Triumph for Thomas Merrill, Heartbreak for Rafa Matos in Season Finale at COTA; Merrill and Holden Crowned 2022 TA2 Champions
November 7, 2022
AUSTIN, Texas (November 6, 2022) ? Hollywood couldn’t have written a more exciting ending to the Trans Am Series presented by Pirelli’s TA2 season finale at Circuit of The Americas, where Thomas Merrill overcame nearly impossible odds to win the 2022 TA2 championship. However, his perfect day meant heartbreak for Rafa Matos, who appeared to have the championship wrapped up before the green flag waved. Matos suffered insurmountable adversity, which ended his day early and cost him his third TA2 title.
Coming into the Mission Foods Austin SpeedTour with a 32-point deficit, Merrill needed every possible point to have a chance at the TA2 title. Earning the pole in Saturday’s qualifying session in his No. 26 BridgeHaul/HP Tuners/Cope Race Cars Ford Mustang, he garnered three valuable points, but Rafa Matos also claimed two points in his No. 88 3-Dimensional Services Group Mustang with a second-place qualifying effort. At the wave of the green flag, the two experienced competitors took to the track side by side, but Merrill pulled ahead to take the lead as the cars behind him went five and six wide. Matos immediately suffered contact to his left-rear fender, but continued on with the damage.
Merrill led through two early full-course yellows as Matos struggled, dropping back to the ninth position. Merrill was beginning to open a gap between himself and second-place Connor Zilisch in the No. 5 Silver Hare Racing Camaro as disaster struck for Matos. On lap nine, Matos suffered a brake failure and drove hard into the wall, causing catastrophic damage to his racecar. As the race went under caution, Matos limped his heavily-damaged machine back to pit road where his Peterson Racing crew immediately went to work to salvage the car. His team miraculously got the car back on course within two laps, but the two-time champion was unable to get his car back to full throttle. With only 12 laps completed, Matos pulled into the paddock, retiring in the 49th position.
The work was not done for Merrill, who could only earn the TA2 title with a win. Zilisch went turn for turn with Merrill, never letting up or allowing him to open a gap. On the final lap, Zilisch was actually able to pass Merrill, which would have destroyed Merrill’s championship hopes. However, Zilisch drove wide into the next turn, and the two drag raced through the course. Merrill barely got back past Zilisch, and as the two ran nose to tail, Zilisch had the opportunity to bump his competitor for the win. However, Zilisch raced fiercely but cleanly, and Merrill crossed the finish line with the victory. His season finale win was only enough to tie Merrill with Matos in the points, but the tiebreaker for the title was based on wins. The COTA victory meant Merrill had tallied three wins to Matos’ two, and Merrill was declared the 2022 champion. Thomas Annunziata finished third in his No. 90 Nitro Motorsports Ford Mustang, followed by two-time Australian Turtle Wax Trans Am TA2 champion Nathan Herne in the No. 29 Stevens-Miller Racing Mustang, who was making his U.S. Trans Am debut. Tyler Kicera in the No. 77 LIQUI MOLY/Turn 14 Distribution Camaro rounded out the top five.
Merrill did not know that he had won the title until he pulled into Victory Lane, where he had an emotional response.
“I’m struggling for the words right now, to be honest with you,” said Merrill from the podium. “I didn’t know until I pulled in that we were in the position we’re in. I’ve wanted to win this thing for so long—it’s not sinking in yet. What we fought through this year to be here is unbelievable. I can’t say enough about my crew. Oh my gosh, I’m so lucky to be on this team and working with those folks. I need to thank everyone who’s had a hand in this year, this championship; it’s been amazing. Thank you BridgeHaul, thank you HP Tuners, thank you Mike Cope Racing. What a season. Full credit to Connor Zilisch. Man, what a driver. That was one of the hardest races of my life, and he's 16 years old. Getting to win this championship means racing against some of the best in the country, and you’re looking at it with these talented kids. All I can say is thank you. I just feel so fortunate to be here. I didn’t expect to be here, and I still don’t really know what it feels like yet. I can’t wait for Sebring, I’ll tell you that much. TA2 racing is some of the most fun racing I’ve done. I’ve been fortunate enough to race all over the world, and this is some of the best racing you’ll see anywhere.”
