Why Datsun And Nissan Are Among The Most Important Names In American Racing

<span style="font-style: normal;">David Martin hustles the ex-Brad Frisselle IMSA GTU champion 240Z at The Mitty</span>
Photo: Chris Tonn
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Some vintage racing events lure crowds with the promise of Formula 1, Can-Am, and Le Mans exotics of years past. But this year’s Classic Motorsports Mitty was focused on a more mainstream marque: Datsun and Nissan.

As Japanese classics of the ’70s and ’80s become more widely appreciated, it’s only appropriate that a major vintage race weekend gets dedicated to the first such brand to make a significant impression on amateur motorsports. Indeed, The Mitty is vintage racing for the Radwood crowd.

It also fits that the first big vintage race to honor Datsun is held at the track where they gained some of their greatest glories, as the SCCA Runoffs spent all of the ‘70s and ‘80s here at Road Atlanta. The Runoffs, of course, are the year-end championships for amateur motorsports.

(Disclaimer: Nissan put me up in a hotel for a couple of nights, and fed me lunch on Saturday.)

Between 1970 and 1993, those year-end battles were waged in the rolling Appalachian foothills northeast of Atlanta at the masterpiece formed from red clay known as Road Atlanta.

Those years neatly coincide with the emergence of Datsun (then Nissan) as a major automaker in North America. Thankfully for enthusiasts, Nissan recognized motorsports as an ideal venue for showcasing its cars. Counting both names, the company has captured over 100 SCCA Runoffs victories, more than any other automaker.

Historic Sportscar Racing (HSR for short) got their start here at Road Atlanta in 1977, with what was basically a glorified track day for local enthusiasts. The springtime event was dubbed The Mitty after the hero of James Thurber’s most famous work, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, who daydreamed about escaping suburban drudgery and becoming a hero. The Mitty blossomed into one of the largest vintage races on the East Coast, and helped grow HSR into a vintage sanctioning body putting on several events all year long.

For those who have never been to a road race, a vintage event is an ideal introduction. The vibe is incredibly laid back. Take a stroll through the paddock, and get as close as you dare to magnificent racing machinery. Bring the kids, too. (Though I’d recommend hearing protection. I forgot earplugs, and I’m still buzzing a few days later.)

Beyond gawking at the machinery, you’ll find yourself chatting idly with the drivers, most of whom wrench on their own cars between sessions under a pop-up tent, behind the pickup or SUV they drive to work through the week. Plenty of big rigs with crews are there, too, but invariably the drivers are happy to talk.

I was one for two on meeting big-name drivers. Datsun hero John Morton, the weekend’s Grand Marshal, was happy to talk about the old days. I somehow missed another personal hero on the entry list: NASCAR champion Bill Elliott was driving a classic Dodge Intrepid stock car here, not far from his home of Dawsonville.

Morton, driving Randy Jaffe’s incredibly-detailed recreation of the Brock Racing Enterprises 240Z that won the SCCA Runoffs C-Production championship in 1970 and ‘71 here at Road Atlanta, had a rough beginning to the weekend when the primary race motor came apart at the end of the long back straight. A backup engine was installed, and the legendary car-and-driver combo finished fourth in Saturday’s Nissan feature race.

Follow along for a lap of Road Atlanta with John Morton:

While the West Coast-based BRE team certainly deserves glory for its wins, Bob Sharp Racing in Connecticut was the standard bearer for Datsun spanning three decades, with Sharp himself taking Datsun’s first Runoffs win in 1967 in a Datsun Roadster.

Sharp’s team won SCCA and IMSA championships across three decades, with illustrious drivers such as Elliott Forbes-Robinson, Sam Posey, Jim Fitzgerald, Tom Cruise, Paul Newman and Bob’s son Scott Sharp.

An unusual model at Road Atlanta for The Mitty was this ex-Forbes-Robinson 1974 Datsun 610. The somewhat-bulbous two-door sedan was the unloved follow-up to the svelte 510, but it was an equally impressive racer in the right hands.

