Persistence Pays Off for Young Racer Tristan Nunez
Persistence Pays Off for Young Racer Tristan Nunez

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.—An amateur phenom at 15, an international race winner at 16, a winning pro driver at 17, a factory driver at 18, a backmarker at 19, and a championship contender again at age 20—in five years the career of Boca Raton, Florida’s young road racer Tristan Nunez has taken him both higher and lower than most people will ever reach.

After years of winning everything he entered, Nunez had to endure two seasons in a slow car—but based on his performance at the 2016 IMSA WeatherTech Roar Before the 24, the dark days have passed. Tristan Nunez is once again turning lap times on par with the fastest drivers on the continent—because he is once again driving a car worthy of his potential.

Nunez drives the #55 Mazda Prototype in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, a car which had been painfully slow for its first two seasons. With a new engine for 2016, the car has come to life, and Tristan Nunez is once again poised to win every race he enters.

“It feels like I’m back at my roots,” said a laughing Tristan Nunez after his powerful performance at the Roar Before the 24.

Meteoric Rise—and Fall

Tristan Nunez created quite as buzz in sports car circles when he stepped into an IMSA Lites car at age 15 and blew away the field of young up-and-comers and seasoned veterans alike. His rise continued at astonishing speed as he got a ride in a Prototype Challenge car the next season.

At age 17 he was a race winner in the two major professional sports car series in North America. His talent was noted by the folks at Mazda Racing who had already offered him a seat in their diesel-powered Rolex Series GX-class Mazda6.

By age 18 he had achieved what most racers want and very few achieve: he was a contracted factory driver for a major manufacturer, entrusted with Mazda’s brand-new Lola-based diesel-powered prototype in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship (then called the Tudor championship.) All that remained was for him to show up for work every day and end up on Victory Lane at Daytona, Sebring, and eventually, Le Mans.   

“This year we have a different mindset. Our goal is to go out there and win races.”

Except … Mazda’s innovative 2.2-liter twin-turbo diesel power plant, made with 70 percent off-the-shelf street-car parts, simply wasn’t up to the task. Asking a stock-based engine to crank out more than four times the power it was designed to produce was asking too much.

To its credit, Mazda didn’t give up. They reengineered every system, finding ways to deal with the tremendous heat output and the tight packaging, eventually achieving almost adequate performance and acceptable reliability. Still, the engine just wasn’t able to cope with the stresses of racing at the highest level. It worked well enough in a sedan, winning nine GX races and the Manufacturers’ Championship, but in the tight confines of the prototype’s engine bay, it kept cooking itself.

These engine issues meant that the Mazdas were regularly circulating at the back of the prototype pack, struggling to keep up with the GT cars—and also meant that Tristan Nunez’s rapid rise and frequent victories turned into stagnation and frequent disappointment.

The Maturity to Wait

Pressure proves character. Under stress, a person’s true nature is revealed. It had seemed easy for Nunez to be calm, focused, and mature when everything was going his way. When he had the reinforcement of frequent success he could afford to look long-term, analyze and philosophize about his career path—he was doing so well in the short term he had no reason to worry.

When his short-term prospects grew increasingly grim as Mazda kept trying and failing to make its cars work, Nunez could easily have done what many young drivers—many veteran drivers—would have done, and departed from Mazda to pursue more promising paths.

After all, driving is a competitive field—a few losing seasons, and a driver’s stock drops, while there are always young guns blasting up through feeder series, eager to take the seat of any driver whose performance is faltering. Tristan Nunez could have joined the ranks of drivers who almost made it; the ones who did well rising through the ranks but faltered when they hit top-level competition.

And this would have been through no fault of his own. Nunez didn’t lose any quickness, nor did his racecraft deteriorate. Still, once his name started slipping out of people’s minds, his chances to one day stand on the podium at Le Mans slipped downward as well.

No one would have blamed him for departing Mazda’s apparently sinking ship while he still had name recognition. But Tristan Nunez had a little more depth, a little more patience than that. He realized that a factory seat was a rare prize, and not something to be easily surrendered. 

“Sometimes finding success isn’t always about winning.”

Faced with the option of leaving for more immediate success versus eschewing short-term satisfaction—and marketability—for a gamble on a factory ride, Tristan Nunez made a career-oriented gamble. He chose to stay with Mazda and trust they’d take care of him if he stayed loyal to them.

And now, after two years where simply finishing a race was as much of a victory as he could hope for, his gamble appears to be paying off.

“I never considered leaving Mazda,” Nunez said after the Roar Before the 24 in early January. “Not even the slightest bit. I always get peace of mind knowing that everything happens for reason. The last thing I would ever want to do is get greedy, and go against what God has planned for me.”

Nunez also knew that Mazda was committed to the prototype project, willing to spend development funds even when the program wasn’t paying off with marketable results. He is very close with John Doonan, Mazda’s Director of Motorsports in North America. “John took a chance on me when I was just at 17-year-old kid,” Nunez explained, “and put me right into a professional program—because he had faith in me. Just like I have faith in them.

“I don’t think Mazda will ever be out of racing. So the best thing I can do is have faith, and continue to better myself for John and everyone at Mazda.”

