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Connor Zilisch after winning the Mazda MX-5 Cup event at Mid-Ohio. (MX-5 Cup Photo)

Zilisch On Contesting Multiple Series: ‘It’s Been Wild’

For most professional race car drivers, competing in one form of racing can be a challenge. 

However, for 17-year-old Connor Zilisch, competing in five different race cars has been the norm this season.

In fact, he’s had success in every category this season. Wins in the ARCA Menards Series, TA2 (Trans-Am), Mazda MX-5 Cup and a NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series pole are among the highlights.

What trumps them all, however, is his perfect record in his first year of IMSA WeatherTech Sports Car Championship action. While he’s not competing full time, Zilisch has made his presence felt with wins in Florida at the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the 12 Hours of Sebring with Era Motorsports in LMP2. 

It certainly may sound like a whirlwind from an outsider’s perspective. 

Zilisch admitted he feels the same way as he reflected on the season-to-date. 

“It’s been wild. Last year, I was running in the lowest level of IMSA and just trying to find a way to make it through,” Zilisch told SPEED SPORT. “Whether it was gonna be in a GT4 car, whatever it was. 

“I got the opportunity to go down to Daytona and basically a shootout for a seat in which I honestly didn’t have too high hopes for. I’d never driven a car with downforce before. It was just a much different experience for me.”

Zilisch’s talent impressed Era Motorsports enough to sign the young American to the full Michelin Endurance Cup slate.

“It’s tough to take a chance on a 17-year-old who’s never done it before,” Zilisch admitted. “It’s definitely risky for them, but I’m glad it’s paid off in the first few races of the year.”

Entering this weekend’s Sahlen’s Six Hours of The Glen at New York’s Watkins Glen Int’l, Zilisch holds a perfect two-for-two streak in IMSA competition. Zilisch points to co-drivers Ryan Dalziel and Dwight Merriman as a major reason why the Era Motorsports team has found success thus far. 

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Connor Zilisch in IMSA LMP2 competition at the Rolex 24 At Daytona at Daytona Int’l Speedway. (Dallas Breeze photo)

“I’ve got some great teammates around me,” Zilisch said. “It’s cool to have guys that have been around for so long like Ryan Dalziel and Dwight (Merriman). 

“Just thankful to have a really great group of people around me to help make it possible but yeah, it’s definitely been wild and way beyond what I could have ever expected.”

Without experience of competing in a race car with downforce, it makes Zilisch’s adaptation to the sports car world that much more impressive.

While he didn’t have much professional experience in anything like the LMP2 division’s ORECA 07, his roots from a young age have surprisingly come in handy through this transition. 

“Car-wise, it’s much different from anything I’ve driven,” Zilisch said. “I’d never come from open-wheel or anything with downforce like that. 

“But, obviously I grew up racing go-karts. A lot of people will tell you that go-karts feel as fast as anything else they’ll drive. 

“I think that my background just kind of suits it well. I’ve definitely taken a bit of a different path racing NASCAR. But it’s still kind of my background. This is the stuff I always dreamed of racing when I was a kid.”

“I always watched the 24 Hours Daytona, watched all the big endurance races and one day dreamed to be racing in the top level of IMSA,” Zilisch continued. 

“I think things have changed for me in the last two or three years with chasing the dream of racing NASCAR. 

“But, I think it just more so fits my roots and what I’ve grown up doing well. I feel like that’s why I’ve been able to find success so quickly.”

Finding success early and often is part of why Trackhouse Racing team owner Justin Marks signed Zilisch to a multi-year development deal with the team this year. Zilisch will also make his NASCAR Xfinity Series debut with powerhouse organization JR Motorsports for four races following his 18th birthday in September.

With the writing clearly on the wall what path Zilisch is headed toward, it also means his time competing in five different race cars and series is coming to a close.

Zilisch wishes he could keep competing in IMSA more in the future, however, he joked there’d have to be more than 52 weeks in a year for it to be feasible. 

“If there was more than 52 weekends in a year and I was able to, I would love to,” Zilisch said. 

“Just kind of based on the way things are going, I’m not gonna be able to race full time in this stuff.”

Zilisch, however, still eyes starts in the Rolex 24 in the future since the event typically takes place in January, prior to the NASCAR season.

“Hopefully I’ll be able to do big races like that when I’m not racing on the NASCAR side of things,” Zilisch said. “I was super fortunate to get this opportunity this year because this is probably gonna be the last year where I’m kind of bouncing around from car-to-car.

“I think next year I’ll be settled down a little bit more in one series and racing for a year-long championship. 

“It’s still tough to tell, anything can happen. I’m not laser-focused on anything yet. But it’s going to be tough if I ended up racing full time in one of the NASCAR series to get back and run multiple races on the WeatherTech side of things.”