It may have started and finished leading the 30-car field, but Connor Zilisch (#72 Hixon Motor Sports) had his hands full at Road America en route to his first Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich® Tires victory on Saturday. Zilisch shared the podium with two former series champions: Michael Carter (#08 Carter Racing Enterprises) and Gresham Wagner (#5 Spark Performance).
The Mazda scholarship shootout winner is having a packed Road America event, competing in both the Mazda MX-5 Cup and Trans-Am for the holiday weekend. The 15-year-old went straight from Trans-Am qualifying and into his MX-5 Cup car waiting at the front of the grid.
Parker Kligerman (#75 Thunder Bunny Racing) is another driver who does double duty. The Camping World Truck Series driver is an NBC Sports pit lane reporter for the NASCAR Cup Series this weekend. Kligerman, making an MX-5 Cup appearance, lined up directly behind Zilisch, starting third.
Zilisch took the lead early and was joined in the lead by teammate Selin Rollan (#87 Hixon Motor Sports) who started fifth. They are soon joined by another teammate, Bruno Carneiro (#21 Hixon Motor Sports). It was up to Kligerman and Carter to separate them before they got away.
When Rollan took the lead from Zilisch, Carneiro quickly fell back into the hands of Carter and Kligerman. Zilisch and Rollan tried to work together to close a gap on the rest of the field, but it was nearly impossible with a full field of evenly matched Mazda MX-5 Cup machines making the most of the draft at Road America.
After four laps in front, Rollan had to give up the lead to Zilisch and it was now 2021 MX-5 Cup champion Carter trying to break Hixon’s teammates.
He succeeded and dragged Wagner with him around Rollan. Shortly after, a full yellow slowed the field to recover Kligerman’s Thunder Bunny Racing entry after being hit by another car in the gravel at turn six.
Remarkably, the podium order remained that way during the first restart and another shortly after. The order remained that way until the checkered flag, even with the famous drag race from the last corner to the finish line. It was yet another chapter in the series’ well-established history of close finishes, as Zilisch beat Carter to the finish line by just 0.088 seconds.
“At Road America, you don’t want to be the leader until the last lap,” Zilisch said. “I was nervous on that last restart. I thought they were going to jump on me, but Michael [Carter] pushed me and I was able to take the victory. I’m just super happy!
“It was a very busy weekend and a year of ups and downs in the MX-5 Cup, but winning my first race at this track is super awesome! It was a good race for me; I led a bunch of laps and I kept my mind and stayed in front. I was able to capitalize and get the win. I’m super proud of the car that Hixon Motorsports brought me. It was a really great race. I think that will create a lot of momentum for the rest of the year.
Carter, a former MX-5 Cup Shootout winner like Zilisch, was thrilled with his second place finish as it was his first podium finish of the season.
“I just tried to put my car in a place to have that opportunity on the last lap,” Carter said. “I did the same thing last year [when he beat Sam Paley to the line by 0.008s]. Coming out of the last corner, I just didn’t have enough this time around to make it to the line. Connor had an almost perfect race. He has a good driving car and he deserved every bit of this win. It was good for us to be in front again and to have some nervousness again on the last lap. It was exciting. The car is in one piece which is always a goal. It was very fun. It was good to race in front again with the usual group.
After a tough weekend at Watkins Glen, Wagner, who started 13th, was all smiles with his third-place trophy.
“I had a fast car,” Wagner said. “The car behaved well in practice. Me and a few other guys have been working out the back for the last two races. Starting from the middle of the pack was a bit better than the way Watkins went. I knew we could go up there. We had the rhythm. I expected to be in the fight for victory.
“Connor did a great job. Being a rookie, it’s hard to figure out how to win any of those things, especially here at Road America. He did an excellent job. Michael was back up there as he should be. It was just a good race. I was really happy with it and had a lot of fun. I can’t wait to do this again.
Rollan and Carneiro rounded out the top five, making it three cars in the top five for Hixon Motor Sports.
There were a number of riders who made heavy loads up front in Saturday’s race, but the one who topped them all was Chris Nunes (#32 Formidable Racing) who took 15 positions over the course of the 45-minute race and finished ninth to claim the $1,000 prize for the Hard Charger.
“We unfortunately had a lot of bad luck this year,” said Nunes. “But that’s part of the race. We learn, we improve as a team, myself as a driver, and we adapt and surpass ourselves. That’s what we did today. We’ve learned so much and are ready to get back to the box soon.
The MX-5 Cup championship points leader did not have a good points day at Road America. Jared Thomas (#96 JTR Performance Engineering) started 12th but finished 26th after contact in the race earned him a costly passing penalty.
Zilisch will start on pole for Sunday’s race at Road America and will share the front row with Kligerman. The race goes green at 9:05 a.m. CT and will be streamed live on RACER.com and IMSA.com.