Current Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich Tires points leader Connor Zilisch (No. 72 Hixon Motor Sports) battled to the front from fifth on the grid to win Saturday’s round five at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. He was followed across the line less than a half-second ahead of reigning series champion Jared Thomas (No. 96 JTR Motorsports Engineering), with now-local driver Aaron Jeansonne coming home third to continue his strong start to the 2023 season.
The racing was as hot as the track surface for the latest Mazda MX-5 Cup event. Polesitter Gresham Wagner (No. 5 Spark Performance) was immediately feeling the pressure from Thomas, who had a great start.
It was ultimately Zilisch who would be Wagner’s undoing, though. The 2022 MX-5 Cup Rookie of the Year went from fifth to second in four laps and by lap six, he was around Wagner and into the lead.
A full-course caution to get a car out of the Turn 11 gravel trap bunched the field back up, but nobody could beat Zilisch on the restart. From there, Zilisch was able to pull out a comfortable lead as the battle for the other two podium spots raged on. A long green-flag run developed and Thomas eventually got clear of the pack and comfortably on his own in second.
In typical MX-5 Cup fashion, it was impossible to keep up with the position changes happening for third through fifth. Wagner, Jeansonne and Selin Rollan (No. 87 Hixon Motor Sports) pounced on every opportunity to get by each other.
While pushing their cars to the limit, and occasionally over the track limits, the trio frequently kicked up gravel onto the track lap after lap. At the height of this battle, Wagner ran wide and into the gravel in Turn 6, forcing him to let off the throttle to avoid a spin. When he had all four wheels back on the pavement, he was down to eighth.
Around the same time, Zilisch nearly had a similar incident on his own. He’d built himself a gap of more than a second over Thomas, but with 10 minutes to go, that gap was down to 0.2s.
“That was just me asking for too much out of the car,” Zilisch explained. “It got really tough there toward the end. It was hotter than it’s been all weekend. I was staring in my rearview mirror, honestly, and it got the better of me – I overdrove the Corkscrew and missed the corner, then overdrove Turn 9 as well and almost spun out. I was full sideways. I put my head down, calmed down, and was able to pull out enough of a gap so that I didn’t have to defend on the last lap.”
Thomas now filled the mirrors on Zilisch’s MX-5, but the 16-year-old wasn’t going to make another mistake and held Thomas off to the finish.
“I felt really confident with my car at the start of the race,” Zilisch said. “I knew that if I could get to the lead, I could pull a gap, and that’s what I did. I like controlling the race, same thing at St. Pete. When I’m in the lead, I can make a mistake and fall back, and still hold the lead – if you’re in second and you make a mistake, you have to catch back up. It worked out well today. I’m thankful to the entire Hixon Motor Sports team. They work hard to give me a fast car and give me the opportunity to race at all these cool tracks – and to the series as well — it’s an amazing show. I can’t wait for race two tomorrow.”
Despite closing the gap to Zilisch in the closing laps, Thomas had to settle for second but was pleased to return to the podium as he looks to bank points with an eye toward a strong championship defense.
“It may not have looked exciting, but inside the race car, this place is a handful,” Thomas said. “I was pacing him (Zilisch) and I could get a tenth here or there. I was just waiting – this track is very unique in the way that it falls off throughout the race, so I was hanging out, saving it for the end. We were pretty equal, but he made a mistake near the end and I was able to close the gap on him. That’s the nature of the (track) surface here, it’s all about tire degradation. But it’s a lot of fun, I like the old surface, it makes the lower horsepower car feel like a lot. That’s a different experience than we get at other tracks. We’re pretty happy to come out of here with a second – we’ll go back to work and race it tomorrow.”
The fight for third was a nail-biter to the end with Rollan and Jeansonne trading positions while dealing with a track that was getting more and more slippery. Jeansonne made the move that stuck with four laps to go and took the final podium spot at his home track.
“Man that was a really tough battle with Selin Rollan,” Jeansonne said. “He’s an excellent competitor. Obviously, he’s won a lot of races in this series and knocking on the door for the championship every year. He was better in some spots. I was better in some spots. And I just drove really hard at the end there to try to get him for that podium spot and I really had to knock out some good laps there at the end, coming to the white flag, so I could get a gap and try to get third place.”
Jeansonne is still searching for his first MX-5 Cup win in his third season of competition. If he could get it at his home track, it would make it extra special.
“It’s always awesome, racing at home,” Jeansonne said. “I really wish we could have raced for the win there. But there’s always tomorrow. I think we’re starting on pole tomorrow. You know, I just want to stay up there and drive consistent laps and just be there in the front running group until the end and try to make my move.”
Jeansonne is provisionally on the pole for Sunday’s round six.
Rollan finished fourth behind Jeansonne.
Rookie Nate Cicero (No. 83 McCumbee McAleer Racing), the latest winner of the Mazda MX-5 Cup Shootout, scored his best finish of the season so far in fifth.
Taking an extra $2,000 home is Hanna Zellers (No. 74 Hixon Motor Sports) who was the highest finishing female driver in the race.
Sunday’s round six at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca is slated to begin at 11:35am ET. Live streaming is available on RACER.com and IMSA.com/tvlive.