa Matos was driving a very similar Ford Mustang. Smart money said Merrill would finish a respectable second place.
Then, while running in the top five, Connor Mosack had a flat tire at Bishops Bend, sending him into the wall and bringing a full course yellow. Shortly afterward, the race was red-flagged so that a wrecker and safety crews could attend to the driver and remove the car from danger. This set up a classic "green, white, checker flag" restart with Matos, Merrill, and Steen fighting it out for the win.
When the green flag was waved, Mike Skeen jumped into second, ahead of Merrill again. For most of the lap, they were practically side-by-side until Thomas Merrill got on the brakes a split second later and passed Skeen on the outside going through turn ten.
With just a lap to go, it still looked as if Matos had the win in the bag, but Merrill kept the pressure on him. Coming through the Lemans Complex, Merrill was able to pull up next to him when Matos went just a bit wide coming out of turn 16 and onto the Ullman Straight. They drag raced, with Merrill getting ahead, then Matos, going down into turn 17. Coming through 17, Thomas Merrill refused to lose, rounding the corner on the inside with the back of the car dancing over the bumps, displaying extraordinary throttle discipline and car control.
Heading to the start-finish, there was no way Merrill could be caught. Exiting the last corner several miles an hour faster than Matos and the rest of the pack kept him ahead to the checkered flag. After the heartbreak of last year's race and his spin on lap one, Thomas Merrill has got to be over the moon about this win.
You can watch the whole race on the Trans Am Series YouTube channel, but we have cued it up to the final two laps for you here.
Images courtesy of Trans Am