Datsun Rising: Peter Brock on the BRE Datsun 240Z


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Story by Peter Brock • Photos as Credited • Illustrations by Sarah Young

If not for a small but highly talented group of racers in Southern California, the Datsun 240Z might not have become such an American success story. While there were political and cultural hurdles to overcome, the Brock Racing Enterprises team was able to grasp the emerging situation at the car’s introduction and help create one of the most dominant production racers ever built.

But this story starts with the man whose vision, corporate power and trust in this small team made it all possible: Yutaka Katayama, the president of Datsun USA and a highly unusual business personality.

Unlike most Japanese automotive executives of that era, Mr. K understood the American psyche-perhaps even better than some Americans in similar positions in Detroit. His radical ideas about automotive design, marketing, and building quality and respect into a struggling, war-ravaged entity were not always well received in the boardroom in Tokyo.

He’d actually been “banished” to California several years earlier by Nissan’s highly conservative management in order to try to establish a sales beachhead in North America. He was awarded this position as much to eliminate his contentious ideas as to test his controversial theories where it was believed that an embarrassing failure might not be blamed on their collective decision.

One Goal, Two Cars

Katayama was certain that his success for Nissan in America would require two totally new and different automobiles. First would be a small, inexpensive sedan capable of unseating Volkswagen from its top position in American import sales. This dream would become the 510.

The second new vehicle would be a relatively inexpensive, more exotic-looking GT coupe–something that would appeal not just to performance fans but also to that larger portion of Americans seeking greater style, comfort and cache than any coveted, higher-priced European import could offer.

The triggering moment for that special coupe began on a trip to the home office, where Katayama stopped into Nissan’s design studio and met with Chief Designer Yoshihiko Matsuo. Knowing Katayama’s reputation for action and bold planning, Matsuo quietly revealed a dream concept that had seemed almost impossible to realize thanks to resistance within Nissan’s highly conservative management.

Upon viewing the sketches, Katayama instantly knew that Matsuo’s GT concept was exactly what was needed in the States. Americans would eventually know this car as the 240Z, and Katayama became its dedicated champion within Nissan.

In Japan, few in Nissan’s hierarchy had any understanding of the American market or its impending federal regulations regarding cleaner air. Almost all of Nissan’s engineering, management and sales teams had been trained using European models as templates for success.

Whereas Nissan’s engineers had been focused on producing rather boring, inexpensive copies of obsolete European models that met Japan’s highly restrictive regulations for the domestic market, their recently acquired manufacturing partner, Prince Motor Company, had a uniquely qualified staff that understood high-performance engines and was anxious to prove its expertise.

Prince’s engineers produced a brilliant high-performance twin-cam, 2.0-liter engine for the Z 432, the race-ready version of this new coupe. However, the engine would become a political logjam within Nissan, as Katayama knew it wasn’t suitable or even acceptable for the American market. It would never have met U.S. air quality regulations.

Since this new coupe was his personal project within Nissan and he’d staked his reputation upon its success, Katayama resented management’s desire to send this highly tuned engine into a market it hardly understood. He knew his new coupe would need something with a larger displacement and built at a far lower cost.

The answer was found in the basic layout of the new L-series engines that had been created especially for Katayama’s other vision, the 510 economy sedan. It was a relatively simple engineering task, on paper, to add two cylinders to the engine’s design and enlarge displacement to 2400cc.

The actual upgrade, which was focused on keeping costs as low as possible, overlooked one critical design element. This would not be discovered until the car was in production and the first 240Z engine was modified for racing by the Brock Racing Enterprises team in California.

Sealing a Deal

Even though BRE had not raced under contract for Datsun USA in 1969, the young privateer team from El Segundo, California, still had an excellent season. Winning the Sports Car Club of America’s tough Pacific Coast D Production Championship with a Datsun 2000 roadster and qualifying it for the SCCA’s Nationals in Daytona had actually resulted in a combination of key moves that garnered Peter Brock a private invitation to meet with a very appreciative Mr. Katayama.

