DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Ask most 17-year-olds what they’re doing at that age, and it’s likely they’ll tell you the main reason to stay up for 24 hours is for all-night study sessions, or perhaps for homework.
For Connor Zilisch, however, that answer came in the form of a Rolex Cosmograph Daytona on Sunday afternoon at Daytona Int’l Speedway.
Competing in his first Rolex 24 at Daytona and racing in the competitive Le Mans Prototype 2 class, Zilisch went from virtual unknown – outside the Whelen Mazda MX-5 Cup and road-course ladder ranks – to overnight sensation at the World Center of Racing.
At 17 years, six months, and seven days old, the Mooresville, N.C., teenager turned in laps behind the wheel of the No. 18 Era Motorsport ORECA 07 that made him look like an endurance racing veteran at times.
Though it was Danish co-driver Christian Rasmussen who ultimately finished the twice-around-the-clock event, several of Zilisch’s driving stints came while Era Motorsport was leading the LMP2 running order.
It was a marked change for Zilisch, whose past sports car experience came in shorter MX-5 Cup and Trans-Am TA2 sprint races, but he was able to adapt quickly after a near-miss right at the start.
“I had some rookie mistakes,” Zilisch admitted after the race. “My very first lap, I locked up and almost hit the wall in turn six. I had to reverse out of it, [but] once I got that out of the way, things got a lot more comfortable.
“It was just a pleasure, honestly, coming here and racing with Era Motorsports. A lot of these guys put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into this program, and it's just a pleasure to be a part of it,” he added. “The main thing for me that I enjoyed was the amount of fun that I actually got to have, and I got to enjoy the ride thanks to my teammates and everyone at the team who just made this an enjoyable experience.”
While many pundits wouldn’t have tabbed the Era Motorsports team as the eventual winner in the first 12 hours of the race, Zilisch noted it was steady persistence by all four drivers that led them to success.
“Eight hours in when we were running seventh [or] eighth, it didn’t probably look so good … but this entire team never gave up,” he said. “Obviously for me, I’m so used to sprint racing that when you’re running seventh or eighth like that you think, ‘Man, I’m out of this.’
“But when it’s a 24-hour race, it doesn’t really matter where you are until the end. We showed that.”
Teaming with Rasmussen, Ryan Dalziel, and Dwight Merriman, Zilisch became the second-youngest class winner in Rolex 24 history, behind only Michael de Quesada’s GT Daytona triumph in 2017, which came at 17 years, 63 days old.
It was a moment, and “a dream I’ve worked my whole life for,” that left the young Zilisch in disbelief afterward.
“I keep trying to make sure I’m awake and not dreaming still. It’s surreal,” he added. “I was sitting in the pit box there [the last stint], and I couldn’t even watch the race [because] it was so nerve-racking. When [Christian] got out of the car after the checkered, he told me he was completely chill. Man, I would get into the car and I was shaking. I don't know why … but before that last stint, when I had the double right before Christian at the end, it was nerve-racking.”
His nerves faded, however, as the minutes ticked by and a Rolex 24 victory was within reach.
“Once I got in the car, it all went away,” tipped Zilisch of his emotions entering the final stint. “It was a surreal feeling, those last 10 minutes when we realized, ‘Wow, we are going to win this,’ or we had a really good chance at it at least.”
Despite going home from Daytona with a new Rolex on his wrist, Zilisch still noted there’s one thing he can’t do because of his age.
“I can drive a race car, but I can't rent a car,” he laughed. “Dad has got to do that for me.”
Regardless, Zilisch’s story is only getting started, particularly because he has a busy racing season ahead of him.
Signed as a Trackhouse Racing development driver two-and-a-half weeks before the Rolex 24, Zilisch will participate in multiple series over the course of his multi-year contract, under the guidance of Trackhouse co-owner and former driver Justin Marks.
His calendar will be headlined by select appearances in the NASCAR Xfinity Series and NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, as well as a partial late model schedule in the zMAX CARS Tour and multiple races across the ARCA Menards Series platform.
Zilisch will also return to his MX-5 Cup seat with BSI Racing and compete with Silver Hare Racing in the Trans-Am TA2 Series as his busy schedule permits.
But the moment Sunday was about a Rolex 24 triumph, even if Zilisch was quietly humble about where his career trajectory is headed.
“It’s been a wild few weeks for me, but I’m not going to let my head get big. I’ve still got to put in the work,” Zilisch stressed. “I’m only 17. It’s not like I've achieved everything yet.”
At that point, co-driver Dalziel cut in and noted, “You’ve made it, kid,” to which Zilisch shook his head.
“Someone told me I’ve got to retire,” he added jokingly. “I’ve got a 100 percent win rate, so I’ve got to decide on that one.”
Then, pausing a moment, Zilisch closed his thoughts with wisdom far beyond his years.
“I’ve got a long career ahead of me, hopefully, and this is just the beginning.”