Moment Arrives for Nunez with Move to Action Express

By Holly Cain
IMSA Wire Service
 The smile was unmistakable. And unmovable. Even as Tristan Nunez made his way around the paddock at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta preparing for the Motul Petit Le Mans season-ender, the young driver couldn’t help but think about the opportunity ahead.
As the final checkered flew, Nunez was set to join Action Express Racing in 2022 – the same organization that drove to the Daytona Prototype international (DPi) title in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship with its runner-up result at Michelin Raceway on Nov. 13.
Nunez will co-drive with Pipo Derani in the No. 31 Whelen Engineering Racing Cadillac DPi-V.R in the 2022 season that begins in little more than a month. They shared the car for the first time in a test last week at Daytona International Speedway.
Following a successful five-year DPi class tenure with Mazda Motorsports from 2016-20, when he earned a victory at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in 2019 along with 11 podium finishes. Nunez competed this year for WIN Autosport in Le Mans Prototype 2 (LMP2), claiming a win at the Sahlen’s Six Hours of The Glen in June.
“It’s honestly life-changing,’’ Nunez said of his move to the reigning DPi champion team. “Action Express has been a team that I’ve really looked up to for my whole racing career. They’ve always been in the fight. They execute races beautifully. And I’ve always looked up to that.”
It began innocently enough. Nunez’s phone rang. On the other end was Gary Nelson, Action Express team manager.
“Honestly, when I was sitting and having lunch that one day, and I got the call from Gary, my jaw kind of dropped,” the 25-year-old Floridian said. “I didn’t really know what to say. Just really life changing.
“And I think the timing was perfect as well. I feel like I’m just now starting my career, which is funny because I’ve been in professional racing for eight years. But I feel like I’ve been, this whole time, getting ready for this moment. I’ve almost been getting my master’s (degree) in racing, if you will. 
“I’m thankful to Mazda for giving me the opportunity that groomed me into the driver that I am today. And I look forward to winning races and championships with Action Express and Cadillac.”
Nelson’s decision to hire Nunez was well contemplated. Ultimately, Nunez received high praise even from drivers who also wanted the Action Express seat – a rarity in the racing world.
The long-term outlook of adding a young, highly motivated talent like Nunez to the team was an especially attractive part of the partnership, Nelson said. Nunez is replacing Felipe Nasr in the fulltime lineup as Action Express gears up to become one of Cadillac’s pillar teams in LMDh, the new prototype replacing DPi in 2023.
“We found out we were going to lose one (driver) because his contract had run out and he’d made a deal with another group,’’ Nelson explained. “So that left us searching for a driver, and in the process, the sport grew some long-term prospects with 2023 LMDh coming. So, all of a sudden, the whole landscape changed and we wanted long-term agreements. 
“We started looking at all the drivers and obviously, there’s the brand-name guys everybody talks about. But somehow, someone mentioned Tristan Nunez. He was on our radar but not really up there, so I asked our folks to look at his record and talk to people that had worked with him. I gave him a call and talked to him, and all of a sudden, I moved him to the top of the list.
“Then after I called him,’’ Nelson recalled, shaking his head, “I started getting calls from people who he had worked with as co-drivers. And one of them called me and said, ‘I heard you talked to Tristan.’ And he said, ‘I’d love to have the ride with Action Express and I think I could do a great job for you, but you picked the right guy.’”
Nunez is certainly grateful for this chance with a team that is firing on all cylinders. In the last three years Derani has driven for Action Express Racing, it has earned six DPi victories – beginning with the 2019 Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Presented by Advance Auto Parts wins – 17 podium finishes, a championship runner-up (2019) and then the title this year.
Nelson believes the addition of Nunez not only ensures the continuity of high competition but raises the level of expectation. And his new hire is fully on board with that.
“I’ve been in professional racing for eight years and I think my age is a big selling point, in that I have a lot of experience but I’ve still got a long ways to go,’’ Nunez said. “The past couple years I’ve really come out of my shell and feel like I’ve been one of the top guys out there. And it’s nice those guys have seen that.
“You know how racing is. You have some bad luck and you feel as a driver you aren’t getting the exposure you need to pursue your career. Those guys look beyond just results. They look at everything.
“Whatever they found, they liked.’’
Nelson agrees.
“The guy is just committed,” he said. “He takes the job so seriously. He’s going to find a way to get better.
“And that’s really what we do. We’re not a team of superstars, we’re just a bunch of guys who have the commitment to win. We want to get trophies.”
Adam Sinclair