The Datsun 240Z is rightfully remembered as Nissan’s most competitive sports car, for sweeping 10 out of 10 National SCCA C-Production Championships between 1970 and 1979. However, the humble Datsun 510, initially expected to be nothing more than an econobox when first released in 1968, nearly matched that record in what was then called sedan racing. What’s more, it truly opened the doors for Nissan and other Japanese manufacturers to be taken seriously as competitors against their European rivals.
Back in the day, sedan racing didn’t necessarily mean a car with four doors. The term “sedan” was used to differentiate Mustangs, Porsches, and Alfa Romeos from more purpose built prototype and sports cars that were the more traditional racing machines of the era. Notably, sedan classes featured cars based on modified production vehicles. The true charm of sedan racing was the way regular fans could relate to the cars, the same ones they could buy in showrooms.
By the late 1960s, the SCCA had fast growing amateur A- and B-Sedan racing classes. With the popularity and affordability of sedan racing on the rise, carmakers saw a tremendous opportunity to move some metal. In 1966, SCCA president John Bishop founded the well-known Trans-American Sedan Championship, a professional series created as playground for manufacturers to prove their cars on the race track (and to rake in their sponsorship dollars).
When we think of Trans-Am racing today, the historical provenance of what was initially called the “Under 2.0 Liter” class is often overlooked. The series was formed at the dawn of the pony car era, and these smaller cars ran at the same time as the V8-powered Mustangs, Camaros, and ‘Cudas, with hotshoe drivers like Parnelli Jones, Mark Donohue, and Dan Gurney, getting the bulk of the attention.
Under 2.0 Liter was where Nissan, and eventually Japanese carmakers in general, would dominate. But in the beginning, the class was filled with European cars from the likes of Porsche, Alfa Romeo, Mini Cooper, BMW, Saab, and Volkswagen.
Meanwhile, Nissan had been dominating SCCA’s many amateur production classes from coast to coast, but had yet to enter any major professional series with factory backing. The president of Nissan USA, Yutaka Katayama, saw the SCCA’s increasingly popular Trans-Am series as the perfect opportunity to showcase the Datsun 510 could hold its own against the likes of their European counterparts.
Katayama offered contracts to two proven teams, Brock Racing Enterprises on the west coast and Bob Sharp racing on the east. And in 1971 Nissan officially entered Trans-Am racing as a manufacturer, into the highly anticipated and newly reclassified “Two-Five Challenge” for engines 2.5 liters and below. With the new name came a dedicated race group separate from the pony cars.
Brock, Sharp, and their drivers would eventually become household names to car enthusiasts of the era, but there were countless other drivers and privateer cars that helped build he Datsun legend. In fact, the BRE team cars weren’t even ready in time for the first Two-Five Challenge race on May 8, 1971 and had to sit that round out. Instead, Datsun was represented by John Tremblay, a privateer, and Bob Sharp, finishing 7th and 8th respectively. Nissan won no manufacturer points that round, it was the first time competitors saw potential of the 510, cracking the top ten.
It was not until the second race of the season, at Bryar Motorsports Park on May 31, 1971, that BRE entered John Morton’s No.46 510 for the first time alongside Bob Sharp’s No.33 and privateer Lothar Stahlberg’s No.71 510. Morton was the fastest qualifier and had a 40-second lead when mechanical problems resulted in a retirement. That gave Lothar Stahlberg of Utica, New York, an active participant in amateur SCCA B-Sedan, the very first manufacturer’s championship point for Datsun in the US.
The rest is history. John Morton went on dominate and win eight of the remaining ten Trans-Am races, taking the Manufacturers Championship. At that year’s Runoffs, the season-closing Superbowl of the SCCA, Stahlberg finished a respectable 6th, while Bob Sharp finished 1st and was crowned National B-Sedan Champion. The Datsun 510 had arrived.
The old adage of “Race on Sunday, sell on Monday” rang particularly true in this era. Customers began flocking Datsun dealerships for the championship winning Datsun 510, 240z, 1200, and Roadster. But perhaps the even greater impact was how winning the Two-Five Challenge Manufacturers Championship motivated everyday amateur club racers to shift over to the Datsuns the following year.
In 1971, the B-Sedan grid at the season-ender SCCA National Runoffs grid included five Datsun 510s in a field of 18 cars. By 1972, the Runoffs grid had twelve Datsuns in a field of 20. With more racing minds surrounding the platform came more success. Datsun 510s occupied four of the top five finishing spots that year, with Bob Sharp claiming his second National B-Sedan Championship. He was followed in a close second by Walt Maas, and Jim Fitzgerald (Bob Sharp Racing’s second driver) finished third. Lothar Stahlberg bettered his prior year’s result with the fifth spot, all in Datsun 510s.
Datsun’s success opened the doors for Toyota as well. Represented in the lineup by a pair of Toyota Corolla 1600s, their highest finish was in 10th place.
