When fan favorite TJ Zizzo made his final pass at the 2021 NHRA Midwest Nationals in St. Louis, the second-generation Top Fuel driver knew he needed to make a change if he was going to seriously chase his dream. Zizzo has passionately worked and fought to make a name for himself battling the biggest stars in the NHRA for the past three decades. His efforts have paid off to a limited degree with a strong fan following and a final round appearance in 2020. The return of professional drag racing to Route 66 Raceway in Joliet, Ill. for the Gerber Collision and Glass Route 66 NHRA Nationals, May 19-21, has provided Zizzo and his Rust-Oleum backed Top Fuel dragster team, known across the sport as the Rust-Oleum Rocket, the chance to keep the dream alive.
“It’s great to go out to my hometown track again,” said Zizzo. “We haven’t competed there since 2019 and my phone has been ringing off the hook since news came out that the Gerber Collision and Glass Nationals were coming back to town. That’s a big deal to us since so many of our marketing partners are from the Chicagoland area. My family and friends can all go to the races.”
One of the latest elements for Zizzo will be the addition of a new race car thanks to a generous offer by NHRA Hall of Fame driver and team owner, Don Schumacher. For years, Zizzo and his team competed on a budget repurposing quality parts and chassis to race with the better funded teams. They made a gallant effort and saw flashes of success. Zizzo feels like his career could now be turning a corner with an updated Top Fuel dragster.
“After St. Louis 2021, we knew we couldn’t keep up with the best in the sport anymore,” said Zizzo. “We really tried hard with our older equipment and car but we knew we needed to change. Don Schumacher reached out to us and offered to build a car that could be competitive.”
The commitment and rededication to racing was not an easy decision for Zizzo, who also owns and operates a thriving auto body and paint business outside of Chicago. He had been able to keep his quality team of crew members intact but investing in a race team was not a decision he took lightly. Luckily, he had the support of his family, his team and long-time marketing partners like Rust-Oleum.
“I hesitated for a long time and it was actually my son, Nick, and my dad, Tony, who ultimately made the decision for us to say, ‘Let’s go ahead and do this’ so we could compete at the very highest level. I also couldn’t have done this without the support and encouragement of my team,” said Zizzo. “Getting everything right goes beyond the parts when it comes to making a difference. In fact, it took us a solid year to get this car ready to go out here and pass. We haven’t had a chance in my entire 30-plus years of driving to have the same equipment that our competitors have. We’ve always been a little behind.”
Recently the team tested at Lucas Oil Raceway Park in Indianapolis and Zizzo was very pleased with the results. The 12,000-horsepower Rust-Oleum Top Fuel dragster made quick and consistent passes that gave the team the confidence to make the commitment to race in Chicago.
“It was amazing. Just standing on the gas to do a burnout in one of these cars is exciting,” said Zizzo. “There are all new sights and sounds in this Rust-Oleum Top Fuel dragster and it felt fantastic. This car just went straight down the racetrack. Our old car never did that. I can’t wait to get to Joliet and see what we can do.”