Tristan Nunez, the world’s youngest sports car champion, got a taste of real endurance racing over the weekend and to say it suited him would be a vast understatement.
Nunez, who started carting at age 12 and at age 16 won the IMSA Prototypes Lites national championship, had never been in a race longer than 45 minutes prior to signing up for the NASA Thunderhill 25, the longest race in the U.S. Nunez had to adapt to a new car, a new track, lots of traffic and a completely different sort of racing than he had ever done—and adapt he did.
Despite finishing second in class, foiled by a pair of late caution periods after nursing a damaged car through half the race, the 17-year-old driver came away with one very certain impression: “I know for a fact that THIS is what I want to do for my career!”
For the young Floridian, everything about the race was new and different: for the first time he would be racing in the dark, and on a brand-new track. He would be driving a Mazda Miata with a roof after years driving open sports cars and formula cars. And he would be sharing that Mazda Miata with team-mates while in the past he had always been the lone driver.
Adapting to the car wasn’t too hard. “It only took one session to get used to the Mazda MX5. It was totally different than what I usually drive but it was a blast,” Nunez said in an email interview.
“I had to get used to the H-pattern gear box, ABS brakes, working with a car with a lot of suspension roll, less visibility.” One of the biggest problems? “Getting in and out of car, especially when you are six feet tall. Thank God I’m skinny and flexible.”
Nunez was teamed up with three other young racers in the 55 CJ Wilson Mazda Miata: 20-year-old Spencer Pigot, 2011 and 2012 runner-up in USF2000; 28-year-old Stevan McAleer, 2012 Playboy Mazda MX5 champ; and 18-year-old Elliott Skeer, youngest winner of the MX5 Cup Shootout.
Sharing a ride was no problem, Nunez said. “All the guys got along really great and we had fun but we wanted to win so it wasn’t all fun and games. We all shared our info with each other and we all had flawless stints.”
Egos can be an issue when very competitive people are forced together, but this group focused on the team win.
“There was no competition at all between the drivers,” Nunez said. “We all got along great and worked as a team. We each have our own personalities and driving styles but we all gelled so easily. I truly hope that our paths cross again and we can race together again.”
This all-star Young Guns team was the brainchild of part-time racer CJ Wilson (oh, yes—he is also a starting pitcher for Major League Baseball’s Los Angeles Angels; it’s sort of his side job.) Wilson met Nunez at Skip Barber’s racing school when Nunez was only 13.
“All I can say is that now more than ever I want to be an endurance racer and someday race at Le Mans.”—Tristan Nunez
Despite the age difference, the two became good friends and remained in contact. When Wilson decided to enter a car in the Thunderhill 25 for his two regular drivers, McAleer and Skeer, he knew where to turn to find team-mates.
“CJ picked us because he knew we were good and consistent drivers, which is the key in endurance racing,” Nunez explained. “We all wanted to win it for CJ since he was the man behind it all and was giving us all this incredible opportunity.”
The team very nearly did win. Spencer Pigot got the car into the class lead in the first couple of hours of the race. By the time Nunez finished his first stint, he had the car in sixth overall, with a two-lap advantage on the nearest competitor.
Nunez, used to competing against a couple of dozen cars at most, and being in the fastest class of car on the track, adapted quickly to being in the middle of a field of seventy cars with much more powerful vehicles roaring by all the time.
A penalty due to a fuel spill after this stint cost the team five minutes but Stevan McAleer got the car back into P1 (“He drove it like a beast,” Nunez commented,) then handed off to Elliot Skeer. Skeer was maintaining the lead when, at 11:30 at night, the anti-lock brake system failed, making the car extremely hard to drive.
The team kept on regardless. “When the ABS fails, the tires lock up with very little brake pressure, so you have to be careful with brakes and try to find a way to carry the speed to put in a quick lap time. It does result in slower lap times but we all drive the car to the best of its ability,” Nunez explained.
Despite having a damaged car, the crew kept the car first or second in class; through most of the night and early morning. The two fastest cars in the class swapped the lead during pit stops. As the race wound down, it seemed the CJ Wilson car might manage to win on pit strategy; its competition needed to make one more fuel stop while the Young Guns crew had timed it perfectly to make it to the checkered flag without another stop.
Fate intervened. Two safety car periods in the last three-and-a-quarter hours let the opposition stretch its fuel just far enough. The CJ Wilson Miata finished tenth overall, and second in class. Nunez described it aptly: “We were painfully close to winning it!”Finishing second is usually not much fun, but for Tristan Nunez, the whole race was an exciting adventure. “The thing I learned about endurance racing is team work,” he said. “It’s not about you, it’s about the team and strategy. This experience makes me want to work harder on my fitness—more strength and endurance training for myself.
“All I can say is that now more than ever I want to be an endurance racer and someday race at Le Mans.”
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