Race Weekend Central

Connor Zilisch on Trackhouse, Era Motorsport & MX-5 Cup

Connor Zilisch has had quite the past year.

The 17-year-old racer started out the year in Mazda MX-5 Cup while also racing in Trans-Am Series presented by Pirelli in the TA2 class. Zilisch ended up fourth in TA2 points and eighth in MX-5 Cup. He also made a one-off appearance in the TA class, winning on debut from pole at VIRginia International Raceway.

For 2024, Zilisch has been signed to a development deal with Trackhouse Racing. He’ll compete in events in the NASCAR Xfinity Series (once he turns 18), the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, the ARCA Menards Series and the CARS Tour. He’ll also compete in the five Michelin Endurance Cup races for Era Motorsport in an ORECA 07-Gibson and continue in Trans-Am.

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In Daytona, during Rolex 24 Media Day, Zilisch sat down with Frontstretch‘s Phil Allaway to talk about his upcoming 2024 season, winning a shootout to get his prototype ride and more.

Phil Allaway, Frontstretch: How did this deal with Era Motorsport come together for you?

Connor Zilisch: My team manager in MX-5 Cup [with Hixon Motor Sports] knows the manager at Era Motorsport. Through that relationship, I ended up getting a test [at Daytona International Speedway road course] about a month ago. There were three other drivers at the test, and I had the opportunity to get out there and show my talent.

Fortunately, I was able to get the seat. I’ll be running the five Michelin Endurance Cup races this year alongside Ryan Dalziel and Dwight Merriman. Christian [Rasmussen] is also here in Daytona with us. I feel like we have a really good lineup and a great team around me. I’m excited for the season with Era [Motorsport] and looking forward to seeing what we can do.

Allaway: Was the shootout the only time that you’ve gotten to drive the car?

Zilisch: Yeah, it was my only chance. I probably got 40 or 50 laps, and that was it. I still have a lot to learn, but thankfully, we’ve got a lot of practice here at the ROAR [Before the 24], and I’ll have some time next week as well.

Allaway: Last year, you made your ARCA debut at Watkins Glen International. It was a bit of a messy race, held in mixed conditions. You scored a second-place finish there with Pinnacle. How would you describe your debut?

Zilisch: It went really well. Obviously, after leading 34 of 42 laps, finishing second was not what we wanted to do. Still a lot to be proud of when you go out there and make your debut, finish second and lead [most] of the race.

Bittersweet was what I called it. After that, I was upset for about two weeks, but as time passed, I realized that I did what I needed to do. I went out and showed [everyone] what I could do.

Hopefully, that will lead to more opportunities this coming season. Still nothing announced [for ARCA] yet, but I feel confident that if I get back with Pinnacle Racing Group, we’ll be able to do a really good job together, whether it’s on road courses or even ovals. I’m looking to making some starts there in ARCA with the same team.

Allaway: One of my biggest memories from that day was just how dark it was toward the finish. How was the vision out there for you?

Zilisch: I was on the radio saying, “Man, I can’t see,” under caution with two laps to go, just trying to get it in. It was getting dark, but you always want to finish the race and get the checkered flag. As much as I wish [the ARCA officials] ended it early, I’m glad that they let us run to the finish. I wish I could have done a better job, but it’s so hard when you’re leading and you don’t know what to expect in the rain.

Allaway: Recently, Trackhouse Racing announced that you are going to be a development driver for them this year. You’ll learn your craft in a number of different series (ARCA, Xfinity, Trucks, Trans-Am, etc.). It’s only been a week, but are you still on cloud nine from that announcement?

Zilisch: Yeah, I am. It is a surreal opportunity, and I couldn’t be more thankful for Justin Marks, Ty Norris and everyone at Trackhouse Racing. It’s a dream come true for me to sign with a team of the caliber of Trackhouse. Not a lot of teams are doing very well in the era of NASCAR that we’re in, but Trackhouse is one of those teams that is thriving and growing.

To be a part of that and a piece of their puzzle is really special for me. It’s a [long-term] deal, so I’ve got a lot of time to learn. They’re not going to rush me at all, and that’s a good thing for me. I want to be prepared for the day that I may make my debut in the [NASCAR] Cup Series and get my chance to race on Sundays.

