Of all the driver changes that took place during the offseason in IMSA’s WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, one came with more pressure than the others as former Mazda factory driver Tristan Nunez was signed to replace two-time DPi champion Felipe Nasr at Action Express Racing.
With Nasr off to join Porsche’s new LMDh program, the vacancy created alongside Pipo Derani in the No. 31 AXR Whelen Engineering Cadillac DPi-V.R meant whomever they hired would be expected to maintain the same performance level that delivered the 2021 DPi title to the North Carolina-based team.
Filling the Brazilian’s big shoes would be the first task for the Florida native, and after his first few official outings in the No. 31 entry with Derani and endurance event teammate Mike Conway, Nunez says there are no butterflies in sight.
“Honestly, I haven’t been this relaxed in a long time, and I know that sounds weird,” he told RACER. “Just because the pressure comes from inside me, and the team’s really good about really not adding unnecessary pressure. They really understand that if we’re calm, we’re just focusing on the driving part, just know what to do, and we’re performing the best. So the whole transition was really seamless, and they welcomed me with open arms. I really do feel like I belong here and that my talent is noticed.”
Through three sessions so far at the Roar Before The 24 test weekend, Nunez holds the second-fastest lap in the red and white Cadillac DPi-V.R, nestled between Conway (1m35.351s) and Derani (1m35.638s) with a best of 1m35.433s. Building chemistry with his new co-pilots has been a big priority for the 26-year-old as they search for the best chassis setup to complement their respective handling needs.
“It’s been great getting to know Mike, and Pipo has been really great as well,” Nunez said. “When the news came out about me joining Pipo for the year, my fiance and I went and had dinner with Pipo and his wife just get to know each other on a personal level and, and he’s been really full smart insights and getting me to learn the needs of the Cadillac DPi very well.”
After years of racing the lightweight Mazda RT24-P DPi with its tiny four-cylinder turbo engine, Nunez is adapting to the big 5.5-liter naturally-aspirated Cadillac V8 powerplant and the added mass the Dallara-built chassis is required to carry.
“The Cadillac brakes extremely well, and coming from my former chassis, the balance is a little bit different to get used to, but I’ve gotten used to that and it feels pretty natural,” he added. “The car just behaves really well to what you give it. The traction is really good — fits my driving style. But the biggest adjustment is the torque!
“The torque of this Cadillac is surreal, but also just the traction you have with a lot more usable torque is very different for me, but it’s rewarding. You can really you can drive it hard and you’re rewarded for it. So it’s really it’s a really fun car to drive, and I’m really enjoying myself with my new team.”