All anyone can say about T.J. Zizzo is “Che vita folle!” . . . What a crazy life! He loves his Italian heritage. His father, Tony Zizzo, even made a quick stop at competitor Luigi Novelli’s pit tis weekend and delivered a cheerful greeting in Italian to his longtime buddy from back home in Chicagoland. But the Rust-Oleum Rocket knows his background comes with some quirky traits.
“I’m a hard-headed dago, you know? The older I get, the more I’m accepting of people saying, ‘Hey TJ, what about doing it this way?’ Now I might say no right away, like that’s my response, right? My response first thing is always, ‘No.’ But then I’ll go back and I’ll think about what they said, and then I’ll be like, ‘OK.’ Maybe the next time somebody brings that same thing up, I’ll say, ‘OK. Let’s try it.’ Crazy Italians, we are hard-headed – but we work really hard at doing what we’re doing. Nobody gets in our way. That’s the crazy thing. And it’s good, but thankfully I’ve surrounded myself with great people and smart people. Everybody’s smarter than me, so now I’ve got to listen. . . . And [we have] some crazy Germans, crazy Mexicans, all of the above . . . crazy Indian guys . . . we’re all nuts. Heck, yeah, we are.”
At any moment he sounded about ready to break into a chorus of Jimmy Buffett’s song “Fruitcakes.”
So that prefaced his explanation of what his new catch-phrase “A.I.” means.
“So, being a crazy Italian,” Zizzo said, “I’ve always got a lot of projects in me. Always. Like if I don’t have five things going on at one time, I’m not happy, right? So about three weeks ago I was starting to feel the butterflies of Indy, right? You feel those butterflies already in your stomach going, ‘Huh, Indy’s coming.’ So I said to myself, ‘All right,’ [and] I told all our guys in our shop and around me, ‘Don’t let me start any new projects. Any big projects going on right now, let’s just slow those down. Don’t let me get too consumed in them,’ because I get consumed in projects. ‘Let’s wait until after Indy and then I’ll go back to those projects.’ So anything that I’ve started is then put on ‘AI’ to be done Tuesday morning when I get back, because I wanted to concentrate on this race. That was the main focus, so I’m not, seriously, refurbishing our offices, or cleaning out our crawl space, or maybe even cleaning out our loft or our semi. No, let’s just focus on what’s going to win us Indy, and we’ll go from there.’ See, I have a tendency to talk too much about not enough. So that’s maybe my problem.”
So he has traded his “in the process of being renovated” front office – “no carpets, no tile, lights are removed, walls are being painted” – for the outdoor office in muggy, warm Indianapolis, about three or four hours south of his Lincolnshire, Ill., body and race shop.
This is only his third appearance of the season, but Zizzo – like Billy Torrence and Jordan Vandergriff – is making the most of his limited schedule. He grabbed the provisional No. 1 qualifying position on Day 1 at the Gatornationals in March at Gainesville, Fla., and left with a semifinal finish. At his home race, at Joliet, Ill., he advanced past Leah Pritchett in the opening round of eliminations. So whenever the Zizzos arrive at the track, the buzz always starts about them being an underfunded underdog – until Zizzo takes to the track. Then they know crew chief Mike Kern and the team aren’t messing around. They don’t get lucky; they earn their place in the Top Fuel mix. They’re here to win.
However, Zizzo said, “We’re not a team that makes big changes. We just continue to work on what we have and continue to improve what we have to make sure we continue to be competitive. We should start where we ended up at Joliet in E2. Or E1. Or Q4. We don’t deviate from our plan, and that’s by design. That makes us a better team moving forward.”
Zizzo pulls out all the stops for the Chevrolet Performance NHRA U.S. Nationals. And it’s a race he talks about in hopeful tones, not uncertain ones: “After I win this race . . . “And why not? Part of the 65-year lore of the U.S. Nationals is unlikely winners, surprise runner-ups, breakout-moment drivers leading the fields, upsets, and plenty of dramatic story lines. So his attitude is one of “Why not me?”
Zizzo loves the magical lure of it all: “Indy, man . . . it’s the big one,” he said. “It’s what you expect. It’s what you want. It’s what you want on your resume. When you win that event, that’s what you want. That’s what I want. It’s what our team wants. We’ll take it one round at a time. We’ll take it one qualifying round at a time, one eliminations round at a time, and then hopefully, at 3:45 p.m. Monday afternoon, I’m holding a Wally. That’s the goal.
“And after I win this race . . .”
Unfortunately for Zizzo, he lost to Brittany Force in the first round, but there’s always next year.
— Competition Plus (@competitionplus) January 4, 2019