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Born to Win

Race car driver Tristan Nunez always fought to win – and then he started doing a lot of it.

Tristan Nunez brought his own helmet to the go-cart track. That was the first clue that I was in trouble. As we waited for our turn around the indoor track at K1 Speed in Fort Lauderdale, Nunez sat on a leather couch in the waiting area, leaning forward on his helmet. It had colorful graphics all over it, a Mazda logo, and a cord that would normally connect to his race car’s communication system. Yeah, race car. As in, Tristan Nunez is a professional race car driver. And the 19-year-old from Boca Raton had agreed to take me on in a go-cart race. Just before it started, I asked Tristan about my chances. After all, these are just go-carts, and I’ve played plenty of racing video games in my life. “Yeah, uh-huh,” Tristan says. You should know he’s quite handsome, all chiseled cheekbones, hound-dog eyes, and bushy hair that juts out at just the perfect angles. He flashed a smile that was all kinds of mischievous. “You know, I do this like every day.” By “this” he means racing. Or maybe he means winning, which is also something Tristan does well. It’s astounding just how many times he has won. He has entered nearly 80 races, been on the podium for more than half, and won a third of them. That’s something that’s just hard to believe in the world of race cars, where drivers are lucky to win once a season. What’s funny about this is that Tristan was, at one point in his life, a perennial second-place finisher. Before he was a race car driver, he was a child-prodigy tennis player. So was his twin brother, Dylan. They played every day, usually for hours, and every time, Dylan won. They both had the same coach, their dad, former tennis pro Juan Nunez. Juan had a dream that his sons would play each other in Wimbledon. But then Tristan discovered go-cart racing when he was 10. “I know if you don’t have passion and desire for tennis, getting to the next level can be a nightmare,” Juan says. “I started recognizing my son was not happy, and my main goal is to see my sons happy.” Out on the track at K1, Tristan put on the colorful racing helmet and jumped into a go-cart, the one right in front of mine. The track workers opened up the gates, and right quick, Tristan bolted. Bullet fast. His bumper caught the first turn, just a bit, but maybe it was deliberate. The collision turned his car perfectly into the second corner, and just like that, in seconds, he was five, maybe ten car lengths ahead.

These electric go-carts we were driving, they have incredible acceleration and a top speed of 45 mph. In the second lap, I looked to my left and spotted Tristan in the straightaway. As I was fighting mine into a turn, he gave me a little wave. He was probably a good 15 seconds ahead.

He is, after all, a prodigy at his second sport. When he got his own go-cart, he won his second race. It was his first time winning anything, and it freaked him out. He started throwing up before races, and at first he thought it was because he was scared of crashing. He figured out later that it was because he had never won before, and he didn’t know how to process the elation, the feeling of success. After a few races, he went to his father and said he wanted to quit racing. He recalls his dad telling him, “You’re not going to quit tennis and quit this. You’re going to stick with this and you’re going to win.”

That’s a mantra his father repeated to him and Dylan over the years: If you do something, be the best at it. Winning is a must.

After racing go-carts, Tristan went to Skip Barber Racing School and just dominated. The school invited him to participate in its own racing circuit, driving Formula 2000 cars, similar to those in Indy races. In 2010, Tristan won rookie of the year and came in fifth overall, competing against full-grown adults. The next year, he won the championship.

It wasn’t all glory for him, though. He was still in middle school in Boca, and he didn’t have a single friend. Nobody understood his racing. Truth was, it was crazy work. To get used to the heat of a race car, he put on his racing suit and helmet and spent 45 minutes in a sauna. To practice driver exchanges for endurance races, he jumped in and out of a car, dodging moving tires and fuel lines, for hours. “That’s what race car drivers do, they make something very difficult look very easy,” Tristan explained before we raced. “The most boring race is probably the one where the drivers were doing really good.”

My race with Tristan was planned for 14 laps, and about halfway through, I looked back and couldn’t spot him. I could hear only the occasional screech of his tires. He explained later that he used the brakes only in the two hairpins. Otherwise it was all on or off the gas. Me, I was braking at nearly every turn.

As I entered the straightaway, I finally spotted him, just two turns behind. He was getting ready to lap me. So I floored it, the outside wall suddenly looking much larger.

When Tristan first got into racing, it was his mom who became his de-facto manager. Diane Nunez is a dental hygienist who met her tennis star husband when she cleaned his teeth. Suddenly she had to learn about carburetors and engines, and she hired and fired mechanics. She drove a dually pickup with a 46-foot trailer to races. But she also watched as her son became good – very good. And she watched him get swarmed by girls when he’d show up somewhere. “Oh my god, it’s ridiculous. He gets mobbed,” Diane says. “He’s living the rock star kind of life.”

For high school, Tristan enrolled in a Wellington school called #1 Education Place, which caters to young athletes who spend most of the time on the road. His wins, they just came left and right. He became the youngest winner ever of the Cooper Tires Prototype Lites championship and the Rolex Sports Car Series. And in January 2013, Mazda signed him to a contract, making him officially a professional race car driver at 18 years old. That’s like graduating business school and immediately taking over a hedge fund.

To put all this in perspective, I asked race car legend Derek Bell about it. He lives in Boca and has known Tristan’s family for years. Tristan refers to Bell as his mentor. “When Tristan started winning that much, I’m going, ‘Well, how is he doing that?’ Because you just don’t win that many races,” Bell says. “He was only 15-16 years old, and to have that kind of strength and control, you have to be good, very good.”

By the time the K1 guys waived the white flag – signaling one lap left – Tristan was still a couple turns back. Somehow, this race car prodigy hadn’t lapped me yet. OK, admittedly, that’s not much of an achievement.

We got out of our cars in the pits and headed back to the lounge. He was modest about nearly lapping me. He didn’t even mention my joke from earlier about beating him. I asked him why he didn’t pass me near the end, and he hedged, he avoided the question. And then he came clean.

“Well, these electric cars, they lose battery power so quickly,” he said.

And then there it was again, that superstar smile.

“Don’t Be a Thumbass!”

Tristan’s anti-texting and driving campaign

You may have seen the “Don’t Be a Thumbass” magnets on the bumpers of the cars while driving around South Florida. Next time you see one, take note: Tristan Nunez is behind this effort. Earlier this year, Tristan launched his Dnt txt n drV Foundation to bring awareness to the dangers of texting and driving. Tristan began his campaign against distracted driving after he noticed the dangerous effects of texting and driving when his mom almost crashed into the back of another car several times while texting. The organization plans to raise money for scholarships for students making a difference in their communities by holding a series of fundraising campaigns in the near future. Stay tuned to DnttxtndrVFoundation.org for details on upcoming events. – Aly Zofcin