As we prepare for Datsun race cars to flood Raceway Laguna Seca for the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion in August, let’s take a moment to remember the forgotten heroes of Datsun racing. You’re probably already familiar with names like Brock Racing Enterprises and Bob Sharp Racing, officially sponsored by Datsun.
However, thanks to their sheer affordability and incredible performance, by the 1970s Datsuns campaigned by privateer teams — those who did not receive any backing from Nissan — were swarming America’s race tracks. Here’s five underdog Datsun racers that we should all remember and praise for their contributions to the brand.
One of the factors that made racing a Datsun in the 70s so attractive was the fact that the cars were affordable, obtainable, and reliable. While Datsun backed many race cars throughout their production lineup, like the 240Z, 510, roadsters, 610, 710, 1200, 200SX, and 280ZX, official team sponsorship was limited.
BRE was the official race team of the west coast, while BSR was chosen for the east coast. These teams gave us drivers like John Morton, Paul Newman, Dan Parkinson, and Jim Fitzgerald, are of whom are rightfully heralded as Datsun racing pioneers.
However, factory backed teams often saw racing budgets in excess of a quarter of a million dollars, while privateer teams could only hope for less than a quarter of that. Furthermore, operating as a privateer meant that you were often second in line for the latest and greatest R&D.
To Datsun’s credit, many privateer teams were supplied with checks for winning races and representing the brand, which would in turn be used at the Datsun Competition department. If you made it to the Runoffs, the SCCA’s national championship race, Datsun Competition would house all the brand’s drivers under one large tent where parts were shared, camaraderie was built, and friendships were forged. Here, a Datsun Competition truck would hand out parts like it was Christmas!
Despite their many disadvantages, many privateers still managed to get to the Runoffs, and some even won outright. So without further ado, here are five Datsun drivers you should know.
Logan Blackburn – Blackburn Racing Inc. – Indianapolis, Indiana
While Logan Blackburn’s first SCCA National Championship came in 1971 behind the wheel of an E-Production MG-B, his Datsun claim to fame was winning the C-Production Championship in 1977 in his Datsun 240Z.
Little do most people know, the Blackburn 240Z chassis stretches back to the first year of the 240Z racing in C-Production. The car was built in 1970 by a little shop out of El Segundo, California called BRE. Blackburn’s Z was the second BRE car, originally driven by John McComb (1970), Dan Parkinson (1971), and Jim Gammon (1972). It was later sold to Logan Blackburn, who became the second privateer to win a SCCA C-Production National Championship in a Datsun.
Rob McFarlin – FAR Performance – Los Altos Hills, California
Out of all the drivers in this list, Rob McFarlin raced the most varied number of different Datsun models. In fact, he managed to get his 240Z, 510, 610, and Fairlady roadster race cars to multiple Runoff appearances, though he never nabbed an SCCA National Championship crown.
However, McFarlin did take five victories in a Datsun 200SX, in which he won the 1980 IMSA RS Drivers Championship. In that same 200SX chassis, he would go on to team up with famed Porsche driver Hurley Haywood for multiple IMSA endurance races in 1978, 1979 and 1980. McFarlin would continue his racing career in a variety of other notable racing cars including a Porsche 935, Ford Mustang, Pontiac Firebird, and Mazda RX-3.
Rob McFarlin recently passed away on July 17, 2018. Thank you Rob, for your contributions to the Nissan/Datsun brand. We take this moment to remember your amazing achievements in SCCA and IMSA racing.
Dave Frellsen – Evanston, Illinois
Dave Frellsen is one of the most successful racing drivers to ever run under the Datsun/Nissan banner. Piloting several Datsun 510 and 710 race cars, Frellsen won the SCCA B-Sedan/GT2 National Championship in 1973, 1974, 1975, 1978, and 1980. Frellsen made no less twelve Runoff appearances from 1970 to 1981.
What is not as widely known is that Frellsen began his Datsun racing career in a 2000 roadster, finishing fourth at the 1970 Runoffs. Frellsen’s first National Championship 510 is still racing today, and will be a participant in this year’s Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion. His later model 510 and 710 are currently undergoing restoration, but plan to see the infamous yellow and black cars dominating the race tracks in the near future.
Frank Leary – Frogline Racing – Mountain View, California
Frank Leary had humble beginnings working as a part-time mechanic at Foreign Auto Repair (FAR) Performance out of Mountain View, California. After successful stints in Walt Maas’ infamous “Giant Killer” 240Z in 1972, 1973, and 1974 as a second driver, he decided to go independent. Leary started Frogline Racing and campaigned his own cars from 1975 on.
In 1978, he reached the pinnacle of Datsun fame, as he climbed the top step of the podium at the SCCA National Championships. In the dying laps, Leary managed to stretch the distance on second place Logan Blackburn, and became only the third privateer in nine years to receive the coveted C-Production first place medal. While it was his 260Z chassis that won the Runoffs, his earlier 240Z chassis won several IMSA and SCCA Trans-Am races. Leary’s IMSA GTU 240Z will return to Laguna Seca in August fort the Monterey Rolex Motorsports Reunion.
Walt Maas – FAR Performance – Mountain View, California
Walt Maas is undoubtedly the most underrated Datsun hero of the 70s era. With many Regional Championships under his belt, he joined the young FAR Performance privateer team in the early 1970s. Maas received his first FAR Performance 240z, sponsored by the Northern California Bay Area Datsun Dealers, in 1971 (as it happens, this is the same Z that I own and race today!).
Maas won in his very first race on May 2, 1971. His 240Z was the first to compete in and win an SCCA San Francisco Region race. In 1972, FAR Performance received a second 240Z that Maas would pilot for the next four years. From 1973 on, his 240Z wore a new red and white paint schema, one which he would dominate with through the mid-70s.
Back in the day, C-Production would often be included in a run group with more powerful A and B-Production cars. Maas consistently started in pole position and dusted his competition. The heavier V8-powered cars were no match for the nimble, lightweight Z. It was Japanese sports car racing at its finest.
As a result, locals named his Z the “Giant Killer.” In 1974, Maas became the first Datsun racer to win both the SCCA National C-Production Championships and the IMSA GTU Drivers Championship. He was also the first privateer to win such titles in a 240Z. Maas would later go on to win the IMSA GTU Drivers Championship for a second time in 1976, racing a Porsche 914-6 GT.
While John Morton is certainly one of my all-time heroes, I have made it a personal mission to keep the stories of these underdog drivers, teams and cars alive. After all, they played a key role in the early success of Nissan in SCCA racing. It’s also part of what I enjoy about owning my own 240Z race car, and I don’t want their stories to be forgotten.
Images from the collection of Glenn Chiou.