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NASCAR's next big hopeful makes national series debut as teenager Zilisch races truck at COTA

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — A promising young driver who might just be one of NASCAR's budding new stars will make his national series debut this Saturday in the Truck Series race at Circuit of the Americas.

Connor Zilisch will then hop a private jet and hustle his way to Pensacola, Florida, to compete in a feeder series race later that night. It's a strange doubleheader — the 17-year-old Zilisch has yet to ever drive in one of NASCAR's trucks or the ARCA East Series.

He's probably got Kevin Harvick — or maybe Harvick's 11-year-old son — to blame for the grueling schedule laid out for him this year.

Born and raised in Charlotte and go-karting before he started school, Zilisch never had any interest in NASCAR despite living in the de facto homebase for America's stock car racing series.

He liked karting, liked racing in Europe, and followed that path. That's how he became karting teammates in 2021 with Keelan Harvick, who was only 8 at the time. When Keelan's father could make it to a race, 15-year-old Zilisch received exposure and advice he once could only have dreamed of accessing.

“Kevin kind of suggested that I look into stock car racing, and he got me my first race in a stock car when I was 15, and I qualified on the pole and was leading the race until the engine broke,” Zilisch told The Associated Press. "It was good enough to get me a ride for the season after in the Trans-Am Series and that started my stock car transition.

“It's rare that a father there to see his own son race wants to help someone else, but he was keen to help me and wanted to make sure I got the opportunities that he felt I deserved. I wouldn't be where I am without Kevin's guidance and him giving me the chance to meet the right people. It's not about what you know, it's about who you know, and Kevin knows everybody.”

Zilisch was briefly represented by Harvick's management firm and in January signed a multi-year development deal with Trackhouse Racing.

“This kid is an amazing talent who we wanted to be a part of the Trackhouse family," Trackhouse team owner Justin Marks said. "We are going to go slow with Connor and make sure he’s fully prepared as he advances in what we believe will be a long racing career.”

He'll run a variety of different series this year in the CARS Tour, ARCA, Trans-Am, IMSA, Trucks, and, when he turns 18 later this year, is expected to enter four Xfinity Series races for JR Motorsports.

In all, Zilisch figures he has 37 race weekends scheduled for this year spanning multiple series.

His NASCAR debut comes with Spire Motorsports in a truck on the road course of the Austin, Texas track, and Spire drivers have won three of the first four Truck Series races this season.

But Zilisch goes to COTA on a winning streak of his own. Age eligible to compete in IMSA sports car racing, he made his debut in January as the endurance driver for Era Motorsports and picked up LMP2 class wins in both the Rolex 24 at Daytona and last weekend at the 12 Hours of Sebring.

He also finished second at Sebring in both Mazda MX-5 Cup races last weekend — losing both on last-lap passes. His second defeat was by a scant .0004 seconds.

Zilisch's credentials are legitimate and now he gets to see what he can do in NASCAR, where he's not eligible until he turns 18 in July to compete in anything higher than the Truck Series.

This first weekend is a big one for him — even after his two wins in his first-ever endurance races. Prior to Daytona and Sebring, Zilisch had never raced in an event that lasted longer than an hour.

All his preparation for his Truck Series debut has been in a simulator and his 20-minute practice session at COTA will be his first time on track in a truck.

“I just want to run all the laps. The Truck Series is totally new to me, so I don't want to set my expectations anywhere,” Zilisch said. “I do want to succeed, but I've got to do what's in my control and not make mistakes. Pit road is going to be new to me, so just minimizing mistakes, if I can do that, the speed will be there and I can get a good finish. It's going to be tricky.”

And then it's off to Pensacola, where Zilisch will start his pursuit of the ARCA East championship. Because he will be at COTA starting Thursday, he'll be jumping directly in the car once he arrives.

“I'm going to show up without practice or qualifying and just start the race," he said. “I've never been to Pensacola before ... it's definitely not going to be easy to show up without any experience at the place, but I feel confident in the team around me.”

His motto for what will be a whirlwind season driving in just about every series is simple: “I've just got to show up and learn quickly.”

Zilisch has so far done that at every step of his young career.

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AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing