When Mike Girard bought the old Thunderbird boat factory in South Florida to house his Sloppy Joe’s race team and some other performance-boat facilities, a family business operated next door. It quickly became evident to Girard that the group was a close-knit family with the mom running the front office and the father and son working side-by-side building boats.
The family behind Pantera Boats was Linda Nunez, her husband Pepe and son Jo. Girard was welcomed to the family, and he became fast friends with Jo. “We dirt biked once or twice a week together for 10 years,” Girard said. “We were together all the time.”
Then about a year ago, Linda called Girard with some bad news. “Jo wasn’t feeling well,” Girard said. “He went in and they discovered he had a tumor.” It turned out that Jo had stage 4 thymus cancer.
Girard had moved back to his native Maine and stayed in touch with his friend mostly by phone. “I just tried to help him get through it,” Girard said. He saw Jo in the hospital in November. “He had been on chemo for a while. I just tried to take his mind off it.”
Jo passed away from complications from the cancer at age 43. Girard said that he hadn’t heard from his friend in a while and he reached out to Jo’s father Pepe, who informed him of Jo’s passing. Jo Nunez is survived by Pepe, his mother Linda, his sister Barbara, and his son Jo Jr., 9.
Girard started offshore racing with his father Art in a 38-foot Cigarette called Airborne. Next the younger Girard moved into the Open and Superboat classes with a Skater 40 and eventually a Skater 46 sponsored by Sloppy Joe’s in Key West.
After he wrapped up his career in the big cats, Girard raced in the Factory 2 class with Jo Nunez in a 36-foot Pantera. Girard’s first race driving with his friend was in Deerfield Beach, Florida, and stepping down from a 46-foot catamaran with an enclosed canopy to an open-cockpit, twin-stepped V-bottom was eye-opening. “I was in a 36-foot cut-down Pantera and we were launching and I was freaking out,” Girard laughed.
The team lost power in one engine in that race, but with that experience under his belt, Girard again drove with Jo at the world championships in Key West, Florida, in 2003 and 2004. “At the worlds I felt good,” Girard said. “We went into that first turn in second or third wide open, and the boat went through the turn and the crowd fanned out and it wasn’t so bad.”
After Girard moved back to Maine, Jo focused his attention on motocross riding and eventually go-karting with his son Jo Jr., who has already captured a number of checkered flags. “Whatever Jo did he went at 100 percent,” Girard said.