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.
Jay won the winter series championship, but he was unable to find a sponsor. Like more and more racers, Jay would have to spend his own money to continue. He'd need 100,000 pounds. He didn't have it.
What Jay was finding was a fundamental change in car racing, where those who can put up money themselves are likely to continue. The problem, many say, is the lack of rules about team ownership. In nearly every other professional sport, there are qualifications to become a team owner. You typically have to prove that you have business success to back a team. In car racing, owners can scrape together enough money to buy the cars and then demand their drivers either pay to race or bring their own sponsors.
With the recent fall of the American automobile industry, things got tougher for car racers. "That hurt motorsports more than anything else in more than a century," says Jason Rittenberry, CEO of the Palm Beach International Raceway in Jupiter. Ford and General Motors had always put engines, research, and millions of dollars into racing at all levels. When the car companies tanked, they drastically cut contributions to motorsports.
"The overall theme across the industry is that the sport is in decline," Rittenberry says. "The trend is new and wouldn't have happened before the economy crashed: Young drivers may not be as talented, but if your family can help get you a sponsored car or can write a check, you're going to have a ride because of the financial pressures the teams are under."
In 2004, Jay figured he'd try his luck in the United States. "I had talked to some people, and I was under the understanding that whether you're white, black, green, blue, whatever — people like winners, and I thought maybe there'd be less politics involved," Jay says.
He flew over in July 2004 to try his hand at a minor-league Indy race in Sonoma, California. He won and caught the eye of Sam Schmidt, a team owner. "I don't have money, but I'll do anything — I want to fucking win," Jay told him.
Over the next two seasons, Jay won two minor-league championships and was named Rookie of the Year in two different leagues. In 2008, IndyCar team Roth Racing signed him to the big leagues — he'd be racing Indy cars. Jay walked into the Indianapolis Speedway for the Indy 500, helmet in hand, for a warm-up. At the pit, he got the news: Another driver, John Andretti, nephew of Mario Andretti, could pay for his own ride, and Roth Racing was replacing Jay for the race.
It was supposed to be a one-time thing. But the team owner stopped returning Jay's calls. And Andretti kept racing his car, because Andretti could pay his own way.
The next year, Jay was back in a feeder series, racing for the rookie team from Palm Beach International Raceway. After five races, he was again replaced by drivers who could bring their own sponsorship dollars to the table.
So Jay hired an agent. He put together a media package and got a sponsorship deal from Tire Kingdom for the 2010 IndyCar series. With a sponsorship in hand, he joined a racing team headed by Sarah Fisher, an Indy racer and start-up team owner.
Jay's past championships intrigued Fisher, but when asked whether she would have signed him if he didn't have a sponsor, she replies: "That's tough. I went down there and sold our team to them, you know? It wasn't just Jay saying, 'We have the money — let's go racing.' "
But Tire Kingdom's sponsorship didn't pay for everything. The company agreed to cover only five races. So even though Jay had won more than 30 races and three championships, he became an anomaly in American sports: a part-time professional athlete and coach for hire.
Jay meets Tristan at 10:30 on a Friday morning at the Homestead-Miami Speedway. It's only two weeks until they leave for the National Karting Championship in Indiana. The track sounds like a lawn mower and smells like a gas station as cart racers begin practicing nearby. The raceway looks like a deserted parking lot, dotted with a few painfully decorative trees surrounded by weeds. Boys who need haircuts run around their fathers, everyone with a bandaged knee or elbow. "All drivers must have a neck brace," the loudspeaker blares. "I repeat, all drivers must wear a neck brace."
Tristan stands with his green and white jumpsuit half-unzipped, the shirt-half and sleeves hanging around his waist. He wears a rib protector over his T-shirt like a vest. It looks like a flak jacket made for a child soldier. When Tristan hops into the car, Jay walks over to the gate, stopwatch in hand.
Tristan began racing about two and a half years ago in borrowed carts at the Homestead track. One day, his mother, Diane Nuñez, was standing with an old friend — "Uncle Jim" — who suggested Tristan ought to have his own cart.