Mr. K would further surprise his guest with a secret viewing of the coming season’s secret weapon from Nissan, the 240Z. Even more important was the proffered contract to race a pair of them for him personally under the Datsun USA banner.

Racing with factory support for a Japanese manufacturer is far different from running a privateer effort in America. It brings far more responsibility than simply preparing the cars for competition. It means representing the company and its principles at all times in such a way that projects a clean, powerful sporting image that attracts others to the cause and creates internal corporate pride in product. Success on track, obviously, is important for sales, but it has to be done in such a way that winning brings admiration and respect to all involved.

Once partnered with Nissan, BRE’s hard-won experience and carefully developed internal speed secrets were no longer private. The shop and team had to be open to all who might want to be part of Katayama’s new motorsports program. By contract, everything BRE learned in competition had to be shared with other teams, who would emulate the team’s success and expand corporate visibility nationwide.

There was also a very subtle but important cultural aspect to BRE’s relationship with Nissan. The rules of Japanese business etiquette weren’t easy for the team’s members to acquire, as there was no school of interpersonal diplomacy available to impart to them what gestures, language or decisions were acceptable.

Any action, like cheating, that might be understood in America as legally embarrassing if discovered, simply wasn’t possible. There could never be any hint of impropriety. Any such infraction, for a Japanese sponsor, would bring dishonor and “loss of face.” It would also be a personal disgrace for the head of the company and would create corporate and even national shame.

Manufacturers Partner With Privateers

In 1970, when the 240Z was introduced, American road racing was in the midpoint of a transitional era concerning marketing and advertising. Previously, the sport had been almost entirely amateur and publicly invisible–an SCCA-governed activity for elite enthusiasts.

Now it was slowly awakening to the reality of teams with paid professional drivers and contracts to develop production automobiles for manufacturers whose marketing departments understood the value of success on the race track.

The beginning, perhaps, came in the fall of 1962, when Carroll Shelby’s first professionally prepared Cobra roadster confronted a four-car team of Zora Arkus-Duntov’s personally selected Corvette Stingray drivers at Riverside Raceway. That display of professionalism opened the door for automakers’ American offices to begin supporting SCCA privateers who showed promise.

By 1970, Porsche North America was actively sponsoring a couple of two-car teams using its fast, mid-engined 9l4-6s with professional hotshoes on the East and West Coasts. These operations were run, in turn, by veteran international racing luminaries Bob Holbert and Richie Ginther.

Meanwhile, British-Leyland’s New York office started backing two independent Triumph efforts: Bob Tullius’s slick Group 44 team out of Falls Church, Virginia, on the East Coast and veteran racer and development engineer Kas Kastner on the West Coast. Toyota USA used the same strategy to introduce and promote its stunningly beautiful new 2000GT in America, contracting three-time Le Mans-winning team manager Carroll Shelby to field a two-car effort in 1968.

The brass ring for these manufacturers: the prestige and unquestioned sales advantage of winning a national championship. And they would all compete directly.

Like Porsche’s 911 coupes, its even faster 914–6 roadsters, and Triumph’s equally impressive TR6s, Datsun’s new 240Z had all been assigned by the SCCA’s contest board to the C Production class. And it was into this seething cauldron of top pros and big money that BRE and Katayama dove to challenge the finest American “amateurs” in SCCA production car racing with Nissan’s untested 240Z.

This first really openly accepted season for pros in factory-backed race cars suddenly became major news in the sport. Datsun’s national reputation was on the line, as was Katayama’s position internally within Nissan. If the 240Z didn’t perform as expected, his credibility would suffer. Within BRE, the pressure was on.

As Delivered

Since the SCCA had intelligently divided the U.S. into several divisions in an effort to decrease travel costs for privateers, it was only necessary for a regional team to accumulate enough points to win one of the top three positions in its specific division to qualify for the national championships. For this reason, both Porsche and Triumph were sponsoring more than one team. At the last moment, Porsche even added a third effort out of Kansas for Bob Hindson.

Likewise, Nissan backed more than one 240Z race team. BRE’s counterpart on the opposite coast was top eastern Datsun dealer and club racer Bob Sharp. He was given the very first 240Z in the country–and it did not fare well on its first outing. The engine failed suddenly and catastrophically, and the cause seemed to be an unsolvable mystery.

