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Could Trackhouse's versatile teenager be America's next big racing talent?

OPINION: At the age of 17, Connor Zilisch has already won 17 races across America in several classes including the IMSA SportsCar Championship, and re-written record books. But is he the real deal?

Connor Zilisch, Spire Motorsports, Austin Hatcher Foundation Chevrolet Silverado

Connor Zilisch, Spire Motorsports, Austin Hatcher Foundation Chevrolet Silverado

Photo by: Nigel Kinrade / NKP / Motorsport Images

In January 2024, the Trackhouse Racing NASCAR Cup Series team co-owned by former racer Justin Marks and Cuban-American rap star Pitbull signed Connor Zilisch to a multi-year development deal. 

Marks is quite the visionary among the NASCAR team owners, making his race team operate as an effective marketing tool that allows him to do things differently – like bringing Shane van Gisbergen across from Supercars in Australia. Now his latest project is Zilisch, a former karting star who has been tearing up multiple series across America on all kind of tracks, despite his tender years.

A winner of several national kart titles in his youth, Zilisch in 2020 became the first American to win the CIK-FIA Karting Academy Trophy that was earned by Ferrari Formula 1 driver Charles Leclerc in 2011. Zilisch switched to car racing the following year and in 2022 was the Mazda MX-5 Cup's top rookie. Aged 15, he also took the first steps on his path to stock cars, running some local Late Model events and bagging a couple of wins.

Last year, Zilisch almost scored a maiden ARCA win on his debut in NASCAR's fourth-tier series – after leading for 34 laps – at Watkins Glen. But he was passed at the final corner by current Xfinity Series star Jesse Love, who nerfed his way ahead as Zilisch battled against a broken sway bar.

Zilisch also starred in Trans-Am, becoming the series’ youngest-ever race winner and taking five wins. In Mazdas, he scored four victories in 10 starts. It was therefore no surprise that Marks was interested.

Due to his age, Zilisch cannot compete full-time in a national NASCAR-sanctioned series; he’s only allowed to contest events on smaller oval tracks and road courses. He currently leads the ARCA East standings by 17 points from reigning champion William Sawalich, Toyota's 17-year-old prodigy who is signed to Joe Gibbs Racing.

In the ARCA Menards national series, Zilisch has already taken two wins from as many starts, his most recent coming after an incredible duel for victory with Sawalich at Iowa. His worst finish in the series remains that Watkins Glen runner-up spot from 2023…

Zilisch has shown speed in every environment he has been exposed to in his young career

Zilisch has shown speed in every environment he has been exposed to in his young career

Photo by: Rusty Jarrett / NKP / Motorsport Images

And still the success has kept rolling in. Zilisch took pole position on his NASCAR Truck Series debut at Austin’s Circuit of the Americas by twice smashing the lap record, and finished fourth against drivers who’d been racing in the series before he was born. He won a CARS Late Model race at Hickory Motor Speedway, the 3/8-mile North Carolina short oval that boasts to be the ‘Birthplace of NASCAR stars’.

But perhaps his most impressive feat to date has been taking LMP2 class victories in the two most prestigious races on the IMSA SportsCar Championship calendar. He followed up his win at the Daytona 24 Hours alongside sportscar stalwart Ryan Dalziel, IndyCar rookie Christian Rasmussen and Era Motorsport's gentleman driver Dwight Merriman by storming the Sebring 12 Hours, despite never having driven a prototype or downforce car previously.

As you’d expect from a 17-year-old prodigy who’s won a ton of races and signed to a NASCAR Cup team, he doesn’t lack self-confidence or cockiness. But he speaks very well and is suitably humble about what he’s achieved.

"Every weekend I’ve been driving something different, racing on dirt, ovals or road courses, I always find a way to make things work" 
Connor Zilisch

“It’s definitely been a surprise to me,” says Zilisch of his rise to prominence. “It’s been a picture-perfect start to the year in all honestly, being able to win as many races as I have.

“Winning prestigious races like Daytona and Sebring has been surreal. Honestly, I couldn’t have dreamt of a better start to the year. Obviously I’ve still got a long way to go, I want to close out championships, in sportscars and on the oval side of things. I feel I’ve definitely got a long way to go.”

Despite hailing from Charlotte, NASCAR’s home city, Zilisch has been a longtime fan of sportscar racing.

“I never came from open-wheel or anything with downforce, but I grew up in go-karts and a lot of people tell you they feel as fast as anything you can drive,” he adds. “My background suits it well, even though my path now is chasing NASCAR, but I always dreamed of racing stuff like this when I was a kid.

