DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.—When teenaged racer Tristan Nunez signed on to drive Mazda’s diesel prototype in the Tudor United SportsCar Championship in 2014 he knew it was a brand new development program and that successes would be infrequent at the start.
Nunez, whose career had been a string of “youngest driver to win,” awards, scoring race wins and championships in many types of cars, was joining SpeedSource, a championship GT team making its first foray into prototypes, using a production-based Mazda diesel engine cranked up the three times its normal output—a first in the series, if it worked.
That first season was tough on the team. Despite the best efforts of both SpeedSource and Mazda, the cars often failed to finish, and were always the slowest prototypes on track—often slower than half the GT field.
Initially, the engine was unreliable and down on power. With no power, the car had no speed, so the chassis and aerodynamics engineers could not get data to tweak their ends of things. After several seasons of winning almost everything, now just finishing a race seemed like a victory.
Nunez wasn’t daunted; showing maturity rare for a teenager (but not unusual for this teenager) the 19-year-old Floridian devoted himself to the very demanding and mostly unrewarding program. Fresh out of high school, he eschewed a normal teen life, instead rising early every morning to work out, drive, and learn about every aspect of professional racing.
Meanwhile, his name dropped out of the headlines. After several seasons of headlines trumpeting his string of amazing successes, Nunez disappeared from the media, which focuses on winners, not workers.
That could well change soon, as the determined efforts of Mazda, SpeedSource, Nunez, and his co-drivers are finally paying off.
Found: Missing Performance
The two Lola-based Mazda diesel prototypes showed up for the Roar Before the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway Jan. 9–11 and surprised everyone. The cars had gained 20 mph in top speed, cut seven or eight seconds in lap time, and ran reliably throughout the three-day test. Once barely able to keep out of the way of the GT cars, the Mazdas were now snapping at the heels of the other prototypes. (See Related Article: SpeedSource Mazda Finds New Performance for 2015)
What does all this mean for Tristan Nunez? After seasons of unequaled success and then and year of unremitting disappointment, and now again poised to reach—but not quite yet touching—success again, how does this young driver think and feel about the sport? How does he view his career choice, and the new performance shown by the car?
The upgrades to the car changed a lot more than just the straight-line speed. A modern P2 prototype is all about downforce. The way to go faster is to go faster—as the car goes faster it sticks better, so it brakes and corners better. No speed, no downforce, nothing works. Add speed, and everything changes.
“It’s noticeably different,” Nunez said in an interview at Daytona during the Roar Before the 24.”It’s amazing how much the power of the car and the speed of the car can affect the chassis.
“Last year when we weren’t making much power the car didn’t really feel like it was at its capability. It felt fast—the cornering speed was high, but now it’s just a completely different animal. Much more air on the wings since you’re going faster—downforce is a huge factor. And the brakes work better too. It’s actually a completely different cart than it was last year, engine-wise and chassis-wise.”
So, does he still enjoy driving? “Love it,” Nunez responds emphatically. “I go to bed every night thinking how lucky I am and just cherishing it. That’s what gets me up every morning at 5 o’clock, fully awake. You might think that’s pretty early but you know, I wake up knowing that I’m going to go out and drive fast race cars—it’s every boy’s dream.”
Racing has changed for Tristan, though—or the way he thinks about it has changed. What used to be a simple thrill is now much more complex. He now has to think in terms of his career and his role on the team. No longer can he show up, hop in a car, and drive around until the checkered flag waves, and then go home carefree.
“Growing up in the cars is a dream come true,” Nunez explained. “You start in a Skip Barber car and you end up in a P2 car—that’s incredible. But the business aspect is finally kicking in, now that I am older and more mature. It’s not as much going out there having fun winning races, it’s more of doing what’s best for the team, learning the engineering side of everything.”
As a factory driver Nunez has very little free time—all day every day he is working on some aspect of improving for the team. Whether it is strenuous workouts to withstand the multiple G-forces drivers endure throughout their stints to improving driving technique (aided by coaches and fellow drivers) to learning about engineering so he can better communicate what the car is doing to the mechanics, there is always more to do.
“I kind of take this team experience as a college education, investing my time and making something for the future,” Nunez says. “Being a factory driver like this, all your time is invested in the program. I plan on just driving as much as I can and maximizing my relationship with the engineers, getting to know them better, being able to communicate with them better. That’s as much as I have for other work outside of driving.”
Fun, Family, Education in One Package
SpeedSource Mazda has added some new faces which have accelerated Tristan’s education. The young driver says he has learned a lot from newly hired engineer Jeff Braun, late of Level 5 where braun shepherded the team to 17 wins, three driver- and two team championships in three seasons. Nunez is also getting non-stop education from his new driving partner Jonathan Bomarito, who is 13 years older and has had success in many types of cars and many series, including a class win in the 2010 Rolex 24.
“I want to learn as much as I can, especially now being paired with Jonathan Bomarito,” Nunez said. “The amount of experience he has in any car, especially in endurance racing, having 24-hour victories, poles, you name it; and being on the factory Viper team last year—he’s just got loads of experience that I can learn from.
“We’ve been working together for about two months and he’s been a great coach so far. I am just going to learn as much as I can from him.”
With the return of Bomarito to SpeedSource (his 2010 Rolex 24 win came in a SpeedSource Mazda RX-8 he shared with team owner Sylvain Tremblay) Tristan Nunez was split from his regular driving partner Joel Miller in the #07 Mazda to join Bomarito and Tremblay in the #70, a change which Nunez accepts painfully: “I am deeply gutted that I had to leave my three-year teammate Joel Miller—I’ve learned so much from him and we were great teammates—but that’s not going to change. We’re going to continue to help each other. That’s what’s great about having such a family-based team.”
That one comment highlights the most important aspect of the SpeedSource Mazda team—why it is a great place for Tristan Nunez to be, and why it will eventually achieve success. As Tristan put it, “With some teams, they figure with two cars it’s like a separate team, but that’s not the case with SpeedSource. We share everything. That’s what’s great about having a team relationship like this.”
Several times Tristan refers to the “family” atmosphere at SpeedSource. For a young man on the road most of the year, seeing only a small group of people, working hard from dawn till dark every day, having his team be a support structure, a university education, a wish-fulfillment mechanism and most of all a family, goes a long way towards keeping Nunez focused and motivated.
Nunez knows his teammates will be there for him, for laughs and friendship and advice and even constructive criticism when he needs it, to help him and the team reach the top. He would eventually like to drive at Le Mans (what endurance racer doesn’t) and he knows Mazda has won there and would like to win there again.
Nunez hopes to travel far with Mazda: “I plan on having a long-term relationship with the company; they are a family.”
A family that lets him use the car whenever he wants to, and never complains that he drives too fast. He really is living the dream.
Watch Tristan Nunez and the rest of the SpeedSource Mazda team make their 2015 Tudor Championshipo debut at the Rolex 24 at Daytona, Jan. 24–25. Tickets are available through the Daytona International Speedway website, and for those who can’t make it, the action starts at 2 p.m. ET on your local Fox affiliate.