He may have started and finished at the front of the 30-car field, but Connor Zilisch (No. 72 Hixon Motor Sports) had his hands full at Road America en route to his first Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich® Tires victory on Saturday. Zilisch shared the podium with two former series champions: Michael Carter (No. 08 Carter Racing Enterprises) and Gresham Wagner (No. 5 Spark Performance).
The Mazda scholarship shootout winner is having a busy Road America event, racing in both Mazda MX-5 Cup and Trans-Am for the holiday weekend. The 15-year-old went straight from Trans-Am qualifying and into his MX-5 Cup car waiting at the front of the grid.
Another driver pulling double duty is Parker Kligerman (No. 75 Thunder Bunny Racing). The Camping World Truck Series driver is an NBC Sports pit lane reporter for the NASCAR Cup Series this weekend. Kligerman, who’s making a guest appearance in MX-5 Cup, lined up directly behind Zilisch, starting third.
Zilisch held the lead early and was joined up front by his teammate Selin Rollan (No. 87 Hixon Motor Sports) who started fifth. They were soon joined by another teammate, Bruno Carneiro (No. 21 Hixon Motor Sports). It was up to Kligerman and Carter to break them up before they got away.
As Rollan took over the lead from Zilisch, Carneiro soon fell back into the hands of Carter and Kligerman. Zilisch and Rollan tried to work together to pull out a gap on the rest of the pack, but it was nearly impossible with a full field of evenly matched Mazda MX-5 Cup machines making the most of the draft at Road America.
After four laps up front, Rollan had to relinquish the lead back to Zilisch and now it was 2021 MX-5 Cup Champion Carter who was trying to break up the Hixon teammates.
He succeeded and brought Wagner with him around Rollan. Shortly thereafter, a full-course yellow slowed the field to recover Kligerman’s Thunder Bunny Racing entry after being knocked off course and into the Turn Six gravel by another car.
Remarkably, the podium order stayed this way through the first restart and another soon after. The order remained that way all the way to the checkered flag, even with the notorious drag race out of the last corner to the finish line. It was still another chapter in the well-established series history of close finishes, as Zilisch beat Carter to the finish line by just 0.088s.
“At Road America you don’t want to be the leader going into the last lap,” Zilisch said. “I was nervous on that last restart. I thought they were just going to blow by me, but Michael [Carter] pushed me and I was able to get the win. I’m just super happy!
“It’s been a really busy weekend and a bit of an up and down year in MX-5 Cup, but to win my first race at this track is super awesome! It was a good race for me; I led a bunch of laps and kept my wits about me and stayed out front. I was able to capitalize and get the win. I’m super proud of the car that Hixon Motorsports brought me. It was a really good race. I think this will create a lot of momentum into the rest of the year.”
Carter, a former MX-5 Cup Shootout winner like Zilisch, was thrilled with a runner-up finish as it was his first podium of the season.
“I just tried to put my car in a place to have that opportunity on the last lap,” Carter said. “I did the same thing last year [when he beat Sam Paley to the line by 0.008s]. Coming out of the last turn, I just didn’t quite have enough this time coming to the line. Connor drove pretty much a perfect race. He’s got a good handling car and he deserved every bit of that win. It was good for us, to run up front again and have nervousness on the last lap again. It was exciting. The car is in one piece which is always a goal. It was a lot of fun. It was good running up front with the usual group again.”
After a difficult weekend at Watkins Glen, Wagner, who started 13th, was all smiles with his third-place trophy.
“I had a fast car,” Wagner said. “The car felt great in practice. Me and a few other guys have been working from the back the last couple races. Starting from mid pack was a bit better than how Watkins went. I knew we could get up there. We had the pace. I was expecting to be in the fight for the win.
“Connor did a great job. Being a rookie, it’s hard to figure out how to win one of these things especially here at Road America. He did a great job. Michael was back up there like he should be. It was just a good race. I was really happy with that and had a lot of fun. I’m looking forward to doing that again.”
Rollan and Carneiro completed the top five, making it three cars in the top five for Hixon Motor Sports.
There were a number of drivers who made strong charges to the front in Saturday’s race, but the one who outdid them all was Chris Nunes (No. 32 Formidable Racing) who picked up 15 positions during the 45-minute race and finished ninth to claim the $1,000 prize for the Hard Charger.
“We have had a lot of bad luck this year unfortunately,” Nunes said. “But that is part of racing. We learn, we improve as a team, myself as a driver, and we adapt and overcome. That’s what we did today. We’ve learned so much and we are ready to get back on the box here soon.”
The MX-5 Cup Championship Point Leader did not have a good points day at Road America. Jared Thomas (No. 96 JTR Performance Engineering) started 12th but finished 26th after contact in the race earned him a costly drive-through penalty.
Zilisch will start on the pole again for Sunday’s race at Road America and will share the front row with Kligerman. The race goes green at 9:05am CT and will be streamed live on RACER.com and IMSA.com.