Tristan was born in 1995, and La Vea, says Diane, "just took interest and just loved my family. He loves my kids like they're his own."

So when a 12-year-old Tristan took an interest in carting, 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 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.

Jay Howard (left) and Tristan Nuñez
C. Stiles
Jay Howard (left) and Tristan Nuñez
Tristan, in car, gets some pointers from Jay, his coach. Many drivers don't have the benefit of professional coaching.
Photo courtesy of Diane Nuñez
Tristan, in car, gets some pointers from Jay, his coach. Many drivers don't have the benefit of professional coaching.

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, chooses 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 a 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, such as 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, he takes first, beating 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 a defective bumper has not improved the afternoon's spirits.

"That's the third fucking time that thing broke," Diane yells 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 one of Tristan's cars. Matt works quietly, not acknowledging Diane's comments 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.

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