By BOB ROBERTS
Special to The Plain Dealer
CLEVELAND, Ohio — It’s all over, but for the celebrating. And the purchase of yet another set of tires.
Aaron MerrimanUSTA/Mark Hall
Aaron Merriman, who five years ago literally broke his neck trying to become North America’s champion harness driver, has finally accomplished his long sought-after goal of being sultan of the sulky.
With just three days left on the racing calendar, Merriman, a regular at Northfield Park, has scored with 862 of his drives. It gives him a 30-winner lead over George Napolitano, Jr., who is done for the year.
“It is something I’ve wanted for a long time,” said Merriman, 37, who lives in Northfield, just minutes from the track where he is the all-time winningest driver. “I have pretty much made racing my life while I’ve been chasing the title.”
Merriman, a native of Cuyahoga Falls, finished second last year to two-time North American champion Ronnie Wrenn, another Northfield regular, 847 to 841 winners. But it’s the 2010 campaign that he’ll never forget. And Merriman has the scars to prove it.
Leading the North American drivers’ derby by more than 100 winners that year, Merriman suffered catastrophic injuries in a spill in a race at The Meadows in suburban Pittsburgh. It left him with a broken neck and fractures of both wrists and an elbow.
“Horses were running over me,” Merriman said. “At first, the doctors told me it would take me a year to get back. I returned to driving in four months. I love driving horses, not sitting on the sidelines.”
The game plan Merriman used to win this year’s title is the same one he employed in 2010, driving at The Meadows in the daytime and Northfield Park at night.
There are 135 miles and a two-hour drive between the two tracks. Merriman drives himself because he doesn’t trust anybody else behind the wheel. He says he would be unable to rest as a passenger.
“It has been a grind,” he said. “I’ve probably put 80,000 miles on my car this year. I’ve replaced the tires, twice.”
Merriman has registered more than 4,000 winners at the Rt. 8 oval, making him the winningest driver in Northfield Park’s 59-year history. It’s an accomplishment that landed him on the track’s Wall of Fame last year, its youngest member ever at 36.
“I’m thinking of slowing down in 2016, maybe even taking a cruise,” said Merriman. “But I’m not big on vacations. Owners and trainers count on me. I hate letting them down.”