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Connor Zilisch’s Freshman Year

On December 31st, 2020, Jim Zilisch posted a photo of his 14-year-old son Connor standing on top of his family’s RV, hands on his hips, looking out to the horizon. Pictured beside him stands Gary Willis, Connor’s kart racing coach of eight years. Gary’s arms are crossed as he stands beside Connor, gazing out over the pits, watching the sun set on their final race weekend together as driver and coach. 

“This isn’t the best picture I’ve ever taken. But then again, it might be. It’s a picture of a kid who loves to race and a coach who he’s known for more than half his life — probably for as long as he has the capacity to remember. A talented and confident kid who’s grown from a baby in a powder blue helmet to a 30-year-old in a 14-year-old’s body. A kid standing at the crossroads of a journey that has given him so much.

Despite his self-assuredness, he’s still just a kid. Hopeful for the future, full of dreams, and undoubtedly a little sad to be leaving this chapter behind. Gary will always be his coach. They will remain connected by an unbreakable bond borne from going to battle on the track so many times over so many years. Years of teaching, loving, laughing, yelling, winning, and losing while traveling together to tracks across the world.  

Gary always says he hates Sundays. ‘Pack-up days.’ And he was probably, like me, extra reflective on this one. The emotions of moments like this can sneak up on you. Life is surely short and we’re all very fortunate to have found each other and to have become friends and family. That is a chapter that will never end. Thanks for everything, coach. Happy New Year.” – Jim Zilisch

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An Education in Racecraft 

Connor won that last race with Gary, capping off an eight-year karting career that is so impressive, it has the NASCAR drivers who live in Connor’s hometown hiring him to coach their kids in the sport. During these years, Gary was Connor’s mechanic, coach, and when necessary, his substitute guardian. When his parents could not join him for extended travel, Gary chaperoned Connor as he represented the USA in competitions like the World Karting Championship and FIA Academy Trophy — a prize that the US had never won until Connor took it home in 2016. 

His years spent karting around the world taught Connor what he refers to as “the fundamentals of racecraft” — a set of essential skills that make a racer who they are. At the end of a go-karting career, a young racer knows the basics of braking, passing, cornering, following the racing line, defending a position, attacking a competitor to take a position, and most important of all: spotting opportunities ahead. 

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Al Arena at Ignite Media Photo

Opportunities Ahead

Young racers like Connor who reach the top of the kart racing game have a few options as to where they go next. Connor’s choice to move from karts to Miatas was largely a factor of access. His family didn’t quite have the funds for an open-wheel race car, and his older brother had a Miata he was no longer racing with. So, it was off to the sports car world. After proving himself in the SCCA — making it all the way to the podium in his brother’s 2001 hand-me-down — Connor went on to receive a Mazda shootout scholarship, opening the door to the next chapter of his career — the MX-5 Cup.

At 15 years old, he’d go on to be the youngest driver in the 2022 cup season, joining Max Opalski (16), Joey Atanasio (17), and Tyler Gonzalez (17) as rookie drivers not yet old enough to vote. The diversity of age and experience levels among the MX-5 Cup driver field was an aspect of the series that got Connor really stoked about his next chapter.

“For some drivers, the MX-5 Cup is their final destination. But for others, the series is like a trampoline, catapulting you to the next level. This makes for a really diverse field of more seasoned competitors and new talent. It’s pretty awesome. I learned so much from both groups during my first season.” – Connor Zilisch

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Al Arena at Ignite Media Photo

Freshman Year

With its diverse group of closely-knit competitors, friendliness toward rookies, and knack for kick-starting racing careers, the Mazda MX-5 Cup feels a bit like college sports. Professional in every sense, but full of young athletes who are there to study the sport, get their tires wet, discover their driving style, and realize their full potential. 

At Mazda University, Connor’s freshman year was full of ups, downs, and epic comebacks. After starting the season strong, he hit a rut and finished poorly in a few mid-season races, even wrecking in one. But things really turned around at the close, when Connor pulled off an exciting five-race podium streak. Heading into the championship’s dramatic finish, this late-season upswing was enough to earn him the status of “championship contender.” 

