By Michael E. Miller
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Tristan Nuñez is about to lose a piece of his go-cart.
The 14-year-old from Boca Raton leads the ten-lap junior-division race, fairly unexpectedly. It's Friday, July 16, and Tristan's competing in the second heat of the Grand National Karting Championship in Newcastle, Indiana. The junior-division racers — age 13 to 16 — drive go-carts that can reach speeds of 100 mph, and for many of them, these are the stomping grounds that lead to Indy, NASCAR, or Formula One racing.
If Tristan can finish in the top few of this qualifying round, it will guarantee him a prime starting spot at the final race on Saturday. If he can manage a top-three finish there, he'll go on to the world championship in Italy.
In person, Tristan's a walking growth spurt, tall and lean and shy, with a tan and a sweet smile that befit him more for an Abercrombie Kids catalog than a 100-mph sprint down a raceway. More often than not, a Capri Sun is dangling out of his mouth by the straw while his hands hang at his sides. But from the pit, he's just a vroom-buzz-and-gone of green, with a yellow "316" sticker on his bumper.
He's only been carting for two years. Most of the kids out there have been gripping steering wheels since they were 6 years old. But Tristan has something rare: a sponsor who's willing to pour hundreds of thousands of dollars to put Tristan on the track every week.
That sponsorship allows Tristan something many racers don't have: a professional Indy racer coach. Jay Howard watches Tristan's qualifying heat from a grassy hilltop nearby, clocking Tristan's time on a large, black, industrial-strength stopwatch that tracks multiple drivers' speeds at once. Jay, 29, lives in City Place Plaza apartments in West Palm Beach. He's on the shorter, broader side, with blond hair gelled up à la rooster, quiet until he has something dry to say. Jay has the peculiar talent of sporting a 5 o'clock shadow at 8 in the morning.
About five laps into the qualifying race, Tristan falls into second place. Jay watches as Tristan is passed again. Third place would be good, Jay thinks. When you're behind, there's less wind resistance, because the sucker in front is blocking it for you. Plus, "there's that rabbit to chase," Jay says.
Jay coaches Tristan for the ripe fee of $350 a day. Jay has been racing in go-carts since he was 7, and since moving to racecars, he has dozens of trophies and championships from circuits that serve as IndyCar minor leagues. But unable to find a sponsor this year, Jay works as a coach for kids like Tristan who will shell it out for Jay to teach them how to be superstars, even as he's figuring that out himself.
Jay's help won't be all Tristan needs to break into Indy or NASCAR — he'll need sponsors. In professional car racing, it used to be that drivers were recruited by teams through a meritocracy of talent, image, and reputation. Since the recession hit car racing as much as any industry, a seat in any given race typically goes to the highest bidder. Drivers are rarely hired for their ability. Instead, they have a rich dad or an increasingly rare corporate sponsor who can foot the seven-figure bill.
Tristan is still in third when it happens. A bolt breaks. Tristan's bumper swings down like a felled tree, dinging off the pavement and dragging.
A flag flies to tell Tristan he must pull out of the race. He coasts into the pits. His inability to finish means he could be penalized or, worse, disqualified, which could knock him out of the finals.
Tristan drives into a shed where cars pull off from the race. He sits on the floor, his back to a brick wall. With his elbows on his knees and his knees to his chest, Tristan stares straight ahead, and cries.
Growing up in Basildon, a small town on England's rural eastern coast, Jay had a father who didn't want him smoking on the street corners or drinking in the back alleys. So at 7 years old, Jay was given a cart.
His father and uncle had raced, and Jay's father's transportation company was booming. Jay could get on the track every weekend. He loved it, and he was fast. He won 21 consecutive races in the junior carting division. At 16, he won the British championship. He repeated two years later.
The next step was Formula One farm leagues, but Jay would need a sponsor to put up a half-million pounds. In late 2002, retired Irish racer Martin Donnelly decided he had to have Jay racing on his team. "I don't know how, but I'll figure out a way to pay for it," he told Jay. "I want you in my car." Donnelly paid for Jay to race in the 2003 season of Formula Ford, a minor league of Formula One.
"It was probably the most fun I ever had racing, actually," Jay says. "It was really competitive. There were 30-plus cars in the field, and any one of 15 or 20 drivers could win."
Jay won the 2003 series championship and was ready to move on to the next rung toward professional Formula One racing. His father took out a loan of 30,000 pounds so Jay could compete in the Formula Renault winter series in 2003. "This is it. This is all you're getting. Enjoy it," his father said.