Until age eleven, he thought he would follow his father’s path and become a professional tennis player. Then he discovered karting, and Tristan Nunez had a new passion—one which has carried him in amazing leaps to the top of the his chosen trade.
Several karting championships led to a Skip Barber title and a test in an IMSA Lites car, which led to a full-season ride, which led to Nunez becoming the youngest sports car champion in history at age 16—which led to rides in the top-tier professional ALMS and Rolex series, which led to becoming the youngest winner in those series—while still in high school.
Now just turned 18, Nunez has reached the next level in his career—a very, very elevated level.
The young driver has been chosen as one of four Mazda SpeedSource factory drivers who will pilot the brand-new Mazda/SpeedSource LMP2 SkyActiv diesel in the Tudor United Sports Car Series Prototype class—the fastest class of sports cars on the continent.
The young driver understands what a rare honor it is to be chosen as a factory drive so early in one’s career.
Nunez received the news officially while driving for Mazda at the TUSC Roar Before The Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway, Jan. 3–5 and “almost broke down in tears—that’s just a dream come true,” he said a few hours after the announcement. “It’s one step closer to my big dream, which is racing at Le Mans.”
Mazda might well take Tristan Nunez to Le Mans, if not this season, then soon. “Because it’s a brand new car we need to develop it,” he said. “[Mazda’s] view is, if they’re going to go to Le Mans they want to win it. If we are going to go to Le Mans we want to be prepared for it.” Starting with the Roar Before the 24, he has been part of that preparation.
For Nunez, this is just one more chapter in a career that seems almost scripted—a long string of tremendous opportunities followed by perfect performances followed by more opportunities.
In the past three years, Nunez has entered 65 races and won 25—more than many drivers win in their entire careers. And he is just a few months out of high school.
The talented 18-year-old well appreciates the honor he has earned, and the demands it brings. “It’s completely different deal here,” he said, standing outside the Mazda garages at Daytona. “It’s really matured me as a driver.
“They say all the time there’s hundreds of drivers out there that can have your seat, so you have you be perfect all the time. Being 18 years old and being a kid is not an excuse anymore.”
Being entrusted with the development of a brand-new car worth millions of dollars is not new to Nunez. Last year he was part of the SpeedSource team which ran Mazda’s GX-class Mazda6 SkyActiv diesel, which uses a less potent version of the engine in the new LMP2.
Though the engine is from the Mazda6, the new car is closer in performance characteristics to the LPMC car he drove for Performance Tech in the ALMS
“Compared to the LMPC car which I raced last year it’s just everything better,” Nunez explained. “More grip, more horsepower.”
Unlike the open-cockpit LMPC Oreca Nunez drove in 2013, the P2 Mazda is a closed car. Nunez said he found the closed cockpit a little claustrophobic at first—“it’s so small in there”—but he quickly adapted.
“It’s weird because the way the window is shaped you kind of get a warped effect on the left and right side of the window. It takes a little bit to get used to but it is just like anything—start driving it, get some seat time, and you’re used to it.”
Nunez will make his racing debut as a Mazda/SpeedSource driver on January 25, at the 52nd Rolex 24 at Daytona, vying to win one of North America’s most prestigious endurance races with top-tier drivers from all over the world.
On March 15, he will compete in the 62nd Sebring Twelve Hours, the other most important endurance race on the continent, facing many of the same world-class drivers.
Tristan’s achievements are akin to a kid discovering football in middle school, starring in high school and getting signed to quarterback an NFL team before college. Not too shabby—but pretty much in keeping with the arc his career has already followed.
Almost a Racing Fantasy
For the 18-year-old from Boca Raton, Florida, driving for Mazda is just the next step in an almost fairy-tale journey up the ladder of sports car racing success. From the time he decided he wanted to be a racing driver at age 11, everything has fallen perfectly into place for Nunez, and he has maximized every opportunity.
