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NASCAR prospect Connor Zilisch can’t believe he has this opportunity

Gratitude is the watchword for the 17-year-old

Syndication: Daytona Beach News-Journal
Credit: Nigel Cook/News-Journal / USA TODAY NETWORK

It’s the morning of the postponed Daytona 500 and Connor Zilisch is walking through the NASCAR Cup Series garage dressed in Trackhouse Racing gear.

He’s a small part of a very big operation this week, and at 17-years-old, it’s the coolest thing in the world to him. Zilisch is a case study in relationships and how they translate to opportunities. He was signed to a development deal with the growing motorsports outfit over the off-season and it has completely changed his immediate trajectory.

And it all started with a relationship.

“I’ve known Justin for a while,” Zilisch said of Justin Marks, Trackhouse team owner. “He also owns the Trackhouse Motorplex, which I grew up karting at, so I’d run across him and see him from time-to-time.”

So, the connection was already there when Zilisch made his TransAm debut at Virginia International Raceway in a car that was affiliated with the one Marks was driving. They say luck is when preparation meets opportunity and Zilisch dominated that race to the tune of a 46-second advantage over veteran racer Chris Dyson.

“Shortly after that, that’s when talks started to get serious about becoming a development driver and being part of their team,” Zilisch added. “It’s a really cool deal for me. There are not a lot of opportunities like this in this sport with all the ways things have changed over the last decade.

“It’s just an unbelievable chance for me to grow and be with a Cup team and maybe someday race for a Cup team like that, with how they’re growing. It’s a tremendous experience for me because I’m so young and have so much to learn and grow as a driver and a person.”

So here he is, at 17, and he gets simulator time with the organization. He is spending time with the team’s vast array of sponsorship. He is a sponge that gets to shadow Ross Chastain, Daniel Suarez and Shane Van Gisbergen.

That’s to say nothing of the Truck Series and eventually Xfinity Series starts that will come too. Oh, and there was the chance to meet team co-owner Armando ‘Pitbull’ Perez over the weekend too.

“It was just really cool,” Zilisch said. “He’s just a really good dude and you could tell that he really wants what’s best for the people at Trackhouse and in the world really. He brings a really good positive energy to the group and sponsors. He’s just so positive.”

Zilisch already has a schedule that includes national touring starts but they haven’t been formally announced yet. That’s in addition to all the other categories he races across the short track and road racing ranks.

“But it’s really good equipment,” Zilisch said. “I have some Truck Series starts coming up and exciting to get some experience under me. It’s going to be different than everything I’ve already done but I also feel like I have raced so many different cars that I can adapt pretty quickly.

“The big tracks are going to be my biggest learning curve but I’ve also gotten so much sim time that I feel really prepared and I’m going to keep doing my homework so I can be ready for this.”

He says his expectations aren’t based on the results but instead, experience.  

“I just want to get better every time I pull in after a race,” he said. “I already feel like there is a lot of pressure on me to perform so I try not to get in a headspace where I put any more pressure on me than what is already there.”

Ultimately, Zilisch isn’t allowing the pressure to exceed to pleasure, because he knows this is a wonderful place to be at his age. He has to perform, and he knows that, but he is also walking around Daytona on 500 race day doing all the things that got him here in the first place — making connections and positive impressions.

“A lot of racers get caught in the moment and put so much pressure on themselves that they forget to have fun,” Zilisch said. “My dad has always reminded me that if I’m not having fun, I’m not doing it right.

“I want to have a job that I can enjoy for the rest of my life. Sometimes, it doesn’t go well and you have to learn from things but bottom line, I am making a living driving race cars. I love this and I want to always remember to have fun.”

He will surely fit in at Trackhouse just fine.

“I look in the mirror every day and I am super grateful for everyone that has gotten me to this point and has been along for the ride. It’s a dream come true and I’m only 17 so hopefully I get to live this dream out for the rest of my life. It’s all I’ve wanted to do but there’s still a long way to go.”  

Matt Weaver is a Motorsports Insider for Sportsnaut. Follow him on Twitter. 

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