With only a single destroyed engine to analyze, it was impossible for Sharp’s crew to discern if the problem was an engineering anomaly or simply a mistake in preparation. Queries to the factory describing the event were met with silence.

BRE’s first 240Z arrived several weeks later, shortly before the first regional event on the Pacific Coast. Having the car ready in time seemed almost impossible, but veteran crew chief Mac Tilton led the BRE team through late hours every night to prep and thoroughly test their new Z before its public debut. Had they not done so, that first race would have been a huge embarrassment for Nissan and Mr. K.

Explaining what put Nissan in this situation requires a wider look. Unlike the high-revving Prince Z 432 engine intended for the Japanese-market Fairlady race car, the 240Z’s new American-market, six-cylinder engines had never been designed for or even expected to see competition.

Nissan’s management, including Katayama, was completely unaware that American racing rules required the use of engines and components as delivered in their production cars and sold to the public. Unlike most international racing regulations, the SCCA’s didn’t allow special, factory-built racing engines or components.

Since Nissan had simply assumed that the Prince engine would be used in America for racing, the new L-series was never tested at high rpm. Without realizing the situation, Nissan had put its reputation–along with Mr. K’s–at serious risk.

Bad Vibrations

BRE’s sage engine guru, 87-year-old Art Oehrli, had been building and testing engines almost his entire life. Before being coaxed to head up BRE’s engine development facility in El Segundo, Oehrli ran Champion Spark Plug Co.’s dynamometer test cell in Long Beach for several years.

His depth of experience with every type of racing engine, from dirt track circle burners to Indy 500 mills to huge Can-Am V8s, was an invaluable resource. It allowed him to first discern the new L24’s almost fatal flaw: an elusive high-rpm, third harmonic vibration.

This condition was so subtle, destructive and unexpected that at first no one on the BRE crew understood what had occurred. Since this high-rpm vibration phenomenon is unique to inline-six engines and no one on the team besides Oehrli had any experience with sixes, the problem seemed a complete mystery.

Oehrli took days to carefully disassemble, prepare and reassemble the first 240Z racing engine before it was placed on BRE’s Heenan & Froude engine dyno. As expected, it ran smoothly and produced good power. But this typical test mode didn’t hold the engine at full load for several long seconds at the high rpm it would face on Riverside’s or Willow Springs’s long back straights.

When BRE’s still-unpainted No. 46 rolled out for its first private test session at Willow Springs with John Morton at the wheel, there was a quiet, expectant uncertainty among the team. Comparative lap times of the competition were well known, so meeting those numbers was the initial goal.

While development work continued on the 240Z, John Morton started the 1970 season in a BRE-built Datsun roadster. Once in the Z, though, he was unstoppable.

Within the limited time that had been forced upon them to prepare a completely new and unknown chassis, members of the crew felt they’d built in every possible modification allowed under the rules. They expected the best, but with every component new and untried, no one knew what lap times would result.

Willow’s demanding circuit quickly proved just how much more work was needed to make the Z competitive. The new shocks were so stiff that the car didn’t handle well enough to get any real speed.

Meet Plan B

Since Morton had started driving for BRE in the team’s second Datsun 2000 roadster late in the previous season, that chassis and engine were well dialed in. The car was still reasonably competitive and reliable.

When equipped with SU-type carbs, as it had been in ‘69, Morton’s 2000 had run in D Production. But if fitted with better-breathing twin side-draft Mikunis, the car was classified in C Production. If the Z wasn’t ready, Morton could still collect points in C Production.

Even though the roadster’s narrow track-to-wheelbase ratio limited its cornering power, the car’s Oehrli-developed engine still had enough power to almost match the best times of the Triumphs, Lotuses and Porsches. Morton might not have been able to win in the highly competitive C Production class, but with his skill and experience there was a good chance he could still get on the podium and collect enough points to keep him in contention for the Runoffs.