I just want to take every race that I’m going to do until that point and make sure that I’m learning. Obviously, I want to go out and win races, do the best that I can. But especially for this year with the ARCA, Truck and Xfinity starts, I just want to focus on learning and making sure that every week, I’m becoming a better driver and a better racer.

Allaway: Justin Marks has been part-time in Trans-Am in recent years. How did he first get in touch with you? Was it as simple as Marks seeing you race in Trans-Am and saying “I want to meet this guy?”

Zilisch: We were actually teammates when I raced my first TA race at VIR [last October]. I’ve known him in the past since he owns Trackhouse Motorplex out in Mooresville [N.C]. I sort of grew up racing there.

So, I had run into him there from time to time. When I really got to know him well was at VIR for the first TA race I did. We were teammates, and we got to spend a lot of time together, whether it was in the lounge doing data or just talking as teammates. That’s when he really took an interest in me.

We had talked previously on the Trans-Am schedule at different races. [Marks] is just a really good guy who knows what he wants, and he’s really good for the sport. We need guys like him that are willing to do things differently and try different things. I feel like that’s something that Trackhouse has done a great job at is just being different and growing their team in a different way than most teams do.

Zilisch’s TA debut went as well as it possibly could. He won the pole, led flag-to-flag and won by 46.007 seconds. Marks dropped back early, but recovered to finish fourth.

Allaway: What do you think are the traits that a driver would learn best in MX-5 Cup?

Zilisch: In MX-5 Cup, the biggest thing that I learned was awareness. Just knowing what’s going on around you. You’re never going to be alone in that series; there’s always cars around you. Just being around so many cars and being able to manage that is what I’ve learned there.

That helps me everywhere, whether I’m racing a late model or Trans-Am. The MX-5 Cup experience has definitely helped me in late models. [MX-5 Cup] is where I first got into pro racing, and I’ll forever be grateful to Mazda and everything they did for me.

Allaway: How would you describe the racing in TA2 these days?

Zilisch: At the front of the TA2 fields, it’s really competitive. You have guys like Thomas Merrill, Brent Crews, [Raphael] Matos — veterans in the racing world, then younger drivers like Brent and I. Younger kids and veterans.

As one of the younger drivers, it’s been a privilege to race in the series and learn from those guys with all the experience that they have.

Allaway: As of now, you don’t know which races that you’re going to do yet as part of your development deal. It sounds like an assorted number of events.

Zilisch: Honestly, I have no clue. The only thing that I might know for sure is the ARCA racing. I’m going to be doing quite a lot of ARCA racing in order to get a good feel for oval racing and NASCAR racing. Number-wise, I’m not even sure yet and even team-wise. It’s not locked in yet.

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I have a very full schedule, so making sure that all the pieces fit is the priority. It’ll all be announced in the coming months as we get closer to the start of the season. Obviously, I can’t run in the Xfinity Series until I turn 18, so that’ll be in the second half of the year. Same thing with Trucks. I can run road courses and short tracks [now], so I might do a few short tracks before I’m 18 in the Truck Series, but I’m not even sure yet. It’ll be a Chevrolet-affiliated team, but I’m not sure where yet.

The race weekend in Daytona went well for Zilisch. Despite having never raced the ORECA 07 previously, Zilisch was right up there with the fastest drivers in LMP2. He staged a wild battle for the class lead with CrowdStrike Racing by APR’s Malthe Jakobsen that saw the drivers racing side-by-side.

Eventually, the Era Motorsport team was able to hold on take the class victory in ninth overall. Afterward, Frontstretch caught up with Zilisch and asked him to sum up his race.

About the author

Phil Allaway has three primary roles at Frontstretch. He's the manager of the site's FREE e-mail newsletter that publishes Monday-Friday and occasionally on weekends. He keeps TV broadcasters honest with weekly editions of Couch Potato Tuesday and serves as the site's Sports Car racing editor.

Outside of Frontstretch, Phil is the press officer for Lebanon Valley Speedway in West Lebanon, N.Y. He covers all the action on the high-banked dirt track from regular DIRTcar Modified racing to occasional visits from touring series such as the Super DIRTcar Series.

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