“Unfortunately, that’s how it ended,” said Matos following the race. “A brake failure ended our chances to win our third championship. I’m glad everyone was unhurt in the incident. Definitely a lot of frustration, but we will keep our head high and focus on 2023. I want to take the time and thank every single member of our 3-Dimensional Services Group Team and our leader Doug Peterson for allowing us to compete at the highest level. Also, I want to congratulate Thomas Merrill and Mike Cope Racing for the remarkable run. Well deserved. And last but not least, I would like to take the time and congratulate Trans Am. This series has become a destination for teams and drivers, and I’m very proud being part of it. On to 2023.”
Following the event, Brent Crews in the No. 70 Nitro Motorsports Mustang won the Wilwood Rookie of the Year and the TA2 Young Gun Award worth $20,000, narrowly beating Connor Mosack in the No. 28 Open Eyes/Nacarato Truck Centers/Nic Tailor Custom Fit Underwear Ford Mustang. Annunziata was awarded the ChillOut Keep Cool Move of the Race and Zilisch was presented with the Omologato custom-branded Trans Am watch after earning the Young Gun Fast Lap Award. Scott Borchetta in the No. 48 Big Machine Vodka Spiked Coolers Ford Mustang was awarded the TA2 Masters award.
The race between TA2 Western Championship contenders was a wild one, with no single car dominating and several competitors experiencing trouble throughout the 75-minute event. Jeff Holden in the No. 11 RELAXandCBD.com/Dakota Lithium/Mid Valley Transmission Camaro came into the event with a 12-point lead over Ken Sutherland in the No. 68 Cascade Sotheby’s/Wyatt Fire Protection Camaro, but his fight for the championship was not easy. Holden experienced issues with power steering throughout the weekend and during the race, ultimately finishing seventh of the Western competitors. Cody Powell in the No. 76 Titan Construction Services Dodge Challenger drove his car to victory, followed by Michael Fine in the No. 66 Architectural Glass Systems Inc. Camaro in second and Sutherland in third. Unfortunately for Sutherland, his podium was not enough to pass his competitor in the points, and Holden was crowned the 2022 Western Championship TA2 champion.
“Today’s race was tough, those National Championship guys are no joke,” said Powell from atop the podium. “They’re just getting after it everywhere. If you leave a path, they’re going to take it, and my car shows it. I just wasn’t giving up. We just gave it all we had, and luckily, we came out on top.”
“It’s pretty awesome to win the championship, but this was a brutal race,” said Holden as his championship win was announced. “[My mechanical issues] couldn’t have been at a worse time. I ran the whole race with no power steering and ended up finishing that second half of the race with a bent rear end. So, it was just about maintaining the points lead, not worrying about anybody next to me. I just let guys by and maintained. Not exactly how we wanted to run, but we got a lot of help from M1 race cars and Dakota Lithium, RelaxAndCBD.com, Motul, and all the guys that get us here. More than anything, my dad helped build the car from scratch. My brother flew in to spot for me, and another guy I spot for in Legend Cars flew in. These guys spent their own money to help me. I’ve got to thank my family and my wife, my mom, and my kids for putting up with us working on the car 12 hours a day, every day, to get here. Thanks to everybody here.”
The broadcast of the race, presented by Big Machine Vodka SPIKED Coolers, will air on CBS Sports Network on Sunday, November 13 at 6 p.m. ET, with an encore presentation later that evening at 10:30 p.m. ET.
The 2023 National Championship season kicks off at Sebring International Raceway on February 23-26 with the Sebring SpeedTour. The 2023 Western Championship season will begin at Thunderhill Raceway with the Thunderhill SpeedTour on March 3-5.
Full official race results can be found here.