James "Uncle Jim" La Vea is an heir to the Annenberg media fortune. Tristan's father, Juan, met La Vea when Juan was on the pro tennis tour in the 1980s. La Vea was financially supporting tennis pros Monica Seles and Mary Joe Fernandez as an unofficial sponsor in exchange for tickets. After retiring from the circuit, Juan became a tennis pro in Boca, where La Vea hired him to coach the girls he was sponsoring.
Tristan was born in 1995, and La Vea "just took interest and just loved my family. He loves my kids like they're his own," Diane says.
So when Tristan took an interest in carting at 12, Uncle Jim said he'd buy him a cart. Since then, he has footed the bill for all of Tristan's racing expenses. That totals more than $150,000 in a year.
"I guess our story's a little different than most people's," Diane says. After all, most people don't have a money tree.
Because Juan works full-time and Diane spends just two days a week as a dental hygienist, she became Tristan's manager and master of finances. Petite and tan with dark hair and narrow eyeliner-rimmed eyes, she drives the trailer, picks the mechanic, and hires the coaches — half a dozen in the past two years, before she found Jay.
For a day of coaching, Diane will pay Jay $350. That's at least $2,800 a month. To race on the cart circuit, they needed at least two chassis, which cost around $4,500 each. Tristan has five. Each of his two engines cost $3,000, plus the higher-horsepower engines he leases from Jay for races cost $750 per day. A mechanic costs around $250 per day. The 46-foot trailer Diane schleps from Boca to Homestead twice weekly cost a cool $60,000. A race weekend — with entry fees, hotel rooms, and airfare — will hit $5,000. Most weekends are race weekends. For a big race, like the Newcastle championship they're preparing for at the Homestead practice, Diane expects to spend about $10,000.
"In order to win, you have to race a lot, have a lot of seat time," Diane says. "And in order to do that, you need money. So it really comes down to money — and a lot of luck."
As Jay leans against the chainlink fence and watches Tristan, he notes which turns he needs to be quicker on, which kids he could have passed. Sometimes Tristan psychs himself out, Jay explains, when he knows he's behind a ranked driver.
After the practice run ends, Tristan sits in a red fold-out chair, his race jumpsuit unzipped. Jay tells him, "Go get a track map so we can go over everything."
Inside, the trailer is dim and cool. He and Tristan lean over the map, marking X's and lines with black pen. "This is pretty simple," Jay says. "You want to be on the front before the A-wall, if that makes sense." Tristan nods. "The others are overdriving, and then they're like, 'Fuck.' "
Tristan draws a line along a straightaway, curving it along a bend. "I get my right tires around here, then turn in for this." Jay wants Tristan to hit the throttle harder at the apex, but Tristan says he opened it up around the turn.
The door swings open, and Jay and Tristan squint into the sunlight. Diane sticks one foot in and shouts, "You're up!"
Tristan zips up his suit, picks up his helmet with both hands, and heads to the track. In the next heat, Tristan takes first, beating out kids who have been nationally ranked.
"Indiana's going to be great," Diane says.
Everyone is disappointed by New Castle, Indiana. The chilly morning sky is the shade of dishwater, and the defective bumper has not improved the afternoon's spirits.
"That's the third fucking time that thing broke," Diane is yelling in their tent, which serves as a base camp for the race. A table full of Pringles, bananas, apples, and caramel dipping sauce separates seven or eight mismatched fold-out chairs. An identical table nearby serves as a cart workstation and is scattered with bolts and wrenches, smeared with motor grease.
A bolt snapped twice in practices leading up to the accident in the qualifying heat. "I've never heard of that happening, a bumper breaking three times in one week," Diane rants.
It takes a certain kind of kid to get in a cart where he has to drape his legs over a fire extinguisher, so it goes without saying that it takes a certain kind of parent to be a "racing mom." Diane once got out of her car at a red light and kicked a dent in another driver's door. She didn't think he'd been driving safely, and no one was going to endanger her kids, who watched from the back-seat window.
