MOTORSPORT: The best display of Nissan race cars ever assembled in North America

Never before has a Japanese carmaker been the featured marque at the Monterey Historics. That is, until this year, when Nissan received the honor. As a result, collectors, racers, and Nissan themselves have brought together a truly epic assembly of historically significant race cars, perhaps the best ever gathered in North America. 

The cars are currently displayed at Nissan’s booth at the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion at Laguna Seca. All through the weekend they will be on display as privateer Datsun and Nissan cars compete in vintage racing heats, providing an L-series symphony as background music. Cars hail from as early as the 1960s, when Nissan was establishing a foothold in the US market, building what would become a beloved enthusiast marque in the years to come.

More importantly, these cars were all raced in North America, forcing the world to regard Nissan as a serious contender against the best of the best. Ultimately, they changed public opinion on not just Nissans, but Japanese cars at large, and made possible a booming industry that created the machines we know and love today.

Chronologically, the first would have to be the Datsun Fairlady 1500, which was the earliest car in America ever to race with official Nissan sponsorship. It won 25 races between 1963 and 1964, beating a two-time SCCA national champion driving for the Triumph team. For its successes, it earned the nickname the “Unfairlady.”

When it comes to Nissan motorsports in America, the name Peter Brock is legendary. With his Brock Racing Enterprises race team, or BRE, he brought some of the most memorable wins in SCCA history home to Nissan. Though he is probably best known for managing the road-racing BRE Datsun 510s that won the Trans-Am 2.5 Challenge, a few years prior Brock raced a 510 in the 1969 Mexican 1000 (now known as the Baja 1000), a grueling race that covered 1,000 miles of unpaved desert terrain.

Nissan was already competing in other international rallies at the time, most notably the East African Safari Rally, which it would win overall the following year. The same works in Japan that built those cars prepared three 510s for Brock in the Mexican 1000, and sent them across the Pacific. Strictly speaking, the cars were 510 Bluebird SSS models, complete with RHD and modifications similar to the Safari Rally cars.

Brock piloted the number 89 car to fourth place, and when the race was done he simply left the car in Mexico. It was rediscovered only a few years ago, and subsequently returned to the US. Its decades spent languishing south of the border turned out to be a bit of good fortune, because if it had been brought back in 1969, the car would have been junked.

Inside the car was another piece of history — Brock’s old racing helmet. By the time this car competed, Brock was typically in the pits, managing the BRE team, but for the Mexican 1000 Brock opted to drive himself with Bob Lyon as navigator.

Nearby, the man himself was testing out a new bike in BRE livery. Incredibly, the motorcycle had been built by a fan, and gifted to Brock that day.

The same year Brock raced his 510 Bluebird in Mexico, at home he was fielding newly prepped Datsun 2000 roadsters for SCCA competition. Brock’s deal with Nissan gave him two roadsters in secret and, as the story goes, when they showed up to their first race, even Nissan America was surprised to see them. With driver Frank Monise behind the wheel, the number 44 car won the SCCA D-Production championship for the Pacific Coast that year. Supposedly, Brock hired Monise because, “He was the only driver that I couldn’t beat.”

In 1970 and 1971, the BRE team and driver John Morton won two consecutive SCCA C-Production championships with the Fairlady’s successor, the game-changing Datsun 240Z. The winning car was then sold off to another team, which repainted the car and continued to race it until it was destroyed in a collision in 1977. As is the fate of most crashed competition machines, the usable parts — in this case the drivetrain, roll cage, gauges, fuel cell, and other assorted bits — were transplanted into another 240Z chassis and continued to race until 1979.

BRE fanatic Randy Jaffe bought the car in 2016, after it had been sitting for 37 years. There are many BRE 240Z replicas and tributes out there, but what followed is the most extensive BRE 240Z build ever undertaken. Jaffe’s goal was, essentially, to recreate the championship Z, and he enlisted the help of key members of the original BRE team, including Peter Brock, John Morton, and John Knepp, to help create the most accurate BRE Z in the world. Though rebodied, the build was so thorough that Morton himself gifted his original Z’s VIN plate to Jaffe, making it official.

In the earliest days of Nissan USA, the company established two sales divisions, one for each side of the country, and each with its own chief executive and marketing arm. So, while Peter Brock campaigned his Datsuns out west, Bob Sharp was doing the same on the east coast. Bob Sharp Racing won no less than six SCCA national championships with Datsuns, and the 240Z displayed was one of two original C-Production cars built by BSR.

In later years, the great Paul Newman got a stint behind the wheel, and the car would adopt an L28 and be badged a 280Z. It finished its run in 1978, but in 1986 it was brought out of retirement and built for the SCCA’s GT2 class, with Bob’s son Scott Sharp taking a national championship in the 17-year-old car.

It wasn’t all just race cars. A stock 1972 Datsun 510 from the Nissan USA collection in Tennessee is also on display. This is the same car we drove here in Monterey in 2015, crashing the supercar party that takes over the peninsula during Car Week.

Though the Datsun 510 entered production first, two years before the 240Z, BRE’s campaigning of the 510 came after its success with the Z. Its subsequent wins in the SCCA 2.5 Challenge for 1971-72 is the stuff of racing legend. As the name implies, the class consisted of engine sizes 2.5 liters or below. The 510, with its 1.6-liter inline-four, had some stiff competition. However, with ace driver John Morton at the helm, the plucky BRE 510 took down what were considered the most dominant European racing marques of the era — Triumph, Alfa Romeo, BMW.

Its success earned the 510 the nickname Giant Killer, and truly cemented Nissan’s reputation as a company that could built not just class-topping sports cars, but sporty economy sedans as well. It’s one of the most beloved race cars of all time, and the livery has become something of an icon. While the BRE 240Z may not have survived 100 percent in tact, the 510 is, according to Nissan, “unaltered” and resides in the company’s heritage collection.

