Throughout the year, Continental Tire will focus on celebrating the fans, media, drivers, and teams and their contributions to sports car racing, including a weekly trip down memory lane in Sportscar365’s Continental Tire IMSA Reflections series.
This week, Mazda Team Joest driver Tristan Nunez reflects on his call to join Mazda’s Grand-Am program, making his Rolex 24 debut at 17 years old, and a professional career spent racing on Continental Tires.
What do you remember about getting the call to join the Mazda program?
“I’ll never forget the night I got the call. I had just won the Walter Hayes [Trophy] in England for Team USA, and I was up in the media center.
“A reporter gave me his phone and said that it was an important call, and it was [Mazda North America Director of Motorsports] John Doonan. He asked me to be a part of their program and without hesitation I said yes.
“The following week he had me looking at the SpeedSource shop with Sylvain Tremblay with the chassis that would be the GS class Mazda6 cars. I was 17 years old at the time. I was like a kid in a candy store.
“I’m still referred to as a kid nowadays, but that seems like it was just yesterday that I got my first tour around the Mazda shop. It was incredible.
“I’m so thankful for John Doonan and everyone with Mazda for making my dream come true.”
What do you remember about your first Rolex 24 at Daytona experience?
“I turned 17 while I was over in England racing for Team USA, so I was 17 for my first Rolex 24.
“I had never been on the track before the first time I was driving the Mazda6 which was at the Roar Before the 24, so not a lot of track time to get used to the car or the track.
“It was quite the steep learning curve, but I knew it was a once in a lifetime opportunity so I did everything to get up to speed as fast as I could.
“It was definitely a lot to take in. I was a extremely nervous and there was a lot of pressure.
“James Hinchcliffe was in our No. 70 car that year, and that was pretty cool to be in the same team as a current IndyCar driver. That was something new.
“At the same time, you can’t be too starstruck, you have to focus on what you’re doing. There were a lot of things to get used to because I never thought I’d be driving for a manufacturer at 17 years old.”
Did you have a ‘welcome to the big leagues’ moment that day?
“I think the atmosphere of that first Rolex 24. It’s the first race of the year and it’s a lot to take in, especially if you’re coming straight from sprint racing.
“I had been in IMSA Prototype Lights before that and was basically straight from England racing, at max, a 45-minute [Formula Ford] race. Now they’re asking you to do four hour stints or something like that, you’re driving at three o’clock in the morning, and that’s just the beginning.
“You get to race day and it’s just so crowded with people, they’re asking for your autograph, you’re getting pulled for interviews here and there, it’s a new program with a new engine and everything, it was a little overwhelming at first!
“But if you want to survive you’d better learn quick because there’s a lot of drivers out there waiting for your seat, waiting for you to screw up just one bit.”
Your career has been spent racing on Continental Tires. Is that significant to you?
“The only tire I’ve been on in a professional atmosphere has been the Continental. It’s almost emotional to think of it that way.
“These are the things connecting the car to the road and they’ve been on my car for years and years, ever since I’ve been a pro.
“That’s all I’ve known as a professional driver, and from now until the end of my career I’ll always remember that my career started with Continentals.”