Jared Thomas Takes Season Title by Slimmest of Margins over Connor Zilisch
Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich Tires races are infamous for having photo finishes, and the 2022 title fight ended in a similar fashion. Though Connor Zilisch (No. 72 Hixon Motor Sports) took the win in Thursday’s race, it was Jared Thomas (No. 96 JTR Motorsports Engineering) who came away from the doubleheader finale with the championship by a slim 10 points.
Three drivers had a shot at the 2022 title coming into the final event; Thomas was 55 points ahead of Gresham Wagner (No. 5 Spark Performance) and 140 points ahead of Zilisch.
The trio were part of the lead group in Thursday’s race, but Wagner only made it five laps before a broken steering rack took him out of the race and out of the championship hunt.
By winning Thursday’s race and also earning the pole for Friday’s race, Zilisch was able to close the championship to only 30 points behind Thomas.
“I come to the track to win and that’s what I did,” Zilisch said. “I have to thank (teammate) Selin (Rollan), though. He helped me out more than I expected and more than he needed to. Thanks to the whole Hixon Motor Sports team, it’s a championship fight now and I’m just looking forward to tomorrow and see what I’m going to be able to do. I’m just going to go out there with the same goal of winning the race and whatever else happens, happens.”
Friday’s race was high drama. Thomas and Zilisch were once again mixing it up in the lead group, but this time Thomas made contact with another car and nearly slid into the tires in Turn 2. He was able to rejoin in 17th, but there were less than 15 minutes left in the race and Zilisch was leading.
It looked as though his championship hopes were dashed, but over the next 13 minutes, Thomas was able to crawl back to ninth without the assistance of any full-course yellows.
Zilisch played it conservative after Thomas’ incident and finished sixth. It should have been enough of a point difference for Zilisch to claim the championship, but a penalty applied to Alex Bachoura (No. 33 Spark Performance) after the race moved Thomas up to eighth, giving him a 10-point advantage over Zilisch.
“I literally didn’t know that I had won the championship until I found out right there on pit lane after the race,” Thomas said. “But what other fashion would it happen in Mazda MX-5 Cup? I mean, that’s how it’s been all year long, so competitive. Congrats to Connor, he’s had a hell of a year. I’m really stoked for my JTR guys. There have been a lot of long days we’ve put in to build the team and build this program. This is just a dream come true. The big thing for me is all the other great race car drivers that have been in this series and put their mark on it and now I finally get to do that. I think it is one of the premier sports car championships in North America, just the best sports car racing you can experience and to win the championship is just an amazing feeling!”
With the MX-5 Cup championship, Thomas claimed the $250,000 grand prize from Mazda and was surprised with a one-year lease on a new Mazda CX-50 at the series banquet.
Zilisch was heartbroken about losing the championship by the slimmest of margins, but he was crowned rookie of the year and earned $80,000 from Mazda that comes with the accomplishment.
“I can only see what’s there in front of me and they (team) were telling me on the radio that Jared was out of the race, and to just bring it home and I would win the championship. So, I did that, and on the last lap I pointed another driver by as they were going for the win and I didn’t want to get wrecked. I gave the spot up and Jared ended up getting enough spots to jump me on the last lap. Super unfortunate.”
Perhaps overshadowed by the championship battle at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta was the performance of Tyler Gonzalez (No. 51 Copeland Motorsports), who finished third on Thursday and won Friday’s race. That brought his total to four wins on the season, the same as Zilisch. Had it not been for missing the Road America rounds, Gonzalez could have very much been a contender for the 2022 championship.
The 2023 Mazda MX-5 Cup Championship begins January 26-29 at Daytona International Speedway. Mazda has upped the ante for drivers by adding per-race payouts next season, which brings the manufacturer’s support for the series to more than $1 million.