When BRE tried the Z again at Willow, they first began to experience the deadly vibration that would delay the 240Z’s debut until well into the season. Above 7000 rpm for the first extended run, the vibration came on so suddenly and was so severe that every bolt holding the crank to the flywheel sheared as if it had been cut with a laser. It was like an explosion occurred in the bell housing. Fortunately, a scatter shield protected Morton’s feet from serious injury.

Upon inspecting the damage, Oehrli explained that all inline sixes suffered from this phenomenon, but since most production engines never experienced high rpm, the problem was almost unknown. To keep the lightened flywheel attached to the crankshaft, six dowel pins were machined and press-fitted into the crank’s mounting flange to resist the shearing forces. A report was sent to the factory describing the third harmonic problem, along with possible solutions. There was no response.

On the next test, the flywheel stayed on the crank, but now the vibration sheared the bolts that held the clutch housing to the flywheel. When that was solved with stronger bolts, the blades holding the pressure plate inside the clutch housing sheared. Special locating pads were designed and installed to keep the pressure plate in line.

Oehrli also tried adapting a Chevrolet harmonic balancer to the front of the crank, but the vibration was still so intense that friction melted the damper’s rubber bond, pitching the balancer’s outer ring.

There was no way they could race the 240Z and hope to last even a few laps. The now-obvious problem had a solution, but it would mean a completely new design for the crankshaft, including proper counterweights to offset the crank’s internal windup at high rpm.

The team needed some 8000 rpm to extract the engine’s full potential, but without the proper internal components there was no way to sustain the engine’s required speed. The BRE crew sent more reports to Japan, but again there was complete silence. They had no way of knowing if some solution was being devised or if anyone at Nissan even cared. Mr. K was patient and understanding, but they felt frustrated and unproductive.

Later they began to grasp the reason behind the manufacturer’s silence: It was simply a Japanese custom to not recognize direct criticism, which is how they perceived BRE’s reports. Unbeknownst to them, the problems were being worked on, but Nissan could not admit it as that would have indicated someone had made a mistake–an unacceptable cultural error. The team was learning.

Morton Saves the Day

Incredibly, Morton was holding his own in the roadster against the faster Triumphs and Porsches, but there were four of those and only one Datsun. To make the podium and secure vital points, he had to beat at least two at each race–no easy deal.

The story about the last-minute arrival of new cranks from Japan is so bizarre that it can’t be related here, but suffice it to say that when they finally did arrive and were installed, the engines ran smoothly on the dyno to 8000 rpm.

BRE was ready, at last, to go racing–well, almost. They did a few more track tests in private to make sure.

The new division cranks did what they were supposed to, but on track we found a new issue: Thanks to the higher engine speeds, oil was somehow not getting to the oil pump’s pickup. Morton was noting a serious drop in pressure at speed.

Since he was also one of the team’s best fabricators and was responsible for building our high-capacity oil pans, Morton took a closer look at the situation. Based on how he envisioned the oil flow before and after the crankshaft upgrade, he redesigned the pan’s internals, its windage tray and the pickup. Everything finally worked: no high-rpm smoke, and the engine’s sound was so sweet we could hear his every shift point around Riverside.

From that point forward, Morton was on top for almost every race. The 240Z had suddenly gone from non-starter to the fastest C Production car on the grid. First-place points for the final few races came rolling in like dollar signs on a Vegas slot machine, guaranteeing a starting position at Road Atlanta for the Runoffs.

Bringing the Heat

The SCCA National Championship showdown at Road Atlanta was even more difficult than our regular Pacific Coast races. Instead of battling the top four C Production cars on the West Coast, we now faced the top three qualifiers from every SCCA division. It was without a doubt the most competitive grid ever seen in SCCA National competition.

Katayama’s dream rested entirely on what the BRE team had created for him and ultimately how Morton would fare. When qualifying was over, the first eight cars on the grid were separated by just half a second. Morton, incredibly, was on the pole, but lined up alongside him was several-time national champ Bob Tullius driving America’s fastest TR6.