A contender he was, and if not for some truly unfortunate luck, a champion he would be. Connor began his final race in 2nd overall, just 30 series points short of front-runner Jared Thomas. Even if he tied with Thomas in this last race, Connor would win the tiebreaker and take home the prize. The cup was well within his rookie’s reach. He only had to stay the course. 

Mazda MX-5 Cup races are famous for their several-decimal-points-out close finishes, but this final took that intensity to a new level. Early on in lap two, Thomas nearly spun out, landing him at the back of the pack in 17th place. Amazed at his luck, Connor played it relatively safe the rest of the race, finishing in a healthy 6th place with the assumption that the title was already his. 

Meanwhile, Thomas crawled forward, refusing to give up. Over the course of 13 minutes, he managed to get back into the top ten, finishing in 9th place. It was an impressive comeback, but not enough to beat Connor, points-wise. That is until a post-race penalty cost the 8th-place driver, Alex Bachoura ten points. This bumped Alex down to 9th and Thomas up to 8th, inching him 10 crucial points ahead of Connor. And back on top of the total points podium. 

The drama cost Connor the cup and $250,000 in prize money. But he gained the respect of the Mazda world, earning himself the nickname of “The Prodigy.” And to sweeten the deal, he was awarded Rookie of the Year. 

Not bad for a freshman. 

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Al Arena at Ignite Media Photo

How to Become Rookie of the Year

Connor won the Rookie of the Year award out of a field of 19 potential winners. When asked about what gave him his edge during his explosively successful first year in the MX-5 Cup, he instantly thought of a few lessons to share. Each lesson he either learned in his karting career or was forced to learn, at speeds up to 100 MPH, during the early races of the season.

1. Race How You Want to Be Raced

“This series requires a lot of teamwork. Often, with drivers who are on your team, but sometimes with a driver who you simply share a goal with during a race. You have to be able to work with anyone, and you have to be someone who everyone wants to work with. This requires respect. And establishing that respect with everyone early on is really important.”

2. Do Your Homework

“Watch every single race. Sports cars, dirt track, NASCAR, everything. It’s the best way to learn. Pay attention to individuals and the choices they make throughout a race. They all got there for a reason, and everyone has something to teach you.”

3. Embrace the Study Buddy

“This lesson is also all about teamwork. Being willing and able to learn with someone else will make you both so much better. For me, that person was my teammate Selin. We helped each other a lot throughout the season.” 

4. Close the Feedback Loop

“One thing I really learned this season was how important it is to give useful feedback to your team about how your car is driving. We all wanna go fast and put certain lap times down, but if you wanna win races or even a championship, you have to focus on the drivability of your car before you focus on speed.” 

5. Keep it Fun 

“My dad always says, ‘if you're not having fun, then we shouldn't be doing it.’ So, it’s really important to him and to me that I keep the fun alive within my career and never take anything too seriously. One example is the racing simulator. I use a racing simulator a lot, but not really as a hardcore training regimen. I mostly like to hop on there with my friends and mess around and try things out. It’s one place where racing is still all about fun.”

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A Picture of a Kid Who Loves to Race

Two years after his dad’s New Year’s post, Connor Zilisch is still just a kid. He has a different coach now. And a team. And a management company, too. Earlier this year, he turned 16 and got his driver’s license. He’s halfway through high school, studying hard to maintain his GPA. If you need him to set the table for dinner, he’s probably in the living room messing around with his race simulator, chatting away with his friends through the headset.

“I've always loved racing. It's my passion. I've worked so hard and committed so much of my life to it. I just want to be the best. I’m building so that I can have a successful and sustainable career in motorsports. I’m building to make my dreams come true.” 

Reflecting on his rollercoaster of a first year in the MX-5 Cup, Connor stares off into another horizon – skillfully scanning for opportunities. For every photo-finish high and gut-wrenching low behind him, he knows there’s a lifetime more ahead. More wins, more losses, more lessons, and more supportive Facebook posts from dad. The one thing Connor does know is that he’s all in. Whatever it takes, he will fight to keep learning and growing as a driver as much as he can, for as long as he can.

In this way, Freshman Year is the chapter in Connor’s life that will never end.

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