Saturday’s big winner was Alex McDowell, driving this lovely Japanese-market C10-chassis Skyline. FYI, Nissan geeks, it’s not a GT-R, but the single-cam L-series was strong enough to show four taillamps to the rest of the field.

Glenn Chiou has worked to restore this 240Z in VIP’s Restaurant livery and has also run it at the big vintage event for the West Coast, the Monterey Historics. It counts numerous regional championships over decades of racing is a historic car for the Bay Area. It was the first Z raced in the San Francisco Region of the SCCA.

The magnificence of a vintage race extends beyond the track. Scores of enthusiasts bring every kind of street car to the track, which hosts touring laps during the lunch break for anyone willing to part with some cash.

Yes, that’s a Chevy Van about to drop into the Esses. It certainly filled the frame of my lens.

The infield was packed with enthusiast’s vehicles of every shape and size.

Back on track, a few more cars caught my eye.

This Datsun B210 won the C-Sedan Runoffs three years running, from 1977 through 1979. Don Preston and Trevor Harris built a pair of these cars, and Dick Davenport won all three years. Recently, Davenport’s son Rob embarked upon a restoration of the car with Preston, and brought it out to The Mitty.

It wasn’t the fastest thing out there, but I’m in love with Paul Brewer’s Nissan Hardbody pickup. Yes, I’m old enough to have watched the SCCA RaceTruck series in person.

Nissan, as a primary sponsor of The Mitty, brought several classics for display alongside the current vehicles that, you know, make them money. Oddly, not a single current 370Z was displayed. Several GT-Rs, an Armada, and a few Titans were under the big tent.

Of note, the Nissan GTP-ZX racer that kicked off a four-year dominance of the IMSA GTP series was fired up at 3 PM sharp on Saturday. Dozens of enthusiasts basked in the raucous thunder and the scent of race fuel... including one dad who probably should have put earmuffs on the kid hanging on his chest harness.

Also under the tent was BRE Datsun 510 that Morton drove to the 1971 Trans-Am 2.5-Liter Challenge championship.

That ‘71 season was the focus of a promotional film, Against All Odds (also the title of an underrated Phil Collins song) that was featured in the Classic Motorsports tent in the infield. The film was preceded by an autograph session with John Morton that ran long due the swell of fans looking to chat with their hero, and was followed by a screening of Adam Carolla’s documentary, Winning: The Racing Life of Paul Newman.

More spectator cars arrived late Friday afternoon with the Bring A Trailer car corral. The internet time suck and determiner of high-value modern classics hosted a reunion for cars bought and sold on the website. In the spirit of The Mitty, BaT founder Randy Nonnenberg bought this tennis-ball-yellow ’73 240Z, and he and his team drove it across the country from San Francisco.

This is the exact same year and color of Z that I restored with my late father in my teens, and I kept looking for an opportunity to knock Randy over and take his keys.

Of course, not all enthusiast cars that showed up were exactly sports cars. Thus the Concours d’Lemons brought out the “worst.” I was in love with this AMC Hornet. Brown wagons get me. Sadly, not an Allanté in sight.

My weekend at The Mitty was refreshing. The event was a sun-baked reminder that car enthusiasm is thriving. I was pulled aside by a father who brought his teenaged son along. The son had just bought an old Z race car, and was looking for advice on getting involved in racing. I was heartened that this could be a great father-son project that will develop a few more serious enthusiasts.

Also, I’m glad to see that Nissan recognizes the importance of its motorsports heritage. Whether we see the company actually put a redesigned Z or GT-R into production any time in the near future or not, the passion I saw in the Nissan team at Road Atlanta reminds me that there are indeed car nuts deep within the bowels of the crossover-crazy automaker.

Last, I’m seriously impressed with the track, with Historic Sportscar Racing, and with the Classic Motorsports team, who put on a killer show for racers and fans. I’ll be back next spring.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said the Dick Davenport car was a Datsun 1200. It is a B210.