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Zilisch Doubles Up in Mazda MX-5 Cup at Road Atlanta

Thomas becomes first-ever repeat series champion

BRASELTON, Ga. (Oct. 13, 2023)– It was a day of repeats for the Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich® Tires. Connor Zilisch (No. 72 Hixon Motor Sports) was a repeat winner at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta and Jared Thomas (No. 96 JTR Motorsports Engineering) became the first repeat champion in Mazda MX-5 Cup history. Veteran racer Selin Rollan (No. 87 Hixon Motor Sports), finished second, with Max Opalski (No. 2 Copeland Motorsports) closing out a promising season with a run to third.

So consistent was Thomas this season, he only needed to finish the race to claim his second-consecutive Mazda MX-5 Cup Championship. While a fifth-place finish at Road Atlanta for Thomas certainly wasn’t his best race, it was more than enough to win the championship and the $250,000 prize on offer from Mazda.

“When you get the opportunity to come out here and race, you want to run as hard as you can,” Thomas said. “I learned from last year that you can’t be conservative at all. So as soon as I knew we were locked in, I kind of stepped it up a little bit, but I made a mistake in the race – though it was a good battle with Aaron [Jeansonne] there at the end. We were trying to catch the pack in front of us and we eventually did get there, but it was just a little too late. We were just hooked up right there pushing because we knew the only way to catch the pack in front of us was to push. It was a great run and all in all, a great year.”

With teammates Thomas and Aaron Jeansonne (No. 24 JTR Motorsports Engineering) one-two in the drivers’ championship, JTR Motorsports Engineering had no trouble securing the Team Championship.

“I’m so proud of this entire team,” Thomas said. “Everybody’s put in a lot of hard work, a lot of long hours – and it’s also cool to have a 1-2 for the championship. That’s pretty impressive, I’m happy with that.”

Early in the 45-minute race, the top half of the field broke into two trains. Thomas led the second one and in the first group six drivers were playing musical chairs with the lead.

Zilisch and Gresham Wagner (No. 5 Spark Performance) spent the most time in the lead, but Rollan, Robert Noaker (No. 13 Robert Noaker Racing), Tyler Gonzalez (No. 35 Saito Motorsports Group) and Opalski were always in the mix.  With less than 10 minutes to go, Wagner started to pull away from the pack, but the others just needed to work together to draft right back to his bumper.

“When Gresham got himself a gap there, I knew we were going to be able to run him back down,” Zilisch said. “There was still enough time; in this series, those gaps don’t last for long. As long as you have a few guys towards the front that will work with you and push to get back up to the front, you’re usually able to catch up to a leader that’s kind of alone.”

Gonzalez was leading with three laps to go when Joe Rainey (No. 17 Robert Noaker Racing) made contact with the wall exiting Turn 12 and came to a stop near pit out. The leaders all had their teams communicating to them that a full-course yellow was about to come out. Knowing that if the safety car did come out, the race would end under yellow, the drivers sense of urgency escalated. Coming into Turn 10, Noaker, Gonzalez, Wagner and Zilisch went two-by-two. Contact was made, spinning Noaker around and forcing Gonzalez, Wagner and Zilisch to take evasive action.

The incident allowed Rollan and Opalski to slip through and queue up behind Zilisch, who had taken the best escape route.

Race control determined the car was in a safe spot and did not issue a full-course yellow. With two laps to go, Zilisch led Rollan and Opalski and that’s how the race finished.

“When they started battling for a second, I had a little bit of stress so I’m just glad I could get back up to the lead and get myself a chance to win the race,” Zilisch said. It feels really good to get our second win of the weekend here at Road Atlanta and a 1-2 finish for Hixon Motor Sports with Selin Rollan. The team does such a good job setting up these cars and giving us the opportunity. We’ve got Andrew Carbonell coaching us now, making us better drivers. It really does take an army to come out here and do this kind of stuff and to have the success that we’ve had every time I’ve come out here and raced this series. It means a lot to me so I’m glad I could get the win for my team and end the year on a positive note.”

Teammates Zilisch and Rollan came across the finish line glued to each other, something that’s become fairly common for the two.

“This is great for Hixon Motor Sports,” Rollan said. “We did this last year, which was great. It’s another 1-2 for the team, I think this might be like our third or fourth. It’s a great feeling. Congrats to Connor – that kid is going places. Thanks, Hixon Motor Sports, thanks Austin Hatcher. There have been a lot of ups and downs, but I’m happy to end it on a high note. That was a crazy race, yesterday was a crazy race, but we brought home two good finishes so it’s a good way to end the year.”

Opalski was able to take advantage of the Turn 10 incident, but had to hold off Wagner and Gonzalez for two laps to take the final podium spot.

“That was super intense all race long,” Opalski said. “We made a little gap, which was nice, but I think my car started falling off and I made do with what I had and managed the best I could. So, I’m pretty happy with a P3 today. We were so close to a win all season; I hope I can come back and try again.

“The team told me there would most likely be a full-course caution, so I thought I was somewhat safe – they told me to just stay where I was and just make good laps, and we’d be good. But then the white flag came out and I had to lock in and finish the last lap.”

Wagner finished fourth on the track, but a post-race penalty for his involvement in the Turn 10 scuffle dropped him to 19th. That promoted Gonzalez to fourth and Thomas to fifth.

Rookie Nate Cicero (No. 83 McCumbee McAleer Racing) finished 10th, securing his Rookie of the Year Title and a nice $80,000 prize from Mazda.

All award winners will be honored Friday evening at the Mazda MX-5 Cup Championship Banquet.

All races from the 2023 season are available to watch on the RACER and IMSAYouTube channels.