It made him not take the sport as seriously as he once did.
What makes that so ironic is he’s putting up some serious numbers with his new attitude.
The Ohio native currently sits No. 1 in North America in wins and No. 7 in earnings this year, driving predominantly at his home track of Northfield Park just outside of Cleveland, and The Meadows, which is two hours away in western Pennsylvania.
Because he is splitting his time at both venues, Merriman is not in the Top 2 in either track’s standings, as he is third at Northfield and fourth at The Meadows.
That doesn’t really bother him, because he doesn’t really know about it.
|Aaron Merriman currently sits No. 1 in North America in wins and No. 7 in earnings this year.|
“When I got in that wreck in 2010, I was leading the nation with around 500 wins and I really thought that was my year,” he said. “Since then, I haven’t really put a ton of effort into looking at the stats.”
The accident was frightening, as Merriman suffered a broken neck, two broken wrists and a broken left elbow. It occurred on June 11 but he returned to the sulky ahead of schedule on Oct. 15.
“I was really motivated to get back,” he said.
And while his motivation was fierce, his outlook on things had softened.
“I really hustled a lot (before the accident),” he said. “Every race meant the end of the world. If I have bad days now, I’ll be upset, but not like I used to be. I used to get really down.
“After sitting out for a while, everything gives you perspective. I didn’t really put emphasis on (driving) that much. There are more important things in my life. I’ve got a son (11-year-old Kristopher); he’s pretty much the most important part of my life. My career is important, but not as much as staying home with him.”
Which is what he did on the weekends during the winter season. Aaron has a breakneck schedule during the week as he drives doubleheaders at Northfield Park and The Meadows Monday through Wednesday. He does night racing at Northfield on Thursday and afternoons at The Meadows on Fridays.
He spent the weekends coaching Kristopher’s basketball team, on which the fifth-grader played against sixth- and seventh-graders. A former guard for Central-Hower High School in Akron, Merriman helped coach the team to a third-place finish.
Asked if that helped energize him to come back and race on Mondays, Aaron said “Sometimes.”
“The doubleheaders, they just take a toll,” he said on Wednesday, between races at The Meadows. “You’re in the car for a two-hour drive; it’s 140 miles one way. I drive here in the morning, race back to Northfield and get back in time for the sixth or seventh race.
“You’re out until midnight and the adrenaline is going all day. It’s tough to shut down. I only sleep a few hours during the week. So I do as much as I can at home.”
Whatever he does seems to be working for the 35-year-old this year. While he may not be up on his stats, he knows he has been racing well. Merriman has 151 wins this year and $1 million in purses. He was sixth in wins last year, with 568, and fifth in 2012, with 607.
|JJ Zamaiko photo|
|Aaron Merriman is congratulated in the winner's circle after career win No. 6,000 on Oct. 8, 2013.|
“Things have been going good, I’ve definitely been working hard,” said Merriman, who got career win No. 6,000 last October. “The Meadows is a tough venue. You’ve just got some wonderful drivers here.”
And yet Merriman is holding his own, driving predominantly for William Bercury and Johnny Yoder, and enjoying success with Bercury’s older female trotter Daylon Miracle.
He is unsure of what his schedule will be like in the spring, saying “I would love to have the weekends off but you have to go where the stakes races are. I’ll just have to see what happens.
“I just want good horses to drive, that’s just the way it is. No matter where you are you want a little power, and you just have to do the best you can with what you’ve got. That’s important to me. People are counting on you.”
Aaron will do his best to repay those who are counting on him. But that won’t stop him from enjoying life and stepping away from the grind.
“When I get the opportunities to stay home, I don’t really watch races,” he said. “I’m a big sports fan. If there’s a Cavs or Browns game on, I’ll watch that. We’ve got the Indians coming up.
“I like to play golf, I usually golf a couple times a week, but I didn’t race on Thursdays last year. Thursday races are going to ruin my golf day; I’ll have to play on weekends.”
And while he has learned to take driving with a bit of ease, he is darn serious when it comes to his NCAA basketball tournament pools.
“I’m not doing too bad,” he said. “Ohio State hurt me a little bit. I took them because they’re homers. But I’m in a few pools and I’ve got my Final Fours alive in all of them and I picked Michigan State to win in most of them. They’re finally healthy, they look good.”
Kind of like Merriman himself, who is back to being healthy and looking real good.