While coaching Spec 911s at a Porsche Racing Club event, Thomas Merrill and Richard Diehl put their heads together to climb another rung of the racing ladder. The two had met earlier at a Skip Barber course, and because they had immediate rapport, Diehl had started asking Merrill for advice on the often complex process of moving up. Which series would offer more speed, lower operating costs, and better camaraderie between the drivers?
With two decades of experience, Merrill presented Diehl a nugget of wisdom that would save him countless headaches and heartaches. He suggest Diehl to start racing a car which he didn’t adore quite like he did his Porsche. “To go for gaps, brake late, and push hard, you can’t be in love with your car,” Diehl notes.
That was one of the reasons he found Trans Am’s TA2 category appealing. Perhaps the most obvious draw was the tube-framed, big-bored TA2 was a lot quicker than the Spec 911. Additionally, the series makes major strides to limit costs. As far as professional categories are concerned, it is one of the more affordable. The idea of owning a car in a professional series only sweetened the proposition.
Within the course of a year, Diehl had hired the ace who helped him get his foot into TA2. Now a two-car effort, Merrill and Diehl turn the steering wheels for Big Diehl Racing. They packed their bags and set off for Indianapolis, where they — one of the few teams based on the West Coast — would partake in the Berryman Muscle Car Challenge.
Preparation and Testing
As this was Big Diehl’s first time at Indy, they had some homework to do beforehand. Merrill ran a few laps on iRacing, though he’s wary to what simulators can offer; “I don’t practice on the simulators too much, since I don’t want to develop any irrelevant habits. I limit my studying prior to an event to keep an open mind; I tend to adapt better that way,” says Merrill.
Diehl has a similar take on virtual preparation. “Occasionally, I’ll watch some onboard footage to get a sense of the track, however, I use the simulators mostly for orientation,” he adds. As accurate as modern simulators are, there are always some differences.
On Thursday, the first official practice day for TA2, the teams were allotted three practice sessions to begin setting the car up with the proper Pirellis in place. With a sense of the track’s details, the two compared notes before getting their Mustangs dialed in properly. For this, they enlisted some of the big guns in the TA2 world.
Finding the Right Setup
Tim Barber and Chris Drysdale of TFB Performance, long-time partners with Merrill, helped provide a baseline setup and started adjusting to the low-grip surface. “Our main problem was finding more grip,” Merrill begins; the track offers an unusually low level of adhesion. Through trial and error, understanding the tire characteristics, and bouncing ideas off of one another, they were able to chance a few educated guesses to refine the car’s handling.
One of the less obvious contributors to a strong setup is clear communication. Barber and Merrill both speak the mysterious language known only to driver-coaches, and therefore understand one another when relaying changes in the car’s behavior. By having this extensive setup experience and being able to describe setup changes in the same parlance, they can avoid headaches and wasted time.
In addition to the slippery surface, the course features a bevy of odd features which complicate the setup process. “Indy incorporates slow, fast, and banked corners, as well as a very long straight,” starts Diehl. Another of the main concerns was making the car supple enough to handle the variety of curb heights at Indy. “For this, we didn’t change our spring rates, but instead we used some back-pocket trickery to make the car compliant enough to handle the curbs,” states Merrill.
At this point in their campaign with the TA2 Mustang, they’re still learning the car. For instance, they adjusted the rear wing for more downforce and found no difference in top speed. Accompanying drag is something taken for granted with racing cars, but with the TA2 machines — not the most aerodynamic cars around — it seems drag is not a significant issue, even with the long straights and serious humidity at Indianapolis.
Qualifying and Tire Life
As their fastest practice time dictated the starting position in qualifying, they were afforded an early start and a relatively clear track ahead, which helped reduce the number of things to think about. Still, they had to get the tires up to working temperature quickly, and avoid over-exuberant driving, since the tires they use in qualifying must be used to start the race.
The qualifying session was only 20 minutes long, although most teams only ran a handful of laps in that timeframe. Though they fell shy of their target lap times, Merrill and Diehl both learned more about their setup, which informed their race setup. Even a less-than-ideal qualifying performance can be useful in less obvious ways.
Ultimately, Merrill qualified Fifth with a time of 1:30.9. He was later promoted to Fourth after the Third-place car was scrutinized in tech and found to have an irregular venturi intake system. Diehl took a more conservative approach; running most of the session to better learn the course. In the end, he’d qualified Fifteenth and hoped he’d reap the benefits of mechanical attrition. As it turned out, this was a wise course of action.
