For two weeks, Nick Kunewalder has gone to bed tired . . . but hasn’t been able to sleep.
It’s always the same. He thinks about auto racing, specifically the Camel Grand Prix of Southern California in Del Mar; he’s to drive in Sunday’s Barber SAAB Pro Series race.
Kunewalder lies in bed quizzing himself about what he would do in certain situations. What if he were in second place? How would he challenge for the lead? When is the most opportune time to pass? As he thinks, his heart pumps faster and his adrenaline begins to flow. His mind seems to race as fast as the cars he drives.
Kunewalder, 27, an Encinitas driver who has been in only 3 professional races, lives fast, a fraction from the red line. In sports, he has always pushed himself to the limit. Two years ago, he began a serious auto racing career after 6 years as a professional speed skier. He loves anything done at high speeds and anything competitive.
Early on, Kunewalder knew what he wanted. Flipping through the chapters of his youth provides evidence.
His intensity appears to come from his father, Utz, who died of complications from multiple sclerosis when Nick was 10. Nick vividly remembers Utz’s Austrian determination, his strong will and his work ethic.
Among the memories is Nick’s first request for his father to teach him how to fish. Said Utz, who didn’t approve of such sports: “Before you fish, you’ll put a hook through your lip to see what it feels like.”
Nick sees shades of his father’s intensity in his own personality, but he applies it to life much differently. Utz was a hard-working businessman who didn’t mix fun with work. Nick is certain Utz wouldn’t have approved of careers in skiing and auto racing.
“That’s probably true,” said Monique Kunewalder, Nick’s mother. “He had such different values. He was a tough, tough ruler.”
Nick is more free-spirited. He does what he wants. And now, more than anything, he wants to race. Of course, that was always his dream.
He bought a minibike when he was 12, though his mother was dead set against the idea. When he was old enough to drive, he would challenge just about anybody in the family’s Volvo.
“He’d race somebody in a hopped-up (sports) car, and he’d still beat them just because he was so determined,” said his younger brother, Tony, who said he was beaten a good many times himself.
Kunewalder’s determination has dictated the direction of his life. At 19, after completing a year at Mesa College in Grand Junction, Colo., a miscommunication with his counselor caused him to be half a credit short for his physical education requirement. Though Kunewalder had spent hours each day training on the ski slopes, Kunewalder says the dean of the college was indignant and refused to wave the P.E. credit, which would have given him sophomore status.
“I thought, ‘I’m not going to deal with people like this,’ ” Kunewalder said. “That just turned me off.”
So in about the time it would have taken him to go zero to 60 in the Volvo, he quit, took a night job and became a skier by day. Suddenly he was racing with his idols, such as Austrian professional champion Andre Arnold.
And skiing suited him. It was a return to the comfortable world of speed, sometimes a little scary but always fulfilling. He would shake with anticipation when he got to the bottom of the mountain, thinking, “God, I’ve got to get up there.” And then he would take satisfying risks on the slopes.
“I got to the point where my mouth was so dry from outright fear of what I was about to do,” he said. “I was really challenging myself.”
His skiing career had its ups and downs. Among the ups was achieving a goal of 100 m.p.h. in the downhill. Among the downs were the injuries, including a broken back and a broken shoulder. Finally, he decided it was time he dedicated his efforts to auto racing.
He spent his last two ski seasons dividing time between the road and the snow and gave up professional skiing in 1986. In 1984, he had attended his first session at the Jim Russell Driving School in Monterey. Right away, he knew it was for him.
Kunewalder was told on the first day to drive a quarter mile, downshift and brake. It was a simple exercise, but he found it exhilarating. Afterward, he blurted his excitement to his instructor, who told him to just relax.
He was never able to keep the RPMs of his car at the level his instructors wanted. He always found himself pushing to do just a little more. To go a little faster. He wanted to be the fastest and the best. And basically, he was.
He won one race in his first season of amateur racing, but in 1986, he won 4 of 12 starts and never finished out of the top four., Kunewalder has driven competitively in his 3 pro races, despite using mediocre cars because of a small budget.
Last year, at the GTU race at Del Mar, Kunewalder drove a 1967 Porsche against a field of new, custom-built cars. The Porsche was adjusted for its regular driver, so Kunewalder couldn’t see out of the mirrors and he could barely reach forward far enough to shift. His friends in the stands even had to laugh a bit at the strange sound of the car’s engine and its unique three-wheel turns.
