Not many Illinois State alumni become professional drag racers. And not a lot of drag racers are college grads.
T.J. Zizzo ’97 is a rare breed – and not just because he enjoys going from zero to 330 miles per hour in 4 seconds. Instead of joining his family’s body shop right out of high school, Zizzo took some advice from a friend’s dad and went to college, studying integrated manufacturing systems at Illinois State.
Not a lot of drivers on the NHRA Top Fuel Series have college degrees, Zizzo says, and that’s given him a huge advantage in a business that requires corporate sponsors and the ability to schmooze, sell products, and mingle with fans. That’s where all those communication classes from Illinois State come in handy.
“Going to Illinois State made me well-rounded enough to be able to deal with Corporate America,” Zizzo said. “It was the best thing I ever did, because the social skills you learn in college are tremendous.”
The Lincolnshire native followed his girlfriend (and now wife), Jennifer (Wallner) Zizzo ’98, to Illinois State after meeting her his senior year of high school. After graduating college, he returned to his family-owned body shop, Zizzo Enterprises, which he now helps manage with his father, Tony, also a racing veteran. That return enabled him to continue working on his real passion – drag racing.
So what’s it like to drive what’s essentially a 10,000-horsepower rocket car?
“You have adrenaline rushes like you can’t imagine,” Zizzo said. “You slow your mind down, and your reflexes are at your highest. You are adapting to the situation at the time, so it feels really slow, believe it or not.
“You can’t even describe it. It touches all five senses,” he said.
It’s a precision sport – like his other love, golf – and the one motorsport where fans have tremendous access to the pit area where Zizzo and his 12-person team tweak their machine. (Another former Redbird, Matthew Blager ’98, is Zizzo Racing’s supercharger technician.) And for Zizzo, it’s also a genetic passion, because of his dad. He’s had a license to drive a race car since high school.
Zizzo Racing, with PEAK Motor Oil as its title sponsor, competed in 10 events in 2012, including last weekend’s Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Finals in Pomona. Zizzo had his best year in the points standings since he joined the series, despite only racing in about half of the events.
Zizzo, 37, says he’s “on the cusp” of making racing his full-time gig – hitting all 24 Top Fuel Series events a year – possibly in 2014. Like any business, that means money, and Zizzo is always on the hunt for more sponsors.
That’s when he draws on his time at Illinois State.
“When you go away to school, you learn how to learn,” Zizzo said.
Ryan Denham can be reached at email@example.com.