A Calm Start
Both drivers took simple approaches to the race. “My general strategy is to drive as well as I can without sliding the tires,” Merrill says. Of course, this is very hard to do when situated at the pointy end of the pack and jockeying for position. Diehl simply aimed to keep his nose clean at the start, and drive as quickly as he could.
The field gridded-up for the rolling start with points leader Rafa Matos on pole in the No. 88 3-Dimensional Services Chevrolet Camaro and Scott Lagasse in the No. 95 SLR/ Fields Racing Chevrolet Camaro alongside. Merrill started directly behind Lagasse, who shoved Matos after the green flag was thrown. That bit of aggression helped put Merrill and Lagasse ahead of Matos in Turn 1. Big Diehl was off to an auspicious start.
Truly, the first three were running head and shoulders above the rest; generating a 20-second lead by the 30th lap. On the Fifth lap, Matos would regain his leading position by overtaking Lagasse with a wonderful piece of out-braking (14:48). “When Matos got by, I decided to also pass Lagasse. But Lagasse was blocking; forcing me to use a more aggressive approach,” Merrill begins.
In the heat of battle, Merrill then hurried a downshift by releasing the clutch a hair too soon, which caused detrimental wheelhop at the rear axle. This resulted in a trip through the weeds (27:25), but thankfully, he managed to avoid what could’ve been a very unfortunate collision. Despite this one instance of exuberant driving, Merrill had been playing the long game and using his tires intelligently. Though traffic had allowed Matos to stretch a lead, there was still plenty of time to strike — a yellow would only improve the chances.
After Joe Napoleon parked his Camaro in the dirt, the group was bunched together again for a restart on the 35th lap. During this fortunate shuffle, officials ruled that Matos accelerated before the green flag was shown and was issued a drive-through penalty, which handed Lagasse the lead; just ahead of Merrill.
Frantic Final Laps
“Lagasse and I would continue to beat and bang after the restart (59:43), damaging our cars and allowing Tony Buffamonte to catch up; even though he was, at one point, easily 30-seconds behind,” says Merrill. Even with damage to his bodywork and clearly worn tires, Lagasse was able to put his shoulders out and maintain the lead temporarily. To reiterate a point from earlier, the aerodynamics weren’t crucial here.
Battling with Lagasse, Merrill started ducking and weaving wherever he could in an attempt to sneak by. Lagasse, whose stock car racing showed in his defensive moves, would brake-check him and damage his front end (1:07:56). Fortunately, the damage was mostly cosmetic, and Merrill was able to continue his charge.
With two laps to go, Merrill managed to get around the floundering Lagasse, who was then promptly bumped and spun by Buffamonte. “[Buffamonte] had the same struggles as I did with Lagasse, which lead to his contact and eventual penalty,” says Merrill. There’s a limit to how much pushing and shoving TA2 allows, and these nudges piqued the curiosity of the officials.
In fact, the officials deemed Buffamonte’s nudge too much, and handed him a 10-second penalty that sent him back to Fourth after Matos passed him to take Third place. Though the provisional finishing order would be Merrill, Bupp, and Matos, Matos would later be excluded from the results for non-compliance with Trans Am Rule Book Article 14.1.1 and Addendum A.2.1 – Restrictor. Diehl, after driving a cool and consistent race, brought his car home in 15th place. Minimal damage and a win: quite the showing for the first time to Indianapolis!
However, the West Coast and East Coast divisions stood on separate podiums, hence the photo below. Merrill, Diehl, and David Smith stood proudly atop the podium as the first three West Coast finishers — plus Merrill had the added pleasure of being the overall winner.
With strong competition, regular fighting, fair regulations, and an entertaining amount of slip, there is plenty the TA2 category offers. In addition to the ability to rub fenders, what doesn’t sound appealing about 500 horsepower? Quite simply, there’s a purity to the TA2 category. As Merrill elaborates, “There’s no electronics, no driver aids; it’s just the car and you. It’s also a very rewarding car to drive. The racing is great because everyone essentially starts with the same package, and it’s remarkably competitive, which makes winning even more special.”
What’s more — a well-organized outfit can show up, put in a few storming laps, and if they bide their time correctly, stand atop the podium of one of America’s most-revered road racing categories. Sounds like a wonderful way to spend a weekend.
For more on these rewarding TA2 cars, and how to get the most of them, read this in-depth piece here.
For more information on Thomas Merrill, you can visit his personal site here.