Mazda’s commitment to its prototype is a rare thing. Racing is a public relations tool, an expensive advertisement for an auto manufacturer. Factories race not to win, but to create good ad copy, to enhance the image of being top of the class, cutting-edge, powerful, successful … A losing racing program is a huge money loss, and with so many other ways to advertise—after all, a lot of auto manufacturers are successful without racing—not many companies are willing to fund a racing team which doesn’t provide some usable press.

Faced with the option of leaving for more immediate success versus eschewing short-term satisfaction—and marketability—for a gamble on a factory ride, Tristan Nunez made a career-oriented gamble. He chose to stay with Mazda and trust they’d take care of him if he stayed loyal to them.

Mazda's new gasoline-powered turbocharged four-cylinder provides the reliable performance the old diesel motor was lacking. (Chris Jasurek/Epoch Times)
Mazda’s new gasoline-powered turbocharged four-cylinder provides the reliable performance the old diesel motor was lacking. (Chris Jasurek/Epoch Times)

New Motor, New Hope

As its disappointing 2015 season drew to a close, Mazda showed a glimpse of its future, running one of its two cars with an updated version of the turbocharged, direct-injected two-liter inline four it had developed with Advanced Engineering Research for Dyson Racing’s American Le Mans Series P2 Lola prototypes—cars using the same basic chassis Mazda is using in the WeatherTech Championship.

With diesel engines excluded by the 2017 rules Mazda knew it would have to switch to gasoline power anyway, and by developing an engine it had already been working with, in one form or another, since 2006, the company gained a huge performance boost compared to the amount of work needed to make the change.

Not that the switch was as simple as taking an engine off the shelf and sticking it in the car. The Mazda crew worked through the end of 2015 and right through the off-season with the same passion and commitment it had poured into the diesel motor. The difference was the many years of research and development it had already done.

The new motor, dubbed the MZ-2.0T, was based on a block already reinforced to take the stresses of being part of the chassis; its intake, exhaust, and auxiliary systems were already designed to fit in a prototype engine bay. Moreover, the MZ-2.0T is a bespoke racing engine, designed from a blank sheet with the thought of putting out tremendous power: 285 horsepower per liter in its current form. 

“I feel like I’ve matured even more as an all-around individual”

The difference on the track was immediately apparent. After two years spent chasing the field, the Mazda prototypes were now chasing the leaders. Instead of struggling to catch the GT cars, Mazda’s prototypes were vying for fastest lap times.

In the six practice sessions in which the two cars ran, they finished second twice, third once, and fourth twice, setting the third and fifth fastest laps of the three-day test—all in chassis which was several years old, and prior to the latest test sessions, hadn’t run at competitive speed.

Nunez claims the old Lola-based chassis isn’t all that bad: “We been running the chassis for two full years now, and had the opportunity to learn so much about the chassis and what directions to go in at certain tracks.”

Because the old diesel was down on power, the cars had never had much aerodynamic development—no need to worry about aero when the cars aren’t fast enough to develop much lift or downforce. With the new gasoline motors, suddenly the chassis were forced to work—and Mazda engineers were forced to figure out the new weight distribution and the aero package while perfecting the new engines.

Mazda did some 4,000 miles of testing with the new motors before introducing them at the IMSA WeatherTech Winter test in November, but no amount of testing can match the forces involved in running flat-out on Daytona’s 31-degree banking, and then snaking through the twisting infield turns. It’s safe to bet that there is still speed left in the cars—cars that were already top five in half its practice sessions, and top three in three of them.

The new gasoline-powered Mazda Prototype was fourth in class during Friday practice for the 2016 Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway. (Chris Jasurek/Epoch Times)
The new gasoline-powered Mazda Prototype was fourth in class during Friday practice for the 2016 Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway. (Chris Jasurek/Epoch Times)

Back on the Fast Track

What this means for Tristan Nunez is simple: He is back on track and heading towards those podium finishes he has been dreaming of for so many years. His patience and his loyalty have paid off. His wisdom and good sense have served him well.

“It feels like I’m back at my roots,” he said. “I look at it as having college education for the past couple years, and now putting it to the test in the real world. I learned so much in the past couple years about engineering and how the chassis works, among other very important skills in the racing world. And I feel like I’ve matured even more as an all-around individual, which makes it perfect timing to be up there in the thick of things again.”

According to Nunez, the slow years weren’t really that bad, from his perspective. “People outside of the team don’t see what was actually going on within the team. In fact we didn’t have a lot of lows, but countless amounts of highs.

“Sometimes finding success isn’t always about winning. The victories we had may not have been race results, but the development we did on the prior package improved technology in road cars at Mazda today.

“Being a part of that victory was so special. But now with this year we have a different mindset. Our goal is to go out there and win races.”

When people look back at Nunez’s career, many years from now, the two years he spent struggling with an uncompetitive car will not seem like a test of his faith and resolve—they will just be part of his career, some of what happens when one spends a lifetime racing.

His decision to stay with Mazda will seem the obvious best option, and not many people will think about what it must have been like for this young man, who had basically won everything he aimed at, to have spent two long seasons trying not to lose badly, with no hope of winning.

Tristan Nunez and the rest of the SpeedSource Mazda crew will be racing at Daytona International Speedway in the IMSA WeatherTech 50th Rolex 24 at Daytona, Jan.30–31.

Tickets are available through the Daytona International Speedway website, or by calling 1-800-PITSHOP.

Fans can follow the 50th Rolex 24 via live timing on IMSA.com.

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