Trans Am: The more things change

Images Dave Friedman Collection / Benson Ford Research

Trans Am: The more things change

SCCA / SportsCar Magazine

Trans Am: The more things change

By

Full Support

The entry list for the Mid-Ohio race showed that most of the expected regulars and all of the front runners made it through the lockdown, preparing to pick up where they left off at the beginning of the year. At the top of the order, defending and six-time champion Ernie Francis Jr., one of America’s brightest young stars, has returned with a new sponsor to resume his battle with accomplished former prototype racer Chris Dyson for TA-class top honors, both in Ford Mustangs.

Francis Jr. (right) is one of the bright young starts of the 21st-century Trans Am. Image by Chris Clark.

Nipping at their heels in the Trans Am’s premier class was be a quintet of former champions, Tony Ave, Amy Ruman (in Corvettes), Tomy Drissi, Simon Gregg (son of perennial champion Peter Gregg), and Doug Peterson (in Chevrolet Camaros).

While the focus over the years, generally, has been on the premier class, the Trans Am has featured a multi-class format from the beginning. The original Over- and Under-2-Liter (the latter becoming the 2.5 Challenge in 1971) morphed steadily through to a streamlined 2020 featuring five classes: big-bore TA; populous and hard-fought TA2; and XGT, SGT, and GT for the huge variety of production-based GT3, GT4, and other exotica and select SCCA Club Racing muscle.

The GT classes, attracting entries from SCCA Club Racing and others whose FIA GT3 cars have lost their homologation, have enjoyed steady growth, largely at races in the Midwest. Then there is TA2: Introduced in 2011, the TA2 Powered by AEM Championship has all but taken over from the more exotic TA and GT machinery as a crowd favorite, with more than 20 and often 30-plus TA2 cars enjoying separate races on all Trans Am weekends. Being largely spec, many have likened this class to Spec Miata, but with crazy horsepower.

The crowd-pleasing Under 2-Liter (later Under 2.5-Liter) Trans Am class so popular in the 1970s and ’80s is back via the current trio of GT classes. Image by Chris Clark.

With tube-frame chassis from a quartet of American manufacturers; rigidly controlled shock absorber, brake, and other components, approved engines, and Camaro, Mustang, or Challenger bodywork that very much resembles the real thing, TA2 is fast becoming one of the most popular ways for its drivers to enjoy big horsepower on America’s best tracks.

The new young racing in the TA2 class has been spectacular – so good, in fact, that this year its rules were adopted by an Australian race organizer, with the Australian Trans Am series set for a summer debut.

As it was in the glorious 1970 season, it’s impossible to predict a 2020 TA2 champion: Defending champion Marc Miller is not returning to defend his title this summer, and Sebring race winner Mike Skeen was not on most pundits’ pre-season list of predicted winners (though with a strong Stevens/Miller Camaro and impressive race history, he should have been), leaving the door wide open for the likes of former champions Rafa Matos, Cameron Lawrence, Doug Peterson and (West Coast) Thomas Merrill; experienced Misha Goikhberg and Scott Lagasse; and young up-and-comers Lawless Alan, J.P. Southern Jr., and, frankly, many others.

Mike Skeen has emerged the 2020 season TA2 frontrunner, but he’s closely pursued in the points race by a horde of talented drivers in the series’ most populous class. Image by Chris Clark.

In recent years, TA2 has become popular with the young stars of NASCAR looking to gain road-racing experience (although packed racing schedules in post-COVID summer and fall may preclude many free weekends this season).

The tone was clearly defined in the Trans Am’s early years – door-handle-to-door-handle racing start to finish in hour-long races on North America’s best racetracks featuring fan-recognizable machinery hustled along by supremely talented drivers – and it continues to this day. Across the decades, the influence of drivers like Parnelli and George and Mark and Dan is still felt, heard in the echoes of rumbling Trans Am V8s.

This story originally appeared in the August 2020 issue of SportsCar magazine, the official publication of the Sports Car Club of America. A print and digital subscription is just one of the many benefits of SCCA membership.

SIDEBAR Meet Tony Parella

Tony Parella’s motorsports journey began innocently enough as a 15-year old, wheeling dirt-track cars in Upstate New York. As time progressed, Parella’s involvement in the sport also changed, with him ultimately purchasing the Sportscar Vintage Racing Association (SVRA) in 2012. A quite unique professional racing opportunity arose soon thereafter, and now in 2020, Parella continues to expand his offering through SCCA Pro Racing’s duo of formula car series.

Tony Parella (behind the wheel) has blended vibrant SVRA vintage series, historic Trans Am and, most recently, FR Americas and F4 into a potent and entertaining weekend recipe. Image via SVRA.

“In 2013, I received a call from John Clagett, the president of the Trans Am Race Company [TARC, which operates the SCCA Pro Racing Trans Am Series], and he said Trans Am would like to race at SVRA’s Sebring weekend,” Parella explains of the conversation that eventually led to him becoming the majority owner of TARC.

That SVRA-Trans Am weekend showed tremendous promise, although Parella admits several SVRA members pushed back. “Some of the vintage racers asked how we could let professional racers into the weekend,” he says, “but now there have been an insane number of SVRA members who have crossed over to Trans Am’s TA2 because it’s very affordable professional racing. Children and grandchildren of some of the SVRA racers are now competing in TA2.”

The partnership between Parella, SVRA, SCCA Pro Racing, and TARC worked so well that when the opportunity arose for Parella to take control of the SCCA Pro Racing F4 U.S. Championship and FR Americas Championship series, both powered by Honda, the fit was natural.

“Adding F4 and FR Americas to the fold will enable us to take Trans Am, F4, and FR Americas, and not only run them with SVRA weekends, but also break off and do professional racing weekends on their own,” Parella explains of his plans to manage the two spec open-wheel series that SCCA Pro Racing has launched over the last four years, plus Trans Am, all with SCCA Pro Racing sanctioning.

It doesn’t stop there. Trans Am released a mobile app earlier this year that showcased the series and allowed fans to stream races, and Parella’s intent is to expand this into F4, FR Americas, and even SVRA races. “Having F4 and FR Americas under the umbrella allows me to leverage the apps that we developed and the streaming packages we built,” he says, adding that despite the Trans Am app being announced barely one day prior to Trans Am’s 2020 opening round at Sebring, it drew some 500,000 views spanning 41 countries.

“We’ve had such a successful partnership with Trans Am that it gave us a great template to work with for F4 and FR Americas,” Parella concludes. “Trans Am is doing tremendous, and I think SCCA Pro Racing is happy about that. This next chapter will also have a great outcome.” – Philip Royle

More SCCA / SportsCar Magazine