DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.—After six years of hoping, teen racer Tristan Nunez finally got his chance to drive in an endurance race, the NASA 25 Hours of Thunderhill in early December.
The Pro-Am Thunderhill, runs after all the regular racing seasons are over was a perfect cap to a 2012 racing schedule which saw the 17-year-old Nunez become the world’s youngest sports car champion by winning 10 of 14 races in the IMSA Prototypes Lites series, after which he went to England as part of Team USA to win the Walter Hayes Trophy by beating the world’s best Formula Ford drivers.
Driving in the 51st Grand Am Rolex 24 at Daytona will be the perfect way for Nunez to kick of the 2013 competition season.
The Florida teen went from karting to driving in a round-the-clock pro-am endurance race in only six years. He then took another three weeks to move from a pro-am funfest to the Rolex 24 in an internationally renowned, top-tier professional contest—participation in which is the pinnacle of many drivers’ careers.
Not only is Nunez driving in one of the world’s most prestigious endurance events, he has a factory ride. He was taped by Mazda North American motorsports Competition Director John Doonan to co-drive one of the company’s new GX entries, the SkyActiv-D diesel-powered Mazda6.
Nunez talked about how it came to pass while standing in the Mazda garage at Daytona International Speedway during the Roar Before the Rolex 24.
“When I was over in England racing for Team USA, John Doonan from Mazda was over at Brands Hatch watching the race,” Nunez explained. “I performed … one of my best—not as good as Silverstone though, but he saw me win both heat races and he saw me race throughout the whole Prototype Lites championship and saw that I was doing really well and we connected really well. He asked me if I wanted to drive in the 24, so … How could I turn down an offer like that?”
It is hard to explain how huge an achievement this is for young Nunez. At 17, he has been picked to drive in one of the three most important endurance races in North America, and to drive for a factory team, at that. Nunez will be driving one of three Mazda6’s entered in the Rolex in partnership with SpeedSource Racing, which won a Rolex GT championship in the Mazda RX8—SpeedSource is synonymous with Mazda road-racing victory.
The enormity of the size of this step up is not lost on the young driver. “Just seeing the past, the RX8, and being able to start a new development with the new Mazda6 clean diesel Skyactiv motor is such an honor. It’s my debut in a pro event, so it’s just a big deal all around. Words can’t describe how I feel right now,” he said.
Nunez will be sharing the No. 00 VisitFlorida/ SpeedSource Mazda6 with Spencer Pigot (a co-driver at Thunderhill,) Joel Miller, Tristan Vautier, and Mazda racing legend Yojiro Terada. Pigot, Miller, and Vautier earned the ride with repeated successes in one of Mazda’s driver development programs, MazdaSpeed Motorsports Ladder or the Mazda Road to Indy.
“We have Joel Miller and Tristan Vautier—Tristan Vautier is the Indy Lights champion and Joel has been in the Mazda ladder system for quite a while also,” Nunez said of his teammates. “Our teammate Yojiro Terada is a Mazda hero. I think he’s got a little bit of a record in the 24 Hours of Le Mans—he’s raced there like 28 times or something like that.
“This whole team—it’s just such an honor to be a part of it.”
Unfortunately, only the No. 70 SpeedSource car was ready in time for the Roar, and it had the kind of teething problems expected from a brand new and sophisticated racing machine. After installing a new engine, the car managed some fast laps Saturday night and Sunday.
Nunez seemed disappointed not to be driving but was not worried about the minor mechanical issues.” It’s going to be a strong team, just getting out the little gremlins here, at the Roar,” he said confidently. “It’s a brand new motor, a brand new package, so, just got to figure everything out. I’m looking forward to racing it hard.”
So—does the world’s youngest sports car champion see a future with SpeedSource and Mazda? Hard to say. The Rolex deal was a one-off, but there may be seats available during the regular Rolex Sports car Series season.
“We’ll see if anything else comes about with the team; I wouldn’t turn it down. Just working with the guys this weekend so far—I’ve bonded with them so well and I’d love to work for them again in the future.”
Still, his first and strongest desire has been to race in the American Le Mans Series and eventually at Le Mans. After winning the IMSA Lites title with Performance Tech Motorsports, the speedy teen hopes to step up to that team’s LMPC car.
“I am always open to do the LMPC deal,” he emphasized. “That’s what I wanted to do from the very beginning. But I can’t turn down an offer like this. It’s just such an honor. We’ll see what happens in the next couple of months here. … All the doors are still open. We’ll see.”
Whatever he ends up driving in 2013, one thing is certain: Tristan Nunez will be driving it as fast as it can go.
The 51st Grand Am Rolex 24 at Daytona starts at 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 26 and takes the checkered flag Sunday afternoon. Tickets are available through Grand-Am.com.
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