Drag racer tearing up the track — Hunter Merchant looks forward to new season

In his first full year competing, 12-year-old Hunter Merchant won the Atlantic Drag Racing Association’s Rookie of the Year award. (Submitted)

ST. GEORGE — A 12-year-old local drag racer is not just competing but winning on the Atlantic Canadian circuit.

“I did pretty good this year,” said Hunter Merchant, a Grade 7 student at Fundy Middle and High School from St. George with high-functioning autism, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and oppositional defiant disorder.

In his first full year racing, Hunter earned the Atlantic Drag Racing Association’s (ADRA) Terry Moore Rookie of the Year award, an honour given to only one racer each season, across all ages and racing classes.

Hunter’s father, Hazen Merchant, said there were many big names driving fast cars that were nominated.

“There were probably 40 (nominees),” he said. “His enthusiasm for the sport — great manners, never upset at the track, always a happy person at the track — got him rookie of the year.”

During the 2023 season, which ran from June to October, Hunter had several first-place finishes, including winning the King of the Hill trophy and finishing fourth in overall points in the Junior Dragster Class.

“I love my plaques and my big trophy that I won this year,” Hunter said.

Hazen said his son was unable to compete in races in Nova Scotia, due to travel costs, which affected his point total.

“In the Maritimes, we missed three of the races due to funding,” he explained. “We missed a lot of Maine races because it overlapped with Miramichi but he missed probably three or four races that way. He finished seventh place out of 30-some cars in Winterport, Maine. In all of New England, he was still, I think, number 16 out of 59 cars that entered.”

To make sure Hunter competes in as many races as possible this year, Hazen bought a new pickup truck to haul the dragster.

Hunter’s interest in drag racing started early, according to his father.

“I never raced, I always watched,” Hazen said. “It was the only way we could him to sit down and actually watch a show … He was just so high-strung —wouldn’t sit. We were like, ‘Hey, he really likes this.’”

After Hazen took out an ad to buy a junior dragster, a family friend loaned him a vehicle.

“We borrowed it and we made it to four races in 2022 and he was in second place for two of them,” Hazen recalled. “Then I said to him at the end of the season, ‘Buddy, what’s your plan for 2023?’ He said, ‘I want go faster, dad. And I want to have my own car.’ So, we drove to Buffalo, New York, together and we bought his own junior dragster.”

Hunter said he wanted the dragster as soon as he saw it.

“I kept on asking my dad. I said, ‘I like this, I want to buy it, I want to buy it,’” he said. “I hadn’t even got in it yet. I just saw pictures. When we got there, I got in it, it was higher at first and when I started, it shook a lot because it runs on alcohol with a faster motor.”

The dragster, which weighs around 225 kilograms, is six metres long and tops out around 135 kilometres per hour.

“It’s a very well built, quality car,” he said. “This car is all computerized, so I can set this car on my phone, I can see everything he does from his car on the data logger on my phone. If he lets off the fuel, half-track, I can tell. It’s a pretty high-tech little car.”

Hazen said his son is devoted to the sport.

“This kid eats, sleeps, talks, dreams — all day, every day, drag racing,” his father noted.

Hunter said he wants to someday race in the Top Fuel National Hot Rod Association circuit like his idol Steve Torrence.

“I love drag racing and I hope to grow up to be a professional drag racer,” Hunter said. “I’d like to be on TV.”

Working towards that, he has a technique called a “practice tree” uses to hone his skills.

“I think about how to do better and what I can do different,” he said. “I’m always practising reactions. I have an app on my phone and in school sometimes we do games that help with reaction.”

Along with desire, Hazen said his son has reaction times as low as 0.02 seconds and has tremendous focus.

“His reaction times win a lot of races,” he said. “He doesn’t see anything, he doesn’t hear, he zones in.”

Hunter said he is able to shut out any distractions.

“I keep focus really good, when I’m in the car, I just focus on the light, nothing else, just the track and the light,” he said. “I just look straight down.”

Hazen said his son’s autism has been a benefit in the sport.

“When he lays in that dragster, nothing else matters,” he said. “He has a gift for it … This has been his calling.”

To ready for the upcoming season, Hunter is having his racer tuned up.

“My motor is off the car up in Fredericton getting rebuilt and they’re going to fix anything that needs to be fixed, just to check on it,” he said.

In May, Hazen said Hunter intends to be back on the track.

“We’ll … do a couple test hits and then see how it sounds, how it runs and check the data on it,” he said.

On May 17 and 18, Hunter is scheduled to compete in the High School Challenge at the Miramichi Dragway.

“It gives the junior dragsters the chance to knock some rust off over the winter and they get probably 20 to 25 passes over the weekend to help them back into the groove,” Hazen said.

Hunter again plans to race stateside in 2024 in Epping, New Hampshire, in June.

“We’re planning on head down there to get Hunter an National Hot Rod Association licence in his car,” Hazen said. “That’s a pretty big event for us, there’ll be 100 junior dragsters down there that weekend.”

For the 2024 ARDA season, Hunter said he wants more first places finishes and to compete more.

“I’m going to try to get a couple more first places and head down to Cape Breton and Greenfield (N.S.) and do some rounds and see how far I can go,” he said.

Hazen hopes Autism New Brunswick can use Hunter’s story to inspire others.

“I hear that so much: ‘My kid has autism, they can’t do that, they can’t do this.’ They can do it with a little bit of want and give and help,” he said. “There’s nothing my boy wants more than drag racing. It has settled him.”

Hunter added that drag racing has helped him socially.

“I didn’t used to be that social around people, I was sort of shy, when I’m meeting new people. It helps.”

jakeboudrot@advocatemediainc.com

Jake Boudrot

A graduate of St. Francis Xavier University and a resident of Arichat, Jake Boudrot is an award-winning journalist with decades of experience as a freelancer, reporter and editor representing media outlets across the Maritimes.