Tristan Nunez, the youngest sports car champion in history, left America after dominating the IMSA Cooper Tire Prototype Lites season to take on the world’s best young drivers in single-seaters in England.
Despite being out of his element, Nunez did what he does best—the just-turned-17 racer captured two poles, won two heat races, and in the finale against 120 of the best young drivers in the world, Nunez finished first.
“I’m so in shock I can’t believe it,” was the young racer’s first reaction. To others, the result was not so surprising; after beating the best in the U.S., why would Nunez not do well against the rest of the world?
Winning the Walter Hayes Trophy caps an incredible first full-time season of racing for Tristan Nunez. He started by winning the first several races races of the season and finished with 12 poles, 11 wins, and seven track records.
The young Floridian was in England via the Team USA scholarship program for young American drivers. Nunez was sent overseas as part of the Cliff Dempsey Racing team to test his mettle in two important events on classic English tracks: the 40th annual Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch’s, and the 12th Walter Hayes Trophy Race Meeting at Silverstone.
Despite not having driven a single-seater for the entire 2012 season, Nunez quickly adapted for the first of two race weekends. Brand’s Hatch was wet and the car unfamiliar, but Nunez was still able to win two poles and two heat races, though he lost the final to the defending champion, Ireland’s Ivor McCullough, a Formula 3 driver at home in single-seaters.
Nunez tried a very brave double pass for the lead on lap six of the rain-shortened 13-lap event, but slid wide on the wet tarmac which sent him off-track and well down the order. While trying to work his way back through the field, his engine failed, ending his day.
Despite his final placing, Nunez proved that he could take a strange car on a new track in terrible conditions and run up front with the best in the world.
“I really did not have any grand expectations other than to do my best and to learn a lot,” Nunez wrote in his blog at teamusa.is.mcmurry.com. “I was faced with many obstacles and was way out of my comfort zone. The most concerning obstacle was racing in the rain, and I was thrown into the wet conditions in the very first session.”
The 120-car field for the Walter Hayes weekend was divided into eight heat races. Nunez faced McCullough again in their heat race; the teen driver was satisfied to finish fourth.
“It was definitely an experience,” said Nunez in a press statement. “The draft here is just huge, so I got passed by two cars on the straightaway, and then two cars got together on the final corner. I had a run going onto the front straightaway for the last lap and lost it by a hair, but it was an amazing race.
“The car wasn’t perfect. We had a little bit of understeer, but this was the first full-dry session we’ve ever had throughout this whole weekend so it was kind of expected. I still have some things to learn myself, and we’ve looked at the data and found a couple of things so I think we should be good for tomorrow.”
Nunez finished fourth again in his semi-final race, setting second-fastest lap.
For the finale, the drivers again faced rain. Nunez, who sites his adaptability as a major asset, proved it by quickly moving to third, trailing two three-time winners of the event, Peter Dempsey and Joey Foster.
This time Nunez bided his time, and two laps from the end seemed to earn a reward for his patience: Dempsey and Foster tangled, giving the Florida teen the lead.
He didn’t hold it long; on the next lap Ivor McCullough sneaked past. Nunez watched and waited, and when, on the final lap, McCullough made the slightest error, the young American champion swept by to take the win.
“I thought I could win it when I started to catch the first two, and when they crashed I thought, okay, this was meant to be, this was definitely meant to be,” said Nunez. “I still don’t have the words to explain it!”
“On the last lap McCullough got around me and I got a really good run coming out of the first corner. I just stuffed it in going into Turn Three,” Nunez explained. “I made it stick but then that slowed everyone else down and P3 was able to get around him and spread the gap a little bit. I saw the checkered flag in the corner and I thought, please throw it!“I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t want to slow down because I wasn’t sure it was the checkered flag but then I saw everyone clapping and I thought: ‘Okay, it’s over!’”
“I feel so blessed to be able to be a part of the elite list of drivers that have come through the Team USA scholarship and to have my name engraved on the Walter Hayes Trophy. This has been an experience of a life time and one that I will never forget.”
Nunez has yet to announce his plans for 2013, but it is safe to say, he could drive anywhere he wants. He has shown exceptional talent in a variety of cars and conditions, and even facing vastly more experienced drivers, always finds a way to win.