Another challenge that weekend was the weather. It was unusually cold. So cold, in fact, that ice was hanging off the power lines. With all the cars so competitive and the temperatures so unlike anything we’d ever raced in, we knew that we needed some creative thinking to win. As a team, we were all trying to determine what we might do to give John an edge.

Since the temperature was the one obvious variable that impacted everyone, we looked to turn it into an advantage. One thing we knew for certain was that engine power was related to temperature-but not just induction temperature, as that would affect all teams equally. That was simply about noting the barometric pressure and getting the mixture right.

Operating temperature was something different, and the common-knowledge ideal other teams used wasn’t exactly correct. Art Oehrli and his young assistant, John Caldwell, had proved consistently on our dyno that several extra horses could always be extracted at the top end by keeping both oil and water temps high. The trick was to maintain that high level without it becoming destructive. If the water temp could be kept at 220, it was easier to keep oil temps high as well, and that resulted in significantly more power.

If we could hit the track with our driveline already at operating temperature, we theorized, Morton could enjoy a boost of power for the first lap or two.

The trip from our paddock spot to pre-grid wasn’t long, and once there we’d have to sit for several minutes until the previous race completed. All engines were required to be shut off on pregrid, and that wait in the near-freezing conditions was sure to cool the engine oil well below our ideal max-power temp.

The solution was to use a remote generator powering a heating pad adhered to the bottom of the oil pan. The engine was pre-warmed in the paddock and then driven to the pre-grid, where the power cord was attached. When the cars were driven out to the grid, we were at full operating temp.

Morton gained about three lengths off the line, a critical distance he maintained throughout the race. A few degrees of temperature had given us the slight advantage to win and deliver the national championship that confirmed Katayama’s dream of success for the 240Z in America. It was the first of the 240Z’s many national championships, including Morton’s second victory in 1971.

The racing season had started slowly for BRE and the 240Z program, but it ended well thanks to the team’s experience and attention to detail. The preparation from every member of the team paid off, and Mr. K was pleased. Sales of his dream car were going so well that by mid-season there was a three-month wait to take delivery on a new 240Z. By the time BRE’s racing contract with Datsun ended in 1973, the manufacturer’s import sales in America had climbed from number seven to number one in the nation.

Even more telling of Datsun’s competition success: Every other manufacturer in C Production had moved away, looking for another class or type of competition in which to excel. Porsche teamed with Roger Penske and dominated the Can-Am series with the 917. Toyota and Shelby never even made the SCCA Nationals and quit competition for 10 years. Tullius and Kastner both found new classes to dominate, but C Production remained Datsun territory for years to come.

Reappearance

When Morton’s two-time championship-winning 240Z was returned to Nissan headquarters in 1972, ostensibly to be placed in the company’s planned museum, it mysteriously “disappeared.” It was quietly repainted and given to top California privateer Dan Parkinson.

Somehow Parkinson lost control in a private test session and destroyed the car. This priceless piece of Nissan racing history was crashed so badly that it was pushed behind Parkinson’s home and forgotten.

Years later, Randy Jaffe, a hardcore BRE fan if there ever was one, decided to build a new No. 46 BRE racer for vintage competition. Months of research, including numerous phone calls and emails with everyone involved, finally revealed the real story of what had happened to Morton’s “lost” racer.

Jaffe’s plan to build a new C Production racer then became a mission to restore history. He went to California and bought the ex-Morton wreck from Parkinson’s dad. He also gathered every component that had been removed from Morton’s 240Z and used on Parkinson’s new racer.

Jaffe acquired a new tub and started building. Every detail and dimension that had been built into BRE’s original 240Z was incorporated into the new car. Even more important were the mechanical components he’d salvaged, which were rebuilt to as-new condition and incorporated into the new racer. Jaffe had top Nissan engine builder Dave Rebello recreate the racer’s BRE engine using the original manifolds and external fittings and linkage.

The result was a perfect recreation of Morton’s racer. Jaffe even called Morton to race the car. History would repeat at the 2018 Classic Motorsports Mitty, held this spring at Road Atlanta. Rob Fuller’s Z Car Garage was tasked with prepping the chassis for the annual event.

