There aren’t a lot of 17-year olds walking around with a Rolex. There are even fewer who earned it by winning one of the biggest endurance races in the world on their first attempt.
Connor Zilisch transitioned from a long career in karts to racing cars three years ago, beginning with Spec Miata in SCCA competition, finishing third in a 70-car field in the 2021 SCCA National Championship Runoffs at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and earning SCCA’s Jim Fitzgerald Rookie of the Year award. Last month, along with Dwight Merriman, Ryan Dalziel and Christian Rasmussen, he won LMP2 with Era Motorsports in the 62nd Rolex 24 At Daytona, his first race in an LMP2, or any aero car for that matter. And he did it while doubling up in Whelen Mazda MX-5 Cup, where he also scored a pole.
“The P2 car took me some time. It’s a lot different than anything I’ve driven,” Zilisch says. “So figuring it out, it’s been … I wouldn’t say a challenge, I feel like I’ve acclimated to it well, but it’s definitely different. But I’ve got a really great group of people around me at Era Motorsports and I did a lot of prep for it with the guys back at Chevy, as silly as it may sound. Scott Speed, he’s involved in that and he’s helped me a bunch with simulator work and just giving me advice. He obviously raced F1, so he’s got a lot of experience in different kinds of cars as well. It just it helps a lot to have quick people you can ask questions and people that know what they’re doing and that’s what I’ve leaned on.”
That mentorship goes for his Era Motorsports teammates as well, and Dalziel had high praise for Zilisch after the victory, noting that he gave up his final stint in the No. 18 ORECA so Zilisch and Rasmussen could finish. On Sunday morning, Zilisch set the fifth-fastest lap time of all the LMP2 drivers during the race, only about 0.3s off the best overall LMP2 time, set by Colin Braun. Rasmussen finished the race, pulling out to a 6s lead in the final 30 minutes of green flag running to take victory over Braun, George Kurtz, Toby Sowery and Malthe Jakonsen in the No. 04 CrowdStrike Racing by APR entry.
Zilisch, at left, celebrates at Daytona with Era Motorsport teammates Dwight Merriman, Ryan Dalziel and Christian Rasmussen. Michael Levitt/Motorsport Images
So while the Roar and Rolex 24 weekends were a whirlwind for Zilisch with a lot of seat time, looking over the past couple of months, it’s a wonder he has had time to breathe. After the late-December announcement that he would join Era Motorsports for the Michelin Endurance Cup, Trackhouse Racing announced that it had signed an agreement with the rising star. When someone you beat on track in a Trans Am TA2 car recruits you, there aren’t many higher compliments.
“I have watched Connor grow from a youngster racing go-karts at the Trackhouse Motorplex to an up-close seat as he beat all of us in the Trans Am race at VIR a few months ago,” said Trackhouse founder Justin Marks in making the announcement. “This kid is an amazing talent who we wanted to be part of the Trackhouse family. We are going to go slow with Connor and make sure he’s fully prepared as he advances in what we believe will be a long racing career.”
So, the not-yet-adult who has already raced and won in MX-5 Cup, TA2, LMP2 and late models will, in 2024, compete his first races in ARCA, NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series and Xfinity Series in addition to the IMEC and some more MX-5 Cup races. And what was he doing the weekend prior to the Roar Before the 24? Beating 75-car fields in both Spec Miata races at the SCCA Hoosier Super Tour at Sebring International Raceway, the location of his next race in the LMP2. It’s been, and will continue to be, a packed schedule for Zilisch.
“I’m running the full Endurance Cup with Era,” he says. “I’m going to run a select amount of ARCA races, a select amount of Truck races and a select amount of Xfinity races as well; not sure where or when yet, but those are going to be big, big learning tools for me, getting on some bigger tracks on the oval. As I’ve signed this deal with Trackhouse, I need to get better at that stuff.
“I’m really looking forward to getting out there and getting some seat time on some bigger tracks in the stock cars. It’s going be a really busy year, though — I’ve also got some late model races that I’m going to be doing. I’m going to be in a lot of different disciplines, but there’s no way to be a better driver than to get seat time.”
In the meantime, he’ll get to relish the Rolex 24 victory, and look forward to the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring.
“I keep trying to make sure I’m awake and not dreaming still,” he says. “It’s surreal. I was sitting in the pit box there, and I couldn’t even watch the race it was so nerve-racking. I have complete faith in Christian. He’s a badass, honestly. When he got out of the car, he told me he was completely chill. I was getting into the car and I was shaking. I don’t know why, but I never really get like that, but before that last stint when I had the double before Christian at the end, it was nerve-wracking.
“But once you get in the car, it all goes away. It was a surreal feeling those last 10 minutes when we kind of realized, ‘Wow, we are going to win this, we have a really good chance at this.’ It’s been a wild last few weeks for me, but that’s not going to let my head get big. I’ve still got to put in the work. I’m only 17 — it’s not like I’ve achieved everything.”
But he’s on track to achieve an awful lot. If the first you heard of Connor Zilisch was Era’s LMP2 victory in the Rolex 24 At Daytona, be prepared to hear a lot more.