The launch of the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship has brought change to many aspects of the sport, including providing a golden opportunity to some rising stars.
Less than three years ago, he didn’t even have his driver’s license. Yet today, Tristan Nunez is chasing his dreams as a Mazda factory driver, competing in the top-level Prototype category.
It’s been a rapid and successful rise through the ranks for the Florida teenager, who won the IMSA Prototype Lites Championship in his rookie season in 2012, before becoming the youngest-ever class winner in ALMS and GRAND-AM history last year.
After being part of SpeedSource’s Mazda6 GX championship-winning effort, Nunez and his 2013 teammates Joel Miller, Tom Long and team owner Sylvain Tremblay all got the nod to step up to Mazda’s new factory P2 program, which debuted at the Rolex 24 at Daytona in January.
“As an 18-year-old kid, still finishing high school, it’s definitely been a huge challenge,” Nunez told Sportscar365. “But as Sylvain always says to me, ‘Don’t let your age get in your way. You’re a factory driver, so you have to live up to those expectations.’
“Now that I see myself as being part of something that will be very big, it’s so humbling for me to be a part of it this early in the stages.”
Nunez has shown talent beyond his age. He took a rather unconventional career path from Skip Barber straight to Prototype Lites, bypassing the Mazda Road to Indy and setting his sights on a future in sports car racing instead.
As a result, he effectively became the poster-child for IMSA’s development series ladder, graduating to the ALMS with Performance Tech in 2013, which was marked by impressive runs, including a Prototype Challenge class victory at Baltimore.
That, along with a parallel season-long drive the Rolex Series, helped groom the youngest factory driver in top-level sports car racing for the move to Mazda’s SKYACTIV-D P2 effort.
“It’s funny to see how different the programs are,” Nunez said. “You had the GX program, which was the lowest class of racing. Then you go to the highest class of racing. It’s a completely different program. You have a lot more expectations. There’s really no room for error on the driver’s part.”
With development of the first-ever diesel-powered P2 car still in its infancy, Nunez realizes the task at hand and the challenges that come with rolling out new technology.
Both he and SpeedSource went through similar teething pains in 2013 with the GX car, which ended up making considerable gains in speed and reliability by year’s end.
“Last year was a prime example,” Nunez said. “Daytona was a really rough race for us. But every race after that point, it got better and better. I really didn’t know what to expect after Daytona. But seeing how much improvement, you never know what’s going to come next.
“It’s just a question of time [with the P2 car]. We’re trying new things every day at the shop. I’m really confident that we can make some huge improvements this year and that’s our main goal.”
Nunez hopes to reach his ultimate goal of competing in the 24 Hours of Le Mans next year, ideally with Mazda, which has laid out intentions of eventually returning to the twice-around-the-clock endurance classic with its new P2 platform.
But for now, the soon-to-be high school graduate realizes the level of faith Mazda has put into he and his co-drivers, as they look to break new ground in the prototype racing world.
“Being that kid in IMSA Lites a few years back, looking around for rides, I remember talking to Scott Tucker,” Nunez said. “He said teams are always looking [for drivers] but it’s very rare that a team will take a chance.
“Mazda really does take chances. That’s the big thing. They could have easily added ex-F1 or IndyCar drivers to drive the cars but they took the drivers they had in the GX car and put them in a completely different car in top-level racing.
“I get told all the time that there’s hundreds of drivers out there just waiting to take my spot. I have such a good opportunity in front of me and that’s the biggest thing. I’m really fortunate to be where I am.”