After narrowly missing out on a win in the first Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich Tires race at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Connor Zilisch (No. 72 Hixon Motor Sports) got the job done in race two on Saturday. Zilisch lead the field to the finish line in a race that ended under full-course yellow.
The winner in Saturday morning’s race, Gresham Wagner (No. 5 Spark Performance) started from pole, but brushed the wall on lap two and fell down the order. The battle up front became a three-way fight between Aaron Jeansonne (No. 24 JTR Motorsports Engineering), Zilisch and Tyler Gonzalez (No. 51 Copeland Motorsports).
While dicing for the lead, Gonzalez ran wide, made contact with the wall and came to a stop in Turn 4. This brought out the first full-course caution with Zilisch in the lead.
On the first lap back to green, Wagner was knocked into a slide through Turn 4. He made contact with innocent bystander Thomas Annunziata (No. 10 Hixon Motor Sports) before hitting the tires.
When the scene was cleared and green flag racing resumed, Zilisch was leading Jeansonne and Robert Noaker (No. 13 Robert Noaker Racing). Neither had an opportunity to make their bid for the lead, as another full-course caution came out shortly after the restart.
This full-course caution involved four cars making contact with the wall, the tires and each other in Turn 4. There was not enough time left on the race clock to resume racing and the checkered flag was issued alongside the yellow.
Though he was aided by the long caution periods, Zilisch survived two restarts to secure his first win of the season.
“I didn’t want to win like that (under yellow), but I really enjoy being out front and the team gave me a car that let me run up front like that,” said Zilisch. “I was able to capitalize on that and get ourselves out front. I timed the restarts well and was able to get a little bit of a gap on Aaron (Jeansonne) for the two restarts that we had. I’m just thankful for the whole Hixon team-Shea Holbrook, Brian Hixon, and Andrew Carbonell. Thankful to be on top and really excited for Laguna Seca.”
The win nets Zilisch a nice $6,000 check from Mazda.
Jeansonne, still searching for his first MX-5 Cup win, could have been upset with the lack of green flag running, but he chose to celebrate a runner-up finish that puts him in a strong position in the championship.
“I am disappointed to not win, but I will definitely take this over all the fourth-place finishes I’ve had!” joked Jeansonne. “It was frustrating to end under yellow. Connor (Zilisch) and I were not able to get away from the pack. We swapped the lead a couple of times but when that last wreck happened, I knew I wasn’t going to get another shot. But I’m happy to be on the podium and looking forward to seeing where that puts us in the points, so I can’t be unhappy about how this will help for the championship!”
Noaker finished third on the track but was issued a drive-through penalty after the checkered flag for his contact with Wagner. This promoted Alex Bachoura (No. 33 Spark Performance) to third. It was Bachoura’s first-ever MX-5 Cup podium in nearly a decade of competition.
“That was a wild race—I think the trick is that you have to upload the risk reward programming in your brain and make sure you don’t overdrive,” said Bachoura of his first career run to the Mazda MX-5 Cup podium. “So this is great. I felt like I had a good car and I had the speed, so I just stayed close to the guy in front of me and didn’t do anything stupid.
“This is such a competitive series, the best racing there is and to be on the podium it is so gratifying. Racing in MX-5 Cup is hard on a mental level, physical level and you have to be calculating every second. It’s a fantastic series, so it’s awesome to be on the podium today.”
Selin Rollan (No. 87 Hixon Motor Sports), a two-time winner at St. Pete, finished fourth, followed by Sam Paley (No. 28 McCumbee McAleer Racing) in fifth.
Mazda’s Women in Motorsports Initiative Scholarship recipient Heather Hadley (No. 54 Spark Performance) finished eighth in only her fourth MX-5 Cup race and first ever time on a street course.
“It is incredible,” said Hadley. “This blew past any of the expectations I had for this race. I had the goal of finishing in the top ten, so the fact that I was able to do that on a street circuit my first time it is just amazing. I’m proud of my effort and the team’s effort and so happy that this all came together today. I tried to be level-headed all the time and tried to be relaxed and it paid off today.”
By finishing inside the top 10 and being the highest finishing female driver, Hadley took home a combined $3,000 from Mazda.
Both MX-5 Cup races from St. Petersburg are available to re-watch on IMSA’s YouTube channel.
Next up for MX-5 Cup is WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, May 12 – 14.