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Damon Merchant Dishes On His ‘No Prep Kings’ Season, Budding Rivalry, Future Events

The first five seasons of Street Outlaws: No Prep Kings was dominated by veteran drivers, crowning champions like Ryan Martin, James “Birdman” Finney, and Mike Murillo. But 2023 has seen an influx of fresh faces bursting onto the scene – none more so than Damon Merchant.

While Merchant is no stranger to the Street Outlaws brand and competed in four NPK Futures class events last year, this is officially his rookie season in the Invitational. And as teams regroup during their five-week summer break, he finds himself atop the Invitational leaderboard. In the four points events so far – the first race of the season was non-points – Merchant has appeared in two final rounds and never lost prior to the semifinals.

Photo by Danny Stogner

“From day one, we’ve had the most consistent car out there,” said. Merchant. “It 60-foots like no other. When you cut a light, and the car 60-foots like it does, it’s a problem for anybody out there.”  

The “consistent car” he speaks of is his 1968 Camaro named “Rogue.” In a world filled with Noonan and ProLine Hemi’s, Merchant has taken a different approach, running a 555ci Brand Racing Engines big block Chevy with an F3-136 ProCharger. While it’s a combination that has worked very well for him, not even Merchant could foresee his rapid success in NPK this year.

“It has been pretty surprising,” Merchant admitted. “I hate to say it because I wouldn’t do all this if I thought we were going to show up and lose. I’m not too surprised that we’re going rounds, but I’ll say I’m surprised we’re sitting where we’re at.” 

Merchant is also quick to credit his longtime crew for maintaining that consistency. Throughout his years on both the street and no prep racing, Merchant has maintained the same loyal team members, including his wife, Lacy; his father, Roger; and friends Craig Stephens and Mark Niebes.

“It’s a strain on so many people,” said Merchant. “We kind of knew what we were getting into, but damn, it’s been tough. But they’ve been rock stars for me. We’ve worked a lot of years to put ourselves where we’re at.”    

With the new team format added to NPK this season, Merchant’s individual success has also helped carry his group – featuring team captain Jay Boddie, Nate Sayler, Bobby Ducote, and Mike Bowman – into second place for the Team Championship, only ten points behind Daddy Dave’s team.

He’s also developed a budding rivalry with longtime Street Outlaws star Kye Kelley. Kelley has maintained the upper hand in head-to-head matchups, going undefeated against Merchant this season, including twice in the final round. Yet Merchant sits 30 points ahead of Kelley in the Invitational, saying it’s a matter of losing a few battles but winning the war.

“I don’t get down on our losses,” Merchant said. “It sucks in the moment, but I got a lot of respect for him. I don’t know if he’s got some damn New Orleans voodoo curse on us or what. But we’ll get around him. For us to come in here in our first season, with him being as dominant as he’s been, it’s almost a surreal feeling to know that’s who I’m battling at the top of the heap.”     

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The immediate success he’s experienced so far this season has turned Merchant into a folk hero of sorts with the fans. He’s been dubbed the “People’s Champ” at events, which he gets a kick out of. But success doesn’t come without some pushback, as other drivers have questioned whether he’s cheating on the Christmas tree or perhaps skirting the rules with his motor combination. Yet Merchant tries to focus on his own program and let his performance do the talking.  

“Some people are loud, and they come in, spend a lot of money, and look like a million bucks out there,” Merchant said. “But if you don’t look good between the beams, none of that other shit matters.”

No Prep Kings resumes its hectic schedule August 11-12 at Tulsa Raceway Park. Although Merchant is happy with where his team is at, he admits the competition is getting faster as the season progresses, and he can’t get complacent with how his car is running. But as long as they keep chipping away at what the car can handle, he likes their chances the rest of the way.

“It’s turned into such a money deal to run the series,” Merchant said. “As for our budget, we don’t race out there like a lot of people do. But I hope to show people that want to be in this, don’t get your head down. If you put the thought and effort in, you can be competitive at this level. Everybody likes an underdog, and everybody likes a winner. I plan to be both.”

Photo by Dean Images

Photo by Dean Images

 

This story was originally published on August 8, 2023. Drag Illustrated

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