Jared Thomas takes the title of the thinnest of the season over Connor Zilisz
The Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup featured BFGoodrich Tires races are infamous for their photo finishes, and the 2022 title fight ended in a similar fashion. Although Connor Zilish (No. 72, Hixon Motor Sports) took the race win on Thursday, it was Jared Thomas (No. 96, JTR Motorsports Engineering) who edged away from the doublehead final by a narrow 10 points.
Three riders had a chance to claim the 2022 title in the final event; Thomas was 55 points ahead of Gresham Wagner (No. 5 Spark Performance) and 140 points ahead of Zilisz.
The trio were part of the leading group in Thursday’s race, but Wagner only completed five laps before a broken steering rack took him out of the race and out of the hunt for the championship.
By winning Thursday’s race and also taking pole position in Friday’s race, Zilis was able to close out the championship just 30 points behind Thomas.
“I go out on the track to win and that’s exactly what I did,” Zilis said. “However, I have to thank (teammate) Celine (Rolland). He helped me more than I expected and more than he needed. Thank you to the entire Hixon Motor Sports team, the championship is now underway and I’m looking forward to tomorrow to see what I can do. I’m just going to go out there with the same goal of winning the race, and whatever happens will happen.”
Friday’s race was very dramatic. Thomas and Zilis were once again mixed up in the leading group, but this time Thomas collided with another car and nearly hit the tires in turn two. race and Zilisch was in the lead.
It seemed that his championship hopes were dashed, but over the next 13 minutes, Thomas was able to return to ninth place without the help of any full-fledged yellows.
Zilis played conservatively after the Thomas incident and finished sixth. There should have been enough points difference for Zilisz to claim the championship, but the post-race penalty applied to Alex Bachura (No. 33 Spark Performance) moved Thomas up to eighth, giving him a 10-point lead over Zilisz.
“I literally didn’t know I won the championship until I found out right in the pit lane after the race,” Thomas said. “But what other fashion would happen in the Mazda MX-5 Cup? I mean it’s been like that all year, so competitive. Congratulations to Connor, he’s had a hell of a year. I really love my JTR guys. We spent many long days building a team and building this program. It’s just a dream come true. It is important to me that all the other great riders participate in this series and leave their mark on it, and now I can finally do it. I think this is one of the top sports car championships in North America, simply the best sports car racing you can experience and winning a championship is just an amazing feeling!”
In the MX-5 Cup championship, Thomas received the $250,000 grand prize from Mazda and was surprised by a year’s lease on a new Mazda CX-50 at the series banquet.
Zilis was heartbroken that he lost the championship by a close margin, but he was voted Rookie of the Year and earned $80,000 from Mazda that comes with that achievement.
“I only see what is in front of me and they (the team) told me on the radio that Jared was out of the race and that if I just bring him home I will win the championship. So I did that and on the last lap I pointed out to another driver as they were going for the win and I didn’t want to crash. I gave up my seat and in the end Jared got enough seats to overtake me on the last lap. It’s a pity”.
Perhaps the championship fight at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta was overshadowed by the performance of Tyler Gonzalez (No. 51 of Copeland Motorsports), who finished third on Thursday and won the race on Friday. This brought his total wins for the season to four, the same as Zilisz. If not for missing the Road America rounds, Gonzalez could very well be a contender for the 2022 championship.
The 2023 Mazda MX-5 Cup Championship will begin January 26-29 at Daytona International Speedway. Mazda has upped the ante for drivers by adding payouts for every race in the following season, bringing manufacturer backing to the series to over $1 million.