In professional racing, Datsun’s rapid dominance was even more stark. BRE would continue to dominate in 1972, winning 9 of the 11 races on the schedule. At the Manufacturers Championship in 1971, there were 10 Datsuns competing. By 1972, there were 21. That year brought Toyota in on the pro side as well, with four Corolla 1600s. Vic Matthews achieved Toyota’s highest finish, third place at Road America on July 16, 1972.
As the decade went on, Nissan campaigned championship-winning Datsun from across their lineup. There was Bob Sharp and Elliot-Forbes Robinson in 610s, David Frellsen in a 710, and Bill Coykendall in a 200SX (S10 Silvia). The years spanning 1971 to 1979 are largely considered the golden era for SCCA production car racing. In them, Datsun sedans won eight out of nine B-Sedan National Championships. The only exception, 1977, saw Stuart Fisher snatch the trophy in a Mazda RX-3.
In 1971, there were only five Datsun entries at the B-Sedan Championship race at Road Atlanta. By 1978, a record twenty Datsuns, two Toyotas, and one Mazda occupied a grid of 24 cars. The only non-Japanese car was a lone Alfa. In just a few years, the Datsun 510 had transformed the American sedan racing landscape forever.
Images courtesy of the Glenn Chiou collection.
Here are a couple links to videos on Datsun racing in the day:
Against All Odds
And a recap of the 1971 SCCA C Production and B Sedan Championships
Down under, here in Australia, the Datsun 1600 as it was more commonly known, was not as well-known or used in black top racing. But RALLYING – now you’re talking! Very competitive, very popular. A robust, flexible and reliable machine, more often than not with a 180B (610) donk transplant, so a great power-to-weight ratio and with the independent suspension, made it almost unbeatable on the gravel. Mine had a mild cam, polished and ported and cam advanced three degrees…. whoosh!
Oh – and I nearly forgot – a barrel of fun to drive!
Some great memories.
I was told by the former chief mechanic for Datsun USA race team that the RL411 was developed [with help from Gardena] to compete in the Production Sedan Road Racing division so that the factory could get some real time experience prior to the introduction of the 510. The old J1300 engine would have been an embarasement in the existing class. The team wanted some real life race experience without embarassing corporate DATSUN so worked with Yokohama to modify the 411 to accept the factory modified type R roadster engine and add front disc brakes. The factory had the production space, but the design team was all tied up with finalising the 510, so it became a “you figure it out and we will build it” situation.
The base was the 411 SS [Sport Sedan] with the J1300 engine.
A little known, and even less publicized (by the SCCA) fact is that the very first Trans Am race was won OVERALL by an Alfa GTA. The second place car, and first in the over 2 litre class was Bob Tullius in a Dodge Dart. Later on Porsche pulled some rules bending shenanigans and got the 911 classed as a sedan, which it clearly wasn’t, because it had a notional set of rear seats. Of course it dominated, and killed the under 2.5 series.
Ah, the Americans….but like how Meucci invented the telephone, ahead of Bell….but you would be forgiven if you never heard the story….they used to rip out pages from library books, all the references to Meucci….sorry I digress.
After winning the U2 Championship the Porsche 911s got reclassified back to sports cars and were kicked out of U2. This was before U2 became the 2.5 series in ’71. If anyone killed the 2.5 Trans Am, Datsun stood accused.
It’s interesting that SCCA didn’t seem to consider price-based classification.
Performance potential is the only thing that matters. If they classed by cost of the original car, the only thing the 510 would have been up against were Corollas.
Aside from that one minor error that was a damn fine article
That was the editor’s mistake, not Glenn’s. Thanks for catching it.
Nice article about the venerable 510 in US road racing. BTW, that #5 510 in the second pic is Bobby Clark. Clark competed in the SCCA Runoffs in BSedan at Road Atlanta in ’71 and ’72 in a 510 with a best finish of 12th. He also entered the car at the 12 hrs of Sebring in ’72, but did not qualify. Here’s a pic of his mechanics working on the car in the paddock (photo from Petersen Archives). Not good when you have the hood off and a crank standing on end nearby!
Probably the first 510 to compete in the US in an FIA sanctioned race was at the 24hrs of Daytona in 1970 by the team of Don Kearny and Wayne Purdy.
They made the starting grid (starting last!) but dropped out around 7PM with electrical issues according to Jeff Winter, who crewed for the team. Winter would go on to successfully race his own 510s in SCCA and won a National Championship in GProd in a 510 in 2001!
Not mentioned was how Datsun supported the club racer in all sorts of ways. From getting performance parts approved for competition, to sharing technology and set-ups through technical manuals and performance parts catalogues, to subsidizing and knocking down the pricing of parts to Datsun competitors. In the ’70s, Datsun was far out in front of the other Japanese manufacturers in these areas, and few others (British Leyland–MG/Triumph/Jaguar comes to mind) in the world did anything similar, on a broad scale, to small-time racers, all the way up to big-time.
Mazda copied Datsun’s methods here, but didn’t really blossom on any broad scale until the RX-7, and later, the MX-5/Miata came out. All these decades later, Mazda’s deep support of racing and the Miata programs are an outgrowth of what Datsun started and did with the 510 and other cars in the early ’70s.