There’s nothing like the early morning start to a race weekend. Your mind becomes clear. Any lingering stress from your day job is replaced with the smell of a coffee and race gas mixture. Nothing else comes close. An early rise to Day One of the Mitty was met with rain clouds in Braselton, Georgia, home of Road Atlanta. I was about to take my restored ex-SCCA Datsun 240Z race car to its first race here in 35 years. I caught a ride from the hotel with our friends at Z Car Garage, who had prepped the legendary No. 46 BRE 240Z. The legend himself, John Morton, was in the back seat next to me.
As we rolled into the track we caught our first glimpse of the infamous bridge before Turn 12 and the daunting back straight that ends in a slow winding chicane. John Morton gazed upon that stretch of track where he decimated his opposition to win the 1970 and 1971 National C-Production Championships in his BRE Datsun 240Z.
We made our way around the track and down to the “pro” side of the paddock, where our race cars awaited. Nissan and Historic Sportscar Racing (HSR) had graciously placed us right at the bottom of the front straight bridge in anticipation of the large crowds, eager to see our west coast race cars up close.
Our little group from out west undoubtedly included the most historical Datsun race cars in the field. Among them, the No. 46 BRE 240Z, the Peter Brock designed BRE 370Z (for display), Adam Carolla’s championship-winning Frank Monise/John Morton Roadster (for display) and Bob Sharp 610, a race-prepared Hakosuka and Bluebird Coupe, the ex-Brad Friselle 1976 IMSA GTU Champion 240Z, the ex-Dave Frellsen 1973 National B-Sedan Champion 510, Racecraft’s BMW 2002 and 260Z, my ex-Walt Maas/Loren St. Lawrence 240Z and the ex-James Brolin Anheuser Busch IMSA GTU 240Z.
We began by exchanging greetings with fellow racers and crew members. Although some of us see each other only a few times a year, we keep in touch and remain a close-knit group.
After the greetings came time to prepare the cars. Each racer had their own differing pre-race checklist, but no matter what they almost always include the following: adding race fuel, torquing wheels, checking oil levels and leaks, nut and bolting key parts of the suspension, setting tire pressures, checking the charge on race electronics such as GoPros and transponders, and warming up the car.
Day One was our test day, an extremely important time to ensure the cars were functioning properly and to familiarize ourselves with the track. After a brief test day drivers’ meeting, we hopped into our cars for the first session. Our 240Z was to compete in HP6, a class of production cars similar in bore, power, and weight. In an effort to keep things organized and allow for optimal seat time, the race group included other classes, such as Datsun 510s, Roadsters, BMW 2002s, Porsches, and more.
As we pulled out of track entrance for the first time, I immediately took notice of the Turn 2’s blind left that was instantaneously met with Turn 3’s hard right. Then we entered Turn 4, the start of Road Atlanta’s famous “esses,” and exited through a slippery uphill left, Turn 5. The tall berms at each side of the track warned drivers of what dangers could ensue if traveled too abruptly.
Next, it was downhill into Turn 6 and a late apex out of Turn 7. Then came the ruthless Road Atlanta back straight. While it may be quite pleasant in a road-going 370Z, speeds in excess of 135 mph are utter mayhem in a gutted 240Z race machine. It certainly left me doubting the preparation of my car.
At the end of the back straight were Turns 10A and 10B, also known as Road Atlanta’s chicane. Before the late 90s, the chicane was non-existent, and the back straight would lead directly into the downhill of what is now known as Turns 11 and 12. Flying at speeds of 135 mph and then braking to 35 mph in a moment’s time would often reintroduce you to your breakfast. While it certainly would have been an exhilarating experience to drive Road Atlanta in the “old days,” the chicane is still no slouch.
Winding out of it, we climbed the hill into Turn 11, a blind right hander that drops probably 10 stories through Turn 12 and into the front straight. Too late and you’ll find yourself oversteering into a wall; too early and you will find yourself understeering into a wall. My first session was scary to say the least.
As I pulled across start-finish for the first time, my mind was running at a heightened clip. Normally these thoughts would include strategies on how both the driver and car could be quicker, but in this instance it was, “What on earth did I just experience!?” Road Atlanta was by far the most challenging racing circuit I had ever driven.
From the last installment of our Vintage Racing Journal series, you may recall we spoke about importance of gearing. Well, my 4.38 rear end and 0.9 overdrive proved to be less than optimal. While the math appeared correct on paper, we had overlooked elevation changes and distance, a key characteristic of Road Atlanta.
The car ended up reaching 7,500 rpm in 5th gear well before the braking zone on the back straight. This forced us to hold high rpms steady for an extended period of time, exposing the risk of the motor running too lean. We needed about 800 more rpm to be optimally geared.
The camaraderie of fellow racing drivers is often one of the most overlooked aspects of vintage racing. Vintage racing is all about enjoying the weekend with your fellow racers, family, crew, and friends. You seldom find someone that is not willing to help out a fellow driver, so I set out on the hunt for a more optimal rear end.
While the 240Z runs a R180 version differential in stock configuration, you’ll often find that many racers have opted for beefier R190 and R200 versions. After hours of running around the pits asking for favors, the owner of the ex-Frellsen 510 lent us a 3.9 R180. Although I was foregoing my OS Giken LSD for a welded differential, the taller gear ratio was more favorable. We spent the remainder of the afternoon and early evening wrenching.
An end to our test day left me intimidated. I was certain a track full of blind turns, high speed straights, and elevation changes was going to make for a crazy, yet memorable, weekend. After a quick spin in the paddock, the differential proved to be flawless — or so we thought.
To be continued…