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Friday, November 16, 2012
Nunez looks to write his story on race track

By Bill Speros
Special to

Tristan Nunez
Tristan Nunez of Florida is in the driver's seat when it comes to his racing future.
Garth Stein’s "The Art of Racing in the Rain" spent three years on The New York Times best-seller list. The novel, written by a former race car driver, tells the story of up-and-coming racer Denny Swift, as seen through the eyes of his devoted dog, Enzo. The dog serves as both philosopher and narrator and is named in honor of Ferrari’s founder. The book is a favorite of real-life up-and-coming driver Tristan Nunez of Boca Raton, Fla., who is pretty swift in his own right and has a loyal 5-year-old Wheaten terrier named Layla.

When he’s not reading fiction, Nunez, 17, (@tristannunez) is re-writing history in his quest for a full-time seat in the American LeMans Series next year. He won the Walter Hayes Trophy Grand Finale on Nov. 4 in England, beating more than 120 other drivers in a knockout format over two days and 35 drivers in the final race.

"I learned so much driving over there," he said. "It's the most prestigious race in England. Being able to win that was a huge honor."

Nunez dominated the IMSA Cooper Tires Prototype Lites series in 2012 while driving for Performance Tech, capturing the Lites 1 championship with 11 victories, 12 poles and seven track records. He became the youngest winner (then 16) ever in that series with his first victory in January.

Nunez's victory in England for the Team USA Scholarship program came on a wet course in Silverstone against the top young drivers from America and the world. He drove a Cliff Dempsey Racing Ray GR08, which is smaller and less powerful than the 235-horsepower No. 16 winged-beast he powered in IMSA, and started seventh in the 12-lap final race. After the two leading cars crashed on lap 10, Nunez battled Ivor McCullough before taking the lead for good one lap later.

"We had a really good setup on the car and I was really fast in the rain. I felt right at home on the track in those conditions,” he said. “I was in shock and thrilled. Winning that race opens so many opportunities. It shows you're a driver."

@teamusaschol USA!!USA!!!Tristan won the Walter Hayes Trophy Grand FINAL !!

— Tristan Nunez Racing (@tristannunez) November 4, 2012

On Tuesday, he appeared in Tampa, Fla., with Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood at the first Florida Distracted Driving summit to raise awareness about the dangers of texting while driving and push for the passage of a distracted-driving law in Florida.

Nunez drove the "Dnt txt n drV" car this past season. "I was terrified -- absolutely terrified -- when I first got my driver's license because of how so many other drivers are distracted. Things like that can get elevated and cause death,” he said. "I feel so much safer driving on the race track than driving with teenagers who are sometimes not paying attention."

I did 2 but then mom @tennisracingmom & I launched #DnttxtndrV RT @meldig1070 Teens admit they learn how 2 Drv distracted frm rents. #fldds

— Tristan Nunez Racing (@tristannunez) November 13, 2012

His commitment to this cause began at age 15, when he was a passenger in a car being driven by his mother that was nearly involved in a wreck due to her being distracted. He's now spreading the word through his driving, via social media (he has more than 8,800 Twitter followers) and in person whenever he can.

"I see it all the time. Some of my friends don’t have respect for what I’m trying to accomplish," he said. "When they start doing it I just ask them to pull over and offer to drive. Sometimes people are so ignorant."

Powerful message here today #FLDDS RT @nhtsagov: The message is clear: if you text and drive, you’ll wreck. Stop #distracteddriving!

— Tristan Nunez Racing (@tristannunez) November 13, 2012

Nunez recognizes the importance of controlling himself on and off the track even in situations like he faced in England, unlike, say, NASCAR drivers Jeff Gordon, Clint Bowyer and their pit crews who brawled after the Nov. 11 race in Phoenix.

“Everybody has a lot of respect for each other," he said. "I know as a young driver I have to be careful and not develop a reputation as someone who might cause trouble.”

And don't expect him to be tweeting from his car anytime soon, either.

Born on Halloween in 1995, Nunez got his driver’s license on his 16th birthday and, despite several years in kart racing, was admittedly nervous taking the multiple-choice exam and driving test required in Florida.

"I didn't tell anyone I was a race car driver," he said. "But it was actually pretty easy.”

During Veterans Day weekend, Nunez participated in the "Rides and Smiles" charity event at Homestead-Miami Speedway and reached nearly 190 mph while driving a prototype American LeMans Series car, the fastest he's ever driven. "Everything at that speed comes at tunnel vision. What an amazing feeling," he said. Despite the thrill of those speeds on a wide-open 1.5-mile oval, Nunez remains rooted and realistic in his approach and goals.

"I want to race. I have a chance at making a career for myself in American sports car racing. If I do that, I might get noticed by Indy Car or Formula One," he said. He's seen many other drivers start at those levels but have their careers end prematurely because of lack of money. "I want to be realistic and I think I can succeed at the sports car level. I'm playing my cards differently," he said.

Nunez spends much of his spare time training and practicing on an iRacing simulator. He attends a private tutoring center in Wellington, Fla., ("#1 Education Place") where he is a junior and has a class schedule that’s tailored around his racing schedule. Once he graduates, he plans on a full-time career commitment to racing. He’s also active in other causes and visited Fiji on a community service trip during the summer, calling it “the most amazing and memorable experience I have ever had” on his blog.

And he wasn’t afraid to have a little fun in the process:

Nunez is the son of former ATP Tour player, coach and current ZMG Tennis director of player development Juan Nunez. His twin brother Dylan is ranked 377 on the ITF junior circuit. For Tristan, too much love in tennis helped fuel a life-long love of auto racing. He played competitively until age 11 “but didn’t have the passion for it. My twin brother always beat me and I couldn’t deal with losing to him in tennis.” Luckily, Juan Nunez watched auto racing whenever possible and that got Tristan hooked. Juan Nunez also coached the son of five-time LeMans 24 champion Derek Bell and the driving legend has, in turn, helped to steer Tristan’s career.

The career appears headed in the right direction. “I think a lot of doors are going to open for me, whether it’s in Grand Am or American LeMans,” Nunez said. “I think the sports car community can see what I can do and wants me to be around as long as possible.”

With Layla enjoying every mile along the way.