Christian Rasmussen and Connor Zilisch Entrusted to Drive the Closing Crucial Stints
By Tony DiZinno
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Just as a basketball team needs to figure out who are the first and second options to take the game-winning shot before the final buzzer sounds, a race team needs to figure out its final driver rotation to ensure it has the best chance of securing victory in the Rolex 24 At Daytona.
With Bronze-rated driver Dwight Merriman having completed his minimum drive time, Era Motorsport had three options at its disposal for the last five hours in Le Mans Prototype 2 (LMP2) with its No. 18 ORECA LMP2 07.
There was Ryan Dalziel, the steady, solid and successful 41-year-old Scottish shoe tried-and-trusted in this scenario with a pair of Rolex watches already secured (2010 overall, 2021 in LMP2).
The team also had two drivers with a combined age of 40 and a combined one prior Rolex 24 start: race sophomore Christian Rasmussen, the 23-year-old Dane, and race rookie Connor Zilisch, the 17-year-old North Carolina native.
Era Motorsport gave the kids a shot. The first person to back up the decision was Dalziel, who stepped out of the car for the final time at 8:42 a.m. ET, with just under five hours to go in the 24-hour marathon at Daytona International Speedway.
Dalziel’s wisdom and experience helped turn what had been an off-balance car into a better dialed-in chassis from night practice on Thursday before the race.
“It’s been a rough 10 days,” he told the NBC broadcast. “We didn’t roll off as well as we usually do, but we turned it around for night practice and got super strong. We’re really good on long runs and out front.
“And the two young guns, Connor and Christian, are killing it.”
In that time, both youngsters were tasked with going against the No. 04 CrowdStrike by APR ORECA and its pair of contenders, in the form of last year’s overall winner Colin Braun and similar young star Malthe Jakobsen, a Peugeot reserve driver who has speed in spades.
Rasmussen jumped in the car after Dalziel got out and ran just under two hours, with Zilisch in next for a pivotal stint.
Rasmussen not only held Braun honest, but he often ran faster over the course of his stint. Then Zilisch kept up the pace in his hour and 20 minutes, with Braun able to close somewhat but not enough.
That CrowdStrike team handed off to Jakobsen for the finish, thus ensuring a battle between the Danes for the finish as Rasmussen got the closing distinction in his only scheduled IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship start of the year. He extended the lead to 15 seconds before it disappeared due to the final full-course caution but expanded to a winning victory margin of 6.8 seconds.
Dalziel, who will close in the standard-length IMSA races with Merriman starting, enjoyed watching the next generation show up and show out.
“I think Christian was the man for the job there at the end; I don’t think you want anyone else other than him,” Dalziel said. “He’s a beast in this car, and Connor, at 17 years old you just can’t say enough about him.”
Both young drivers have a lot to look forward to, and both have a General Motors connection. Zilisch, who emerged as a star within the Whelen Mazda MX-5 Cup presented by Michelin ranks the last couple years, has signed a Trackhouse Racing development contract and will be part of the Chevrolet NASCAR program in the coming months. Rasmussen, the 2023 Indy NXT champion, will drive a Chevrolet-powered car for Ed Carpenter Racing in most 2024 IndyCar Series races.
On this day, though, their focus was simple: ensuring Era got a second Rolex 24 win after its first in 2021. Rasmussen ranked third in the race fastest lap for LMP2 cars; Zilisch ranked fifth. Braun and Jakobsen were first and second but by small margins.
“I was 17 coming into this weekend, but after all this stress I feel like I’m 35 now!” Zilisch laughed.
“I’m just so proud of the entire Era Motorsport team. They never gave up. Things weren’t always easy, but it’s a long race, and they knew that and made sure I knew that because I’m a rookie at this stuff.”
Rasmussen added, “It’s been an amazing few weeks here at Daytona with Era Motorsport. The team has done such an amazing job all weekend getting the car in the window. We weren’t always the fastest car and we were really struggling during the Roar (Before the Rolex 24 test sessions), but hard work and determination from the team got the car in the window, and ultimately that’s what we needed to win the race.”
The age juxtaposition came into focus when Trackhouse released a video after the race on its social media channels.
Team principal Justin Marks, a former Rolex 24 class winner himself, with Zilisch in his office, wrote to Zilisch’s high school teacher:
“Please excuse Connor from school. He was winning the 24 Hours of Daytona.”
Best excuse note ever!