Tristan Nunez has been waiting for a season like this. Eleven times a winner in his 2012 IMSA Prototype Lites championship season, the Floridian spent the past three seasons fighting to bring Mazda’s SkyActiv diesel prototypes up to speed.
Mazda’s switch to a gasoline powerplant for 2016 has seen the 19-year-old finally unleashed in IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship competition, and the rest of the SpeedSource-run squad with him.
The cars showed pace, albeit without results to match, in the opening race at Daytona, and topped a practice session on the streets of Long Beach.
But the real breakthrough came at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca where Nunez announced the team’s arrival in practice, and then proceeded to qualify his No. 55 Mazda Prototype on pole.
Not only did Nunez set the fastest lap in qualifying, but the sister No. 70 car of Tom Long and Joel Miller started second in a historic front row sweep for the Japanese manufacturer.
Nunez’s pace-setting lap was nearly one second clear of the top Daytona Prototype machine that started third.
As challenging as the years of fighting an uphill battle with the diesel engine were, Nunez said the team’s hard work fine tuning the setup prepared them to take the fight to IMSA’s established championship contenders now that the playing field has been leveled.
“It’s been one of those things we’ve been waiting for for the past three years or so, and its finally come together,” Nunez told Sportscar365.
“Everyone’s really excited. Luckily we’ve had the past three years to really refine our skills in the pits and really focus on getting the whole team atmosphere right so that we can compete.
“The guys at the shop have been really working and refining their skills on pit lane, and I think it’s showing from the beginning of the year until now.
“The past three years has been about setup and just learning as much as we can about the car and starting off with a good baseline setup, so they’ve really been doing a good job with that.”
Miscues on track, in the pits and a mechanical failure for the No. 70 car took the Mazdas out of podium contention in Monterey, but Nunez said his return to the sharp end of the grid has confirmed his decision to join the Mazda camp in 2013 was the right one.
“It definitely makes success more gratifying,” he said. “I made my dream come true at a really early age.
“Sometimes you have to pick your battles. Do you want to win a couple of races here and there and then worry about having a ride at the end of the year?
“Or do I want a solid job with a manufacturer, which is a dream that I’ve been wanting ever since I started racing.
“At the same time, it was hard to go through and be at the back of the pack, but I was happy with my dream of being with a factory team.
“And now even more so with the pole that I had and the finishes that we’ve had and being up there in the fight has been really satisfying.”
He added that the years spent away from the spotlight allowed him to hone his craft at an early age against top-level competition.
“Being a 17-year-old kid thrown into a factory team like that, I think it was kind of a blessing to be able to learn about the car and be a part of a developmental program like that,” Nunez said.
“I was focusing on stuff like that and humbling myself, not winning as many races, but really focusing on learning about the car and learning the technical side of the car.”
The No. 55 Mazda heads into Detroit 6th in points in the Prototype class standings, 17 points behind the class-leading No. 31 Action Express Corvette DP, but the strong performance in Monterey and solid pace at the last street course race at Long Beach has Nunez, co-driver Jonathan Bomarito and the Mazda team feeling confident.
“With how Long Beach went, we were right up there in the fight, we led a practice session, so I know Detroit is a little bumpier and our car hasn’t liked that in the past, but I’m really excited to see what the team can come up with,” he said.