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High-Speed Stakes

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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.

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Lisa Gartner
Contact: Lisa Gartner

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