MOTORSPORT: When NHRA opened the doors to Japanese funny cars

Datsun 280ZX NHRA Funny Car Jeff Dykes

When I was a kid in the 70s, a Japanese manufacturer being represented in the pro ranks of NHRA drag racing was a laughable idea. Sure, Datsuns were competitive in road racing with production-based cars, but sanctioning bodies such as the National Hot Rod Association were strictly all-American for their top classes. But now, Toyota Camry bodies are seemingly everywhere. So how did that change? 

Datsun 280ZX Pioneer funny car rear

In late 1979, NHRA changed their rules to allow foreign cars to be represented in AA/FC (“Top Fuel Funny Cars”). On America’s streets, more foreign cars were being sold than ever, especially Japanese ones. Ever mindful of sponsors, manufacturer backing, and attendance, the people behind the rule change sought to embrace this movement. One of the stipulations was that the originating car had to be a 1975 model or later.

Plymouth Arrow G-Whiz Ad

Now if you’re an fan of old school drag racing, you might say, “But what about the Plymouth Arrow? Raymond Beadle and Don Prudhomme ran Arrow bodies before that, and the Arrow was originally a Mitsubishi Lancer Celeste!” True, but it wasn’t a purely Japanese-branded car, so the rule had to change in order for such cars to compete — which happened in October of 1979, giving teams time to build their cars for the next season.

Datsun 280ZX Pioneer funny car

The sleekest Japanese car on the market at the time was the Datsun 280ZX. The long, pointed nose and fastback styling seemed perfect for the exaggerated fiberglass bodies of AA/FC. For the 1980 season, three drivers debuted 280ZX bodies. Two of them, John Collins and Gary Densham, used the 280ZX body as sponsor bait, hoping to cash in on some factory backing. Collins, who already had a deal with Japanese stereo manufacturer Pioneer, ended up getting the Datsun contract while Densham had to run on his own money. The third driver, Tim Grose, picked the 280ZX hoping for an aerodynamic advantage.

Gary Densham Datsun 280ZX funny car

Back then, teams often built their own cars, including the bodies. Densham borrowed an actual brand-new 280ZX off the showroom floor of a friend’s dealership, taped off the body, and built the molds for his race car’s body. When he removed the tape, however, much of the paint came off with it, so he had to repaint the entire car in order to have it back in his friend’s showroom first thing Monday morning. Which only left him 20 hours! Legend has it Densham succeeded, and his friend was none the wiser.

Datsun 280ZX Pioneer funny car sticker

Collins’ first car, in a beautiful blue-and-gold paint scheme, only lasted two races. At the March Meet in Bakersfield, California, an encounter with the guardrail destroyed the body. A second body was already in the works, so he was able to run the full season. Densham had to replace his body after a fire at the 1981 World Finals, and Grose replaced his car’s body twice — once after an “aerodynamic experiment” (taping over the louvers) caused the body to split in two and leave the car during a run, and another time he was lucky to survive a very bad crash at the 1980 Springnationals after a stuck throttle sent him into the guardrails on both sides of the track.

Although Grose started out struggling with an older chassis, he still managed to qualify in the #1 spot at Molson’s 1980 event with a 6.09-second run, and he gave Datsun their only NHRA AA/FC final round appearance at the 1982 Gatornationals.

Datsun 280ZX NHRA Funny Car Vern Moats

Did these three drivers start a revolution in American motorsports? Well, not exactly. By the start of the 1983 season, all three drivers had switched back to American car bodies, either due to changing sponsors or opportunities from other teams or builders. Other drivers did try 280ZX bodies in AA/FC later, and they also appeared in other classes, such as BB/FC (50% nitro-methane) and Top Alcohol Funny Car. In fact, Vern Moats won four NHRA national events in a row in 1983 with his 280ZX-bodied Top Alcohol Funny Car.

Datsun 280ZX Paul Newman

However, Pioneer’s racing sponsorship of Datsun did extend to the 280ZX road racing teams like Bob Sharp Racing, and a driver you might have heard of, Paul Newman.

What about today? The 280ZX is still out there on the nostalgia drag racing circuit. One of the more visible cars (in more ways than one) is a car named Photo Op, owned by Jeff Dykes and currently driven by Todd Swinford. The body is actually one of the ten originally made back in the early 80s, and it looks like it’s for sale. Mr. Dykes has a blog you can follow here.

Images: Ralph ReiterNational DragsterPhotoOpPFC

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