“I always watched the big endurance races, like Daytona, and I always wanted to race in the top level of IMSA someday. Things have changed for me now, chasing the dream of racing in NASCAR, but [driving the ORECA-Gibson 07 LMP2 car] does fit my roots and I feel I drive it well, which is why I’ve been able to find success so quickly.

Two wins from the first two IMSA rounds were a glittering introduction to the pinnacle of sportscar racing in North America for Zilisch

Two wins from the first two IMSA rounds were a glittering introduction to the pinnacle of sportscar racing in North America for Zilisch

Photo by: Jake Galstad / Motorsport Images

“Every weekend I’ve been driving something different, racing on dirt, ovals or road courses, I always find a way to make things work. I guess I’ve done it so much it comes naturally at this point.”

Zilisch is, however, realistic that his career truly lies in stock cars, where the big bucks are made and fame lies. He describes his chosen NASCAR career path as “the reasonable thing for me and my future as a race car driver”.

“The opportunity [with Trackhouse] basically landed in my lap,” he explains. “It was very hard to say no to signing a long-term contract with a Cup Series team – getting the opportunity to go NASCAR racing, and hopefully getting to race in the Cup one day.”

When Autosport asks if he’d like to continue his extra-curricular activities – like Kyle Larson manages with mid-week sprint car racing – Zilisch looks a little wistful that he’s going to have to give it up.

“I wish I could continue to do it, right?” he replies. “If there was more than 52 weekends in a year, I’d love to! Based on the way things are going, I’m not going to be able to race full-time in this stuff. I sure do want to keep doing one-off stuff, like Daytona, hopefully I’ll be able to do big races like that still.

“I was super-fortunate to get this opportunity because this is probably the last year where I’m bouncing from car to car. I assume next year I’ll be settled down in one series, racing for a championship over the year. I’m not laser-focused on anything yet, but it will be tough if I’m racing full-time in one of the NASCAR championships to race much on the IMSA side of things.

“Only last year, I was running in the lowest category in IMSA [MX-5 Cup] and I was just looking for a way through, maybe a GT4 car or whatever, and I got the opportunity to go down to Daytona and shootout for a seat in an LMP2 car, which I honestly didn’t have too high hopes for, because I’d never driven a car with downforce before.

“It was such a different experience for me, but I made it happen and got the opportunity with Era Motorsports this year, I’m sure glad they took a chance on a kid my age. Obviously, I’d never done this before at this level, and it was risky for them, but it certainly paid off in the first two races of the season.

Zilisch expects to have a more conventional racing schedule in future years

Zilisch expects to have a more conventional racing schedule in future years

Photo by: Gavin Baker / NKP / Motorsport Images

“It’s cool to have team-mates who help me, like Ryan Dalziel and Dwight [Merriman], they’re such a cool group of people. It’s definitely been wild, and way beyond what I could ever have expected.”

History teaches us that for every teenaged prodigy superstar driver like Joey Logano, who was famously hyped by NASCAR veteran Mark Martin as ‘sliced bread’, there is a Brad Coleman.

Discovered at an indoor karting centre by Le Mans 24 Hours winner Price Cobb, Coleman would set an age record by finishing the Daytona 24 Hours at just 16. He embarked on a stock car career, driving in ARCA and then the Busch (now Xfinity) Series competition the same week that he graduated from high school.

"It’s definitely been wild, and way beyond what I could ever have expected" 
Connor Zilisch

Signed by Joe Gibbs Racing on a driver development programme, when they were all the rage, he shared a car with the likes of Tony Stewart and Aric Almirola in 2007 and produced five top-10s from 17 starts in his rookie part-time season.

Despite showing promise over his four-year career, with a couple of sixth-placed finishes in 2010, he never achieved that breakthrough win. His career came to a halt, through a lack of sponsorship, after 57 Xfinity-level races and one Cup start at Michigan.

Coleman admits he got into a “mental funk” during that time, and his career death knell was a sponsor deal to switch to Roush Fenway Racing in 2011 falling through the day before the announcement. Disillusioned and depressed, he didn’t watch a race on TV for the next five years, and became a driving instructor for 15-year-olds that he jokes was “way more terrifying than any race I’ve ever been in”.

Coleman’s story should be both a cautionary tale and motivator for Zilisch, just as much as Daytona 500 winner and Cup Series champion Logano – who became NASCAR’s youngest-ever Cup winner at 19 with Gibbs – as someone who now enjoys the trappings of a millionaire racing driver’s lifestyle with Team Penske.

But, if Zilisch can keep his winning habit going, and his ego in check as his career progresses, then the sky really is his limit.

Zilisch won at Sebring with Merriman and Dalziel, but accepts his career will likely take him more towards stock cars

Zilisch won at Sebring with Merriman and Dalziel, but accepts his career will likely take him more towards stock cars

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

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