Wagner Wins MX-5 Cup Race One at St. Petersburg in Photo Finish
 March 4, 2023| 
  • Series News

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (March 4, 2023) - In Round Three of the Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich® Tires, Gresham Wagner (No. 5 Spark Performance) and Connor Zilisch (No. 72 Hixon Motor Sports) put on a show for the final lap. The pair traded places and then drag-raced out of the final turn to the finish at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg street circuit.


Starting third on the grid, Wagner took the lead on the first and only restart from yellow, for a stranded car in the first turn. A few laps later, Zilisch was in Wagner’s mirrors and the two pulled away from the rest of the field.


Helping the duo pull away was the scrum for the final podium spot behind them. Thomas Annunziata (No. 10 Hixon Motor Sports) was the first to pull away from that pack, but once Sam Paley (No. 28 McCumbee McAleer Racing) got through, he was hot on Annunziata’s heels.


Near the halfway mark of the 45-minute race, Zilisch took over the lead and Wagner settled into second but was planning his move for the closing laps of the race.


On the penultimate lap, Wagner made the pass and retook the lead. Zilisch stayed glued to his bumper though and in the final corner of the final lap, Zilisch managed to nose inside of Wagner. Zilisch was by Wagner exiting the turn, but the move scrubbed off too much speed for Zilisch. Wagner pulled alongside Zilisch and they drag-raced to the finish line. Wagner crossed the line 0.021-second ahead of Zilisch.


"I messed up on the start there,” Wagner said. “We were down in the paint and everyone's going into Turn One. Connor (Zilisch) had to kind of get out of the way to keep from crashing. I really appreciate that because he saved both our races on the first lap. I knew I had made a mistake. So, when I saw him [Zilisch] coming, I didn't fight him too hard. I figured I'd give him his time at the front and let him see what he could do and not race him too hard, especially after he cut me a break at the beginning.


“I knew I had something there at the end,” Wagner said. “I made a couple of mistakes and had to get it back, but I know he [Zilisch] wants to win just as much as me and races just as hard as me. It got physical, but we both finished, one-two as we should have. It's hard racing and it's fun racing. There may be a few things that could have gone differently for either of us. At the end of the day, it was a good race one and I look forward to the race this afternoon." 


With the win Wagner nets himself $6,000 from Mazda.


It’s the second time Zilisch has missed a St. Pete win by fractions of a second. Last year, Zilisch finished 0.061-second behind teammate Selin Rollan (No. 87 Hixon Motor Sports). Looking back on his race today, Zilisch acknowledged where he made mistakes and noted that even the smallest mistake has big consequences in MX-5 Cup.


"One of my things in racing, whether it's karts or cars, whatever I'm racing, I like to take control of the race,” Zilisch said. “Getting to the lead allowed me to do that. It's harder when you're behind. If you make a mistake you can lose the front guy, but if you make a mistake out front, you're able to keep the lead. I like to be in control of the race and just take it in my own hands, that's kind of the reason I wanted to lead all those laps." 


“I made the mistake when I was leading. I had a bit of a gap with three or four to go and in just one corner I made a tiny mistake and that's all it takes when you're racing someone as good as Gresham. He got to my bumper and I should have protected, that's my fault. I should have stayed in control, but I gave him the lead. Then on the last lap, I gave him what he gave me, so I gave him a bumper and we just weren't able to get the run to the line. P2 isn't that bad, you always want to win. I'm here to win, I'm not here to go for a championship. We'll go in for Race Two and hopefully capitalize on someone else's mistakes and be able to win." 


In the fight for third, Annunziata and Paley were eventually joined by Aaron Jeansonne (No. 24 JTR Motorsports Engineering). Paley made his way past Annunziata with 12 minutes to go. Annunziata’s fight with Jeansonne gave Paley the slightest of breathing room to come home in the final podium spot.


"Unfortunately, I was too conservative at the beginning and there's just too big of a gap in order to make it up,” Paley said. “At the end, we had a good car and really worked hard to run down Thomas [Annunziata] and then kind of ran out a car and just held on at the end, but I think we had the speed to be there, so thanks to McCumbee McAleer Racing.


“For the race this afternoon, I think that it's really hard to pass here and it's really easy to defend, so I need to definitely be more aggressive early on getting those moves done early in the race this afternoon. Considering everyone's schedules and conflicts, I think we're really in it for the championship. Unfortunately, we had an unlucky race two with a DNF at Daytona, but every race we finished so far this year, we got a podium. So I'm happy."


Jeansonne finished fourth and Annunziata, the highest finishing rookie, was fifth.


Finishing 19th, Heather Hadley (No. 54 Spark Performance) was the highest placed female driver and earned herself $2,000 from Mazda.


Race Two in St. Petersburg will take place at 4:45pm ET. A livestream is available on RACER.com.

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