Tristan returns with Matt Long, a curly haired mechanic Diane hired for the week. Tristan wasn't disqualified after all, but he was penalized — heavily, Matt explains. Tristan finished sixth in the first qualifying heat, so he'll start in the back of the pack in Saturday's final race. Essentially, he has already lost.
"Three times in one week," Diane repeats. Of the bolt, she says, "Obviously, they're doing it too tight."
The bumper is missing a chunk where it swung down in the back right corner. The mechanic twists off the remaining bolt to remove the whole thing. They'll replace it with another bumper, off another of Tristan's cars. Matt works quietly, not acknowledging the comments Diane makes about the bolt. But privately, he says the incident wasn't surprising. "These bolts are only good for three races. They break every fourth. They're cheap bolts, and Jay and I are always telling her that," the mechanic says. He claims Diane buys "home-remodeling grade" instead of the industrial-grade bolts needed for racing.
Tristan heads into the aluminum trailer without saying much. Jay opens the trailer door and sticks one foot inside. "Shit happens, mate," he tells Tristan, almost tenderly. "Don't worry about it."
For the championship, Jay takes his regular spot on the grassy hill. Tristan's starting so far back that, Jay remarked earlier, it'd take a miracle for him to end up at the championship in Italy.
But Tristan starts out strong in the 18-lap race. By the second lap, Tristan pushes his way up to the 16th spot. By the seventh lap, he's in tenth. Through the track's loping hills, the paper-clip turns, and the straightaways, Tristan is passing at least one racer per lap.
The week has been an exercise in watching 8, 9, 10-year-old boys crash their cars. There are the pileups, of course, and the bumper taps that send kids colliding into one another. In a qualifying heat on Friday, one cart flipped upside down. An ambulance, a broken rib. "You never have it x-rayed," a racing father from Orlando muses. His kid's been posting some of the fastest cars in the junior division. "Because you can race with a broken rib, so long as you don't give them the chance to tell you not to."
But the New Castle crash that stands out the most happened almost seamlessly. A driver in the youngest division, apparently losing control of the steering, sailed off the track in the stretch just in front of the bleachers, barely bumping the blockades. The kid, no more than four feet tall, got out of his car and slowly pushed the cart through the thick, wet grass, back toward the track. It took several minutes, as everyone else whizzed by, and he knew he'd be lucky to get last place. But there is nothing worse than not finishing.
Jay knows this. All three races he's run with Sarah Fisher so far have been marked with mishaps. On the May 1 IndyCar race in Kansas, he crashed into a wall on the 180th of 200 laps. He did not finish.
Fisher can't say if she would hire Jay again next year. "He's got to finish every single lap. As far as performance goes, we're going to do the best we can to give him an opportunity to show sponsors what he's got."
In Tristan's race, two kids have already spun off the track. But not Tristan, who by the 11th lap is in eighth, and Jay is gripping the stopwatch with both hands. "He's almost half a second faster than the guys in front of him," he says, smiling.
By the 12th lap, Tristan is holding eighth place, but his pace is faster than the kid in first.
"Why couldn't he do that in the fucking prefinals?" Jay remarks to no one in particular. "Gotta wait until now to do it, huh?"
In the 14th lap, Tristan's in seventh. By the 17th, he's in sixth.
"He can taste it," Jay says. He laughs.
As the final lap begins, Tristan's in sixth. "Good boy, good boy," Jay mutters. "Stay tight. Good boy."
Tristan passes a cart. He's in fifth. He buzzes around the driver in fourth. If there had been 30 seconds more, he'd move up, maybe to third. But the race ends.
Tristan has secured fifth.
Still laughing and shaking his head in disbelief, Jay walks down from the hill to find Tristan. He won't be going to Italy, but he raced like hell. There are congratulations to be had.
Jay walks back on the long, hot concrete stretch of sidewalk to the tent. He says, "Now he's got to learn to do that every time."
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