Nunez started in karts in 2006. By 2009 he had won enough championships to graduate to Skip Barber formula cars, where he won a scholarship in 2010, then five races, Rookie of the Year honors, and the Summer Series championship in 2011. His achievements earned him a test in the Performance Tech IMSA Prototypes Lites car; he finished on the podium in his first race, the youngest podium winner ever. He scored two more podiums later in the season, which won him a full-time ride with Performance Tech for the next season.
Nunez dominated the 2012 IMSA Lites season with 11 wins, 12 poles, and seven lap records, becoming the youngest sports car champion in history at age 16.
After winning the IMSA Lites championship, Nunez was awarded the 2012 Team USA Scholarship. As part of the Team USA program the newly crowned sports car champion went off to England to compete with 120 of the world’s best Formula Ford drivers. Amazingly, he mastered an unfamiliar car under abominable weather conditions and won the championship race, earning the Walter Hayes Trophy.
All this led to a ride in Performance Tech’s LMPC car in the American Le Mans Series, and also a seat in the Mazda/SpeedSource GX Mazda6 in the Rolex Sports Car Series. At 17, he was driving in the top two sports car series in North America, competing against the best drivers on the planet—and winning, one race in ALMS and four in Rolex.
The obvious next step was to put the talented teen behind the wheel of one of the fastest sports cars on the planet, and Mazda/SpeedSource has done exactly that.
While the ascension up racing’s ladder has progressed naturally, it hasn’t been easy, and the latest step is the most demanding.
“The amount of training you have to do to get ready for this LMP2 car—you’re dealing with a lot more G-force,” Nunez explained between track sessions at the Roar Before the 24 test days. “It’s like an LMPC car but with a lot more heat, it’s a closed-cockpit car. Being in top physical condition is definitely a main priority when racing something like this, something this powerful and this fast.”
To meet the physical demands, Nunez has had to increase his already rigorous workout schedule. When he isn’t at the SpeedSource shop learning more about the car, he is in the gym—or addressing teens on the risks of distracted driving.
Still Telling Teens, ‘Don’t Txt n Drv’
Since early in 2012, Tristan Nunez and his mother Diane have made a priority of telling teens about the dangers of texting while driving.
The pair got involved with the AT&T “Txting and Drivng … It Can Wait” campaign and Nunez became an official spokesperson, visiting high schools and youth events and telling his peers, from the point of view of a teen and someone who regularly faced grave danger in a car, just how crazy it is to try to text while driving.
Nunez gave up valuable sponsor space on the side of his car to display the “Don’t Txt n Drv” throughout his championship-winning season, and has kept up his involvement since moving into the major leagues.
“We’ve been doing a lot of the Don’t Text and Drive campaign, that’s my biggest focus outside of the racetrack,” Nunez said. “It’s something that me and my mother are both very passionate about. We’ve been going to a lot of high schools; we are going to go with it as long as we can.”
Helping others is not unusual for Nunez. In the summer of 2012 he took a few weeks off to travel to Fiji, where he helped local teens build schools and lay plumbing pipe.
Since signing on with Mazda, he hasn’t had time for many extra-curricular activities; between the hitting the gym, learning about the new car, and the distracted driving campaign, “It’s been a busy off-season,” he said somewhat ruefully between sessions in the car.
Young Mr. Nunez won’t be getting a break any time soon. After the Rolex 24 at Daytona finishes up on Jan. 26, he will barely have time to unpack before packing up again to go the Winter Test at Sebring. After that, he will race in the Sebring 12 Hours, and then on to the next ten races on the TUSC schedule.
He won’t mind the pace. Every lap he drives takes him a few miles closer to the starting grid at Le Mans, where he has been heading inexorably since he started.
The Tudor United SportsCar Championship Rolex 24 at Daytona takes the green flag at 2:10 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 25. For more information visit IMSA.com, and to buy tickets online visit the Daytona International Speedway website.