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March 19, 2024

Connor Zilisch feels prepared for a grueling, same-day doubleheader between COTA and Five Flags Speedway

Connor Zilisch
(Photo: Bryan Bennett/ARCA Racing)

There will be no time to rest for Trackhouse Racing development driver Connor Zilisch on Saturday.

Shortly after concluding his NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series debut with Spire Motorsports at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, Zilisch will take a short flight to Pensacola, Florida to compete with Pinnacle Racing Group in the ARCA Menards Series East opener at Five Flags Speedway.

Zilisch has no idea how he is going to execute a grueling doubleheader weekend on two different types of tracks, but he has full confidence in his own ability to deliver strong performances for both Spire and PRG.

“I’ve done a bunch of preparation to be ready for both races,” Zilisch said. “I’m ready to make the most of the opportunity with the ARCA car and the truck. Pensacola is going to be the biggest thing, as I’m showing up to the track without practice or qualifying and with no experience in an ARCA car on an oval.

“There’s going to be a lot of new stuff for me, but I’m doing everything I can to be ready for it.”

While most young drivers would see the 3.4-mile layout at COTA as an imposing challenge, Zilisch is entering that race without much trepidation. Road racing encompasses a key part of Zilisch’s identity as a driver. In 2020, he became the first American to win the CIK-FIA Karting Academy Trophy, joining an elite list of champions that includes current Formula One competitor Charles Leclerc.

Zilisch only added to his road course racing prestige when he entered his first Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway earlier this year for the LMP2 class. Displaying maturity and resolve, Zilisch played an integral part in leading his team Era Motorsport to the LMP2 class victory and an overall finish of ninth.

The efficiency continued for Zilisch during the 12 Hours of Sebring this past weekend, as he helped put Era Motorsport on top of the LMP2 leaderboard once again after an arduous day of racing.

Winning two consecutive endurance crown jewels has given Zilisch plenty of confidence over the past few months while preparing to tackle a busy oval racing schedule. Along with a full East Series campaign, Zilisch is slated to make several appearances in the Truck Series, NASCAR Xfinity Series and the zMAX CARS Tour.

It did not take long for Zilisch to initially acclimate himself to oval racing. He took home a checkered flag in his debut Pro Late Model race back in 2022 and has since added a CARS Pro Late Model Tour victory to his resume, which he obtained at Ace Speedway last year.

Among the accomplishments Connor Zilisch has already accumulated on oval racing include wins in Limited Late Models and Pro Late Models. (Photo: Ted Malinowski/NASCAR)

There are many aspects of oval racing Zilisch is still trying to ascertain, but the knowledge obtained through heavy braking zones and diverse corners at road courses around the United States were crucial in expediting his early development.

“With oval racing, you have two corners you need to perfect, while road racing has about 15 corners you need to get good at,” Zilisch said. “Road racing has prepared me very well, and I feel like I can adapt to a lot of different cars. No matter what track I go to, I’m always prepared for it.”

Zilisch showcased that versatility in his ARCA Menards Series debut with PRG at Watkins Glen International.

Connor Zilisch
Despite his inexperience in stock cars, Connor Zilisch is confident he can turn in two solid performances between Circuit of the Americas and Five Flags Speedway. (Photo: Susan Wong/NASCAR)

Nobody in the field could match Zilisch’s pace for most of the day, as he led a race-high 34 laps after starting on the outside pole. A potential victory for Zilisch evaporated during a one-lap shootout in the rain, as he was moved by Jesse Love in the final corner, forcing him to settle for a disappointing second.

Zilisch is hoping for an even better outcome in his NASCAR national debut at COTA. A driver affiliated with Spire won the first three events on the Truck Series schedule, so Zilisch intends to keep that trend going Saturday by relying on previous road course experience and the stellar equipment at his disposal.

PRG also carries an efficient track record in ARCA outside of what Zilisch nearly accomplished in his debut. Luke Fenhaus led the organization visited Victory Lane twice on the ARCA platform in 2023, and they are expected to be favorites for the East Series title with Zilisch behind the wheel.

Barring a prolonged ending to the Truck Series event, Zilisch believes he can arrive in Pensacola at a reasonable hour and debrief with PRG about their plan for the East Series feature. The turnaround will be quick between the two states, but Zilisch intends to stay composed and focused on one race at a time.

“It’s going to be tough, especially with how much is going on,” Zilisch said. “I just have to stay calm and let others do all the hard work. Racing is not easy, but I need to recover from the Truck Series race even though it’s not going to be that long or that hot.

“Mentally, I need to get myself in the right headspace to race on an oval after I’m finished with COTA.”

A two-state, same-day doubleheader may be a new challenge for Zilisch, but he is no stranger to dealing with adversity. Facing plenty future NASCAR and Formula One stars through his developmental period has matured Zilisch into a driver capable of winning in any discipline at 17 years old.

Despite this, Zilisch is trying to set both high and reasonable expectations for himself between COTA and Five Flags. He knows Spire and PRG are going to prepare race-winning equipment, but Zilisch will consider the marathon day a success if he keeps each vehicle in one piece and obtains valuable knowledge for future starts.

“With the amount of experience I have in NASCAR’s national series, which is basically none, any kind of success would be cool,” Zilisch said. “This year I’m trying to learn as much as I can and not really focus on where I finish. Hopefully we can get some good results [on Saturday].”

The 2024 season has already been a strong one for Zilisch with his accomplishments on road courses. A great weekend between COTA and Five Flags could be crucial for Zilisch to carry that momentum into stock car competition for the rest of the year and beyond.