“But I was having a blast,” said Kunewalder, who finished eighth out of 22 cars. “I made the papers, and I felt really good.”
Today, Kunewalder’s entire focus is racing. He quit his job a year ago and started his own business, distributing sports equipment, so his schedule would be more flexible. His spare time is spent reading every auto racing magazine he can get his hands on. He’ll watch a race on ESPN in the morning and watch the same one on tape delay in the evening. And his social life is on hold. He has told his girl friend, Laurie Gibbs, a national snow boarding champion who lives in Austria, that marriage has to wait until he establishes himself as a driver. That’s his first priority.
“I think a lot of people think (race drivers) must be crazy,” he said, “that we love to do this for some kind of attention. But I don’t care if there’s not a soul around. I love to do it. It’s something I want to do more than anything in the world.”
Even when reflecting on his childhood growing up in the Bay area and Washington, D.C., his mind is never far from racing. He tells the story of a boarding school in England where his mother thought of sending him when he was 13. Horrible place, he says. Right out of Oliver Twist. Kunewalder objected vehemently, and his mother finally gave in.
“You never know what could have happened in England,” he said, shaking his head. Then suddenly, his eyes widen. “That’s not such a bad idea, though, because England is where auto racing is huge.”
Kunewalder is aware that if he is to be a huge success he needs financial support. During much of his spare time, he searches for sponsors. Money, or lack thereof, is his biggest obstacle.
“He’s got such a higher determination to succeed in car racing,” said Bob Helmig, a friend and former driver. “He just needs a break here and there and somebody who’ll give him the chance.”
If that never happens, it won’t be from lack of effort.
“I’m so driven to make this happen that I’m going to do it until there’s absolutely no hope,” he said. “I’m going to get there. There’s no question in my mind.”
GRAND PRIX OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA
WHERE: Del Mar Fairgrounds.
WHEN: Today, Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Gates open at 8 a.m. Friday and Saturday and 9 a.m. Sunday.
ADMISSION: Tickets good for all 3 days are available for $50 (upper level) and $35 (lower level). Tickets for children 12 and under are $30 (upper level) and $20 (lower level). Tickets for Sunday only are $35 and $25 for adults and $20 and $10 for juniors. Further ticket information can be obtained by calling 259-5119.
PARKING: Parking passes, good for all 3 days, are $8 per vehicle. One-day parking passes are $3. Passes permit parking in the thoroughbred parking lot off Jimmy Durante Boulevard.
HISTORY: Motorsport events were held in the Del Mar Fairgrounds parking lot from 1959 to 1964. The track was 1.4 miles and was outlined by pylons, hay bales and snow fencing. Last October was the first Camel Grand Prix, held in front of 32,500.
OUTLOOK: Three days of racing and spectator activities will start today with practice in the morning and qualifying in the afternoon.
Saturday, the 20-minute Dodge International Star Challenge, featuring rock music stars Ted Nugent and Mick Fleetwood, will open the competition at 1:10 p.m. The GTO (Grand Touring over 3 Liters) race will be held at 2 p.m. Scott Pruett, the current GTO points leader, and 1987 GTO champion Chris Cord are the drivers to watch in this race. GTO cars are sports coupe type designs with V-6 and V-8 engines or smaller turbocharged 4-cylinder and V-6 engines.
Sunday will begin with two bicycle races, for women and juniors at 9 a.m. and men and seniors at 10 a.m. The GTU (Grand Touring under 3 Liters) race will be held at 12:15 p.m. Watch for Dorsey Schroeder, winner at Road America, Sears Point and Lime Rock, in the Dodge Daytona Shelby Turbo. GTU cars are smaller, including Mazda RX-7s, Dodge Daytonas, Chevrolet Berettas, Pontiac Fieros, Porsche 911s and Nissan Z cars. The GTP (Grand Touring Prototype) will start at 1:45 p.m. Top drivers are Chip Robinson, defending GTP champion, and Geoff Brabham, the current GTP points leader. GTP cars are highly technical and the fastest of the five groups. The Barber SAAB race, for open-wheeled, formula-type cars will start at 4:15 p.m. and conclude the day’s events.
The minimum purse for weekend races will be $328,500 and could reach $378,500, depending on the results of the Camel’s point fund payoffs.
The course includes 10 turns over 1.62 miles at the Del Mar Fairgrounds.