With a win in Sunday’s Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich® Tires, Connor Zilisch (No. 72 Hixon Motor Sports) completed his domination of the weekend, winning both races at Road America from the pole position. Championship leader Jared Thomas (No. 96 JTR Motorsports Enterprises) finished less than one second behind and was followed to the line by Matthew Dirks (No. 76 McCumbee McAleer Racing).
Zilisch led all but one lap of the 45-minute race that was briefly slowed by one full-course caution. From the green flag to the checkered, Zilisch had to contend with third-starting Dirks, who was pushing hard to get his first Mazda MX-5 Cup win.
Thomas, who started seventh, had a great start and was up to third on the opening lap. Once around Dirks, Thomas and Zilisch attempted to break free from the field but were unable to overcome the power of the draft at Road America.
“The game plan was to just push Conner [Zilisch],” Thomas said. “A couple of times we got out to a gap with a two-car lead, which is what I wanted, but it’s so hard here with the draft. If you make one little slip up, it brings everyone back in it.”
For the first half of the race, the top 11 cars ran nose-to-tail. In that pack were two former MX-5 Cup Champions: Michael Carter (No. 08 Carter Racing Enterprises) and Gresham Wagner (No. 5 Spark Performance). The two climbed into the top five and were positioning themselves for a podium run when Jameson Riley (No. 31 Copeland Motorsports) got stuck in the gravel in Turn Three following contact. The first and only full-course yellow came out to retrieve him.
At the same time, Carter pulled off track at Turn Six with a mechanical issue.
When the race returned to green it was a five-lap sprint to the finish between Zilisch, Thomas, Dirks and Wagner.
Traditionally, leading on the last lap is not where you want to be at Road America, because of the draft the trailing cars get from Turn 14 to the finish line. Thomas, Dirks and Wagner might have had a better run at Zilisch had they not started fighting for the runner up spot back in Turn One.
By the final corners, Zilisch had more than enough to claim the win by 0.842s.
“It was an awesome race just like yesterday and to sweep the weekend is pretty sweet,” Zilisch said. “I’m just thankful to the team for the car they brought me. I was able to get a gap with everyone battling for second place. To be able to do that just shows how strong the car was. I’m thankful for all everyone who supports me and Mazda Motorsports for bringing me here.
“It is great to have this momentum going forward. It was awesome to see so many fans that came out here this weekend– there are fans everywhere! To win in front of them is awesome and I’m looking forward to the rest of the races the rest of this year!”
Zilisch’s Road America performance tightens up his battle for Rookie of the Year with Joey Atanasio (No. 43 Formidable Racing) and Bruno Carneiro (No. 21 Hixon Motor Sports). At stake is $80,000 from Mazda at the end of the season.
Thomas crossed the line in second but had hoped to make a run for the win on the final lap. Still, it was a big improvement over Saturday’s race where he finished 26th.
“I’m just happy for my team,” Thomas said. “It was a great recovery, which was the main thing. It’s racing and you’re going to have those days, but it’s how you respond to those days. I’m extremely proud of my team. It’s my engineer, Daryl Cunningham’s, birthday.
“The plan for the last lap was to be second coming out of the Carousel because I was getting huge runs on Conner [Zilisch] going into Canada Corner. The No. 76 [Dirks] and No. 5 [Wagner] cars spoiled the party a little bit, but I was able to at least get back to second.”
The podium strengthens Thomas’ lead in the championship standings and his shot at the $250,000 year-end purse from Mazda.
Dirks, who finished seventh in Saturday’s race, was overjoyed to be back on the podium for a second time this season. His first came in the shortened Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course race in May.
“The car felt really strong until the end,” Dirks said. “I actually lost my power steering on, like, lap three, so I was really fighting the car a lot, but I made it work — it wasn’t completely undriveable. Congrats to Conner [Zilisch] for winning and to [Jared] Thomas for doing so good. We’ll try for a win the next race, but I’ll take third.”
Wagner and Justin Piscitell (McCumbee McAleer Racing) completed the top five.
Making his first appearance in the post-race celebrations was Woody Heimann (No. 82 JTR Motorsports Engineering), who earned the Hard Charger Award. Picking up 14 spots during the race, Heimann earned himself and his crew chief $1,000 each from Mazda.
Guest driver Parker Kligerman (No. 75 Thunder Bunny Racing) had a short MX-5 Cup race on Sunday. The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series driver and NBC Sports reporter had a mechanical issue after the first lap and had to park his car on pitlane.
Up next for Mazda MX-5 Cup is VIRginia International Raceway, August 26 – 28. As always, live streaming will be available on RACER.com and IMSA.com.