Just like the last six editions of the Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup Presented by BFGoodrich, the 2022 title battle came down to the wire.
Heading into the final race, Jared Thomas’s lead over Connor Zilisch was just 30 points (a win is worth 350 points) after rookie phenom Zilisch had closed the gap and upped the stakes by winning the first of two races at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta, site of the championship decider. That victory not only narrowed Thomas’s lead, but it also gave Zilisch the potential tiebreak by virtue of his four wins to Thomas’s three.
In the end, Thomas won the title by 10 points, but it wasn’t until he was back on pit road after the cool down lap that he had learned the title was his. How they got there was all quite remarkable.
Pole-sitter Zilisch led the race from the start. By lap 4, Thomas put himself right behind Zilisch, but the pair hardly had the lead battle to themselves, with three other cars firmly in the mix. With some 13 minutes remaining, Thomas made slight contact with one of the cars in the lead battle and immediately found himself heading the wrong direction in the grass on the outside of Turn 2. He rejoined in 17th place, while Zilisch sped off.
With a battle for the race victory raging around him, Zilisch at that point thought discretion the better part of valor and eased off, allowing the others to get ahead. In hindsight, it proved to be an ill-fated decision as Thomas tore through the field to get within three places of Zilisch when the checkered flag fell. The deciding blow came when another driver – who finished between the title protagonists – received a 35-second race penalty, promoting Thomas one place higher and with it the season title.
Now just shy of a month later, champion Thomas and Rookie of the Year Zilisch have the space to reflect after their defining battle.
“It’s a great feeling, and really a relief,” says Thomas. “We led basically the whole season and yet it still came down to the very end. It felt like I could never breathe, so it was nice to finally get it done and be able to take a breath.”
It could all have slipped away when he went off the track. What was he thinking then?
“This isn’t great!” he says with a sardonic chuckle. “But I thought, ‘Don’t give up.’ The same thing could happen to Connor, so I just put my head down and got to work.”
Despite the lingering disappointment, Zilisch is still proud to have won the MX-5 Cup Rookie of the Year title and take the most overall wins on the season.
“It stung to come in second overall in that fashion, but still I can be proud of the season I had,” says Zilisch, a lingering tinge of disappoint still detectable in his voice. “I can’t really blame it all on that one race, though. There are many factors over the course of the season and the other results had a bearing on the championship, too. To even have the opportunity to go after a championship at this level is something that I can’t be too upset with the way it turned out.”
It’s hard for Zilisch not to ponder all of the “what ifs?” of which there were so many that transpired in the final race, but he’s resolved to look forward and not backward.
“All of the driving I’ve done this year, including MX-5 Cup, has all served to make me a better driver,” says Zilisch who at only 16 years old is just at the start of a career that promises much. “Winning Rookie of the Year is still a major accomplishment, and it was one of my pre-season goals. This series is so competitive, and winning four of the last six races was beyond my expectations. But Jared did a great job all year. He’s worked so hard and he’s always been good to me. I’m happy for him.”
As both a driver and fledgling team owner as well, Thomas certainly does work hard as Zilisch alluded to. Resilience has been key to his success in a season where not everything went his way.
“The championship literally came down to one position,” Thomas says. “That sums up how we had to fight for everything we have over every single race. Everyone is pushing all the time, no more so than Connor. I’ve got a lot of respect for him and he’s got a very bright future ahead of him.”
Along with the prestige of winning the MX-5 Cup, the $250,000 prize that comes with it will all be reinvested into Thomas’s JTR Motorsports Engineering operation. With the ultimate validation that the path he’s forged for himself is the right one, Thomas isn’t resting on any laurels.
“Winning [the title] shows how we’ve been able to build a successful organization over these last three years,” he says. “It’s already started to open up a lot of opportunities and conversations. But what I think is really cool is that the history books will always show that I won a championship and that I’ve put my own mark on it.”
Thomas is committed to returning to MX-5 Cup next season, still with that dual focus as an owner and driver. Will he become the first two-time champ?
“Well, hang on,” he laughs. “Let’s just take a breath and enjoy this one for now…”
• Want to relive the 2022 action? Every race from a thrilling Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup Presented by BFGoodrich season is archived on the RACER magazine YouTube channel. And for the latest news and to learn more about the series visit www.mx-5cup.com.