With the growth of IMSA as America’s most popular race series, the cars began to get more extreme. The BSR Datsun 260Z Camel GT car was simultaneously one of the wildest looking and most beautiful of the era. Built by Bob Sharp Racing, the 1975 IMSA Camel GT 260Z featured huge fender flares, duck tail spoiler, and an aerodynamic G-nose bodywork. Under the hood, a tuned L28 with triple Mikunis made over 300 horsepower and mated to a 5-speed Nissan Competition Option 2 direct-drive transmission. In fact, BSR built a second one as a pace car, complete with a passenger seat, so drivers could take guests and media a spin in a bona fide race car.

For their display, Nissan paired it with a street-legal 1974 260Z. The yellow 2+2 wasn’t just any old Z, though. It was once the personal car of Yutaka Katayama, or Mr K for short. The former president of Nissan USA and beloved motorsports advocate drove this particular example from 1974-75, custom painted in his favorite color, yellow pearl. The car also has a custom sunroof, not offered on the stock Z, and as Mr K owned this later in life, after his yellow 240Z, this one has a 3-speed automatic.

BSR continued to campaign IMSA cars through the 80s, with the Z31 300ZX taking over for the GT-1 class. Notably, Paul Newman raced a number of these cars, with BSR’s Z31 taking the 1985 GT-1 championship. This particular car is being prepped for race by comedian and Datsun fanatic Adam Carolla over the weekend.

By 1987, the bodies were growing more streamlined, with no hint of 300ZX design at all in the nosecone. The car displayed here, according to Nissan, was one of the few that Newman himself owned and used to compete in the 1987 SCCA Trans-Am series. Its VG30DET is estimated to put out 650 horsepower. Today, it’s owned by Adam Carolla.

By the late 1980s, IMSA had evolved into full-on prototype racing with the GTP class. Despite fierce rivals from the likes of Toyota, Porsche, and Jaguar, The Nissan GTP ZX Turbo proved unbeatable. The displayed car is chassis 8801, and as the name implies the engine is based on that of the 300ZX. However, its mid-ship VG30DET produced 850 horsepower, and with its single turbo on full boost, output could be pushed as high as 1,200 horsepower.

The car was nicknamed Elvis, and in its debut year of 1988 it dominated with eight consecutive races and the overall championship. It continued to win the manufacturers’ championship for three more years after that, and driver Geoff Brabham would take the drivers’ championship for all four of those years.

In 1994 the Z32-based 300ZX Turbo won the IMSA GTS class of the 24-hour of Le Mans. Its identical sister car won the 24 Hours of Daytona, leading Nissan to capture the overall GTS championships that year. Again, the VG30DETT is based on the 3.0-liter V6 found in a street-legal 300ZX, but capable of 800 horsepower.

Nissan also has the GT-R50 on display, built to celebrate 50 years of the GT-R and 50 years of Italdesign, alongside the R35 NISMO GT-R that it’s based on. The “regular” one already has a supercar-slaying 600 horsepower, but the GT-R50 is tuned to 720 or so. Only 50 will be made, and prices are expected to be around an eye-watering $1 million each.

Last but not least, the centerpiece of the display was the 1998 Nissan R390 GT1 Road Car, the holy grail of Bubble Era Nissans. We were able to get an exclusive and up close look at the legend when it arrived on Wednesday, but now it sits on a stand behind stanchions. It’s the first time the one-of-one supercar, typically stored at Nissan’s warehouse in Zama, Japan, has appeared on US soil.

Unbelievably, the cars here are just the ones Nissan has gathered. The R382 race car is supposed to arrive Friday and stay through the weekend, and we haven’t even touched upon the many privateer racers who turned out for this momentous occasion yet. It’s truly a landmark year for Nissan, and if you’re anywhere near Monterey this weekend, you owe it to yourself to come take a look. Such an magnificent collection of historic Nissans will probably never take place in the US again, at least not in this exact assortment.

To be continued…

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13 Responses to MOTORSPORT: The best display of Nissan race cars ever assembled in North America

  1. Nigel said:

    And all this was just on Thursday !?? “To be continued”, seems needed.

  2. Cho said:

    Amazing. Thankful for the photos.

  3. Erik said:

    I can’t wait for tomorrow, heading down from SanJo. I was kinda hoping for a pmcs gtr but…….

    • Roger said:

      Thanks for posting that, great video. Loved the growl of the celica supra. With the exception of the grand prix maroon z it seems the compact cars beat the “sports” cars to an embarrassing degree.

  4. Mark Newton-John said:

    Come on haters, a yellow 260Z 2+2 with an automatic transmission. But it was owned by Katayama-dono… Hear that? Silence.

  5. Mark Newton-John said:

    And why is Adam Carolla driving a Datsun? You’d figure at least an AE86 or an 86…

  6. RainMeister said:

    Ben, nice recap of Nissan motorsport history and matching photos. The R382 finally did show up on Sunday, but it was the blue one; not the Fuji GP winning yellow #21 car.

    For someone who grew up watching these Datsun and Nissan race cars race, mostly at Lime Rock Park, this event was nirvana. 50 racing Datsuns in all, out of 500 accepted to participate in this prestigious event. And dozens more classic street Datsuns that streamed out of the corral for a lap around the course. Sublime.

    I just wish Nissan sent over more of their championship winning cars from Japan. They roll them out for the NISMO festival, and they run laps. Even Mazda brought their 3 prototype racers and ran them in the race. I would have loved to have seen their GTP and LeMans racers come to life.

    Now comes the fun part of sorting through and processing 8k images taken over the weekend.

  7. Jim Daniels said:

    Ben, are you going to have more photos coming from Monterey?

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