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Zach Hillmann is dominating GTS2 and has dad to thank for it.
A few years ago, Douglas Hillmann was on the stand watching his son Zach race, and knew he was about to make a rookie mistake going into a corner. Zach was ready to pass an out-of-class car, even though he had a sizeable lead in the GTS2 race. That’s when his father got on the radio.
“Don’t pass him,” Douglas told Zach on the radio, anticipating his next move. “I could see this gap and I’m like, ‘Son of a bitch, he’s going to go for that and he shouldn’t.’”
It’s that father-and-son teamwork that has helped propel Zach to back-to-back NASA Eastern States Championships in GTS2.
“Seeing Zach and his dad work together, communicate together, talk about the details of the racing is special to see,” said Jason Eberhardt, a friend and fellow GTS2 racer. “When they are at the track, they are on the same page. They are seeking the same goals, talking about the same things and they are working together almost seamlessly.”
Zach Hillmann’s success in the Great Lakes region and beyond isn’t by chance. Hillmann is a gifted driver who puts in long hours studying tracks and prepping his 944 Porsche.
“He does possess a certain amount of God-given talent, that’s for sure, but the kid works really hard at his craft,” the elder Hillmann said. “They don’t realize how much time and energy Zach puts in on the simulator and building his car.”
Hillmann’s parents divorced at an early age and Zach would spend weekends with his father in the shop restoring cars and occasionally joining him at the track. “I’m sure I was annoying my dad more than helping my dad, nonetheless, I was there and working with him,” Zach said.
After Douglas Hillmann was laid off as an options trader in September 2001, he decided to turn his hobby into a livelihood. He founded VFC-Motorsport in Chicago to do maintenance and repairs on German automobiles.
Zach learned to drive a manual transmission car on his grandparents’ Wisconsin farm when he was 11, and at age 14 got to run laps on the track by himself (and an instructor) with a local car club.
“It was probably the slowest five laps of my life, but this track and the car that I was driving were super safe,” Zach said. “It definitely sent us both on a downward spiral, so to speak, of long hours, spending lots of money and time building racecars so my dad and I can go racing.”
When Zach turned 15, he took part in NASA’s HPDE program doing HPDE1 through HPDE3 in a single weekend. It was at that point, Zach said they decided to put more energy into racing.
The 27-year-old Hillmann, while hoping for a pro ride, is immersed in the racing industry through the shop he co-owns with his father. They expanded to offer an arrive-and-drive program, and Hillmann provides driver coaching to clients. Between racing and running the arrive-and-drive program, the younger Hillmann is on the road up to 30 weekends a year.
Hillmann practices what he preaches to his clients in getting prepared for a race.
“It’s sort of an overused saying, but typically the race is won at the shop,” said Hillmann, emphasizing the need to go over the racecar, change fluids and make repairs before arriving at the track.
Hillmann reviews notes and videos of the track before arriving for the weekend. He also spends time practicing on a simulator, typically after a 12-hour work day. At the track, Hillmann does mental exercises to get emotionally prepared.
“I do some mental preparation exercises that help align the hemispheres of my brain,” he said. “I also do a lot of visual training with my eyes, because your eyes, ears and butt are the most important tools as a driver.”
Hillmann describes his driving style as “smart aggression” by picking his spots on the track and weighing the benefits. “He doesn’t take unnecessary risks,” Douglas Hillmann said. “He takes risks when the reward is worth the risk he’s taking.”
The younger Hillmann’s approach has worked, delivering Eastern States Championships in 2015 and 2016 in GTS2. Previously, Hillmann had back-to-back third-place finishes at the Championships in 2013 and 2014. Maybe more impressive is that Hillmann has either set or reset the GTS2 lap record at many of the tracks where he’s competed.
The Hillmann’s 53-foot semi-truck and large awning is the base camp for many of the GTS2 teams at NASA races in the Great Lakes region. They’ll frequently dole out tools, parts and driving advice to anyone who asks.
The dream for Zach, like many grass-roots racers, is to get a ride in the professional ranks. Self-funding isn’t an option, especially when a pro race weekend can top $20,000.
Eberhardt is one of those who would like to see Hillmann get the opportunity.
“I think it would be a shame if he didn’t get his chance to at least prove himself at that level,” Eberhardt said. “If I had the funding, I would back him.”
Hillmann credits his fiancé Rachel Hooczko and mother Margaret for supporting them between the long hours at the shop and the weekend race trips. He also appreciates the time he’s spending with his father.
“There’s nothing in the world that I’d give in exchange for what my Dad and I’ve been doing over the last six years,” Zach said. “Absolutely nothing.”
The same goes for Douglas Hillmann who would love to be on the radio if Zach found a pro ride.
“We didn’t get to spend a lot of time together when he was younger … so this is very special,” Douglas said. “The memories of the wins, those I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life.”