During Friday practice, on Road Atlanta’s long back straight, a rod bolt fractured at well over 7000 rpm while in top gear. The block returned to the paddock as a steaming, oil-soaked disaster with gaping holes in both sides. For any other team that weekend, it might have been the end. But not for Jaffe and the Z Car Garage crew.

Jaffe went back to his Atlanta shop and pulled out a couple of dust-covered, 40-year-old EB Parkinson race engines that Randy had bought as “spare parts” along with the destroyed ex-Morton chassis. In the paddock the next morning, with an encouraging and highly vocal crowd watching, both engines were disassembled, inspected and combined to make a single almost-new 240Z race engine.

Incredibly, Morton was able to improve his lap times with the new mill, even though it obviously didn’t have the power of the Rebello engine. It was still strong enough that his skill put him back on the podium.

Where Failure Meets Success

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Racing isn’t always about winning; it’s about proving who is best. On this memorable Mitty weekend, it was the entire team’s courage against all odds, combined with Morton’s skill and determination, that proved their championship spirit.

If ever anyone remarks that racing doesn’t improve the breed, BRE’s example of discovering an engineering problem on the eve of a new-car announcement, then developing and proving the design of a new production 240Z crankshaft that was immediately incorporated into every new Z-car, must be used to disprove their point.

We never did get a formal answer to our reports or learn who within Nissan engineering actually designed the new cranks, but we were all pretty certain it must have been the really savvy guys from Prince who knew something about high-rpm inline sixes. The strange (to us) silence was probably something we didn’t understand culturally about “failure,” but it was obvious the problem was noted, quietly studied, understood, tested relentlessly and then solved.

The 240Z’s L-series race engine has gone on to be one of the best and most reliable production engines in history. Thousands have been built. The Z 432, powered by that rare Prince engine, never did go into full production. Only 452 were ever built, but the engine has gone on to be the basis for the one found in the legendary Skyline GT-R, one of the rarest, fastest and most desirable automobiles ever to come out of Japan.

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Comments
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Coupefan
Coupefan Reader
10/16/18 11:15 a.m.

We engineers have a saying.  If you throw enough money at a problem, we can solve it.  This was BRE's advantage over most other teams that got little to no factory support; the 'three M's'. They got money, machinery and manpower from Datsun to help them. 

ClearwaterZ
ClearwaterZ New Reader
12/9/18 10:39 p.m.

Peter Brock and BRE were given a Competition Budget and supplied with Datsun's by Nissan Motor Co. Ltd (in Japan). BRE prepare and race Datsun’s in 1968. The Factory supplied Works Rally 510’s for BRE to run the off road races at Baja. Then the Factory sent Light Weight Roadsters to BRE from Japan -  before Nissan USA and Mr. K. were ever involved.  Nissan Motors in USA did sponsor a local team via the Nissan Competition Dept. but that effort was not really successful. When BRE starting winning races on the West Coast with the roadsters - was when Mr. K first heard of them, and in turn wanted to met them.

ClearwaterZ
ClearwaterZ New Reader
12/9/18 10:45 p.m.

It is also significant to note that most Datsun Dealers on the West Coast  had long "Customer Order Waiting Lists" for DATSUN 240Z's before BRE or Bob Sharp Racing ever appeared with them On Track. By March of 1970 backorders were running 6 to 8 months at most Dealerships. While the success of BRE and BSR certainly enhanced sales - that first year they didn't drive the demand.

ClearwaterZ
ClearwaterZ New Reader
12/9/18 10:55 p.m.

"In Japan, few in Nissan’s hierarchy had any understanding of the American market or its impending federal regulations regarding cleaner air. "

The above statement is far from accurate.   In 1965 Mr. K was promoted to President of Nissan Motor Co. in USA. Mr. Kawazoe had been Vice President of Eastern Sales. Mr. Kawazoe was a Degreed and experience Engineer with excellent English Language skills. He was reassigned to Washing D.C. to represent not only Nissan’s interests, but the interests of Japan’s Automotive industry. Specifically to work on pending US Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards and DOT/EPA Emissions Standards. These were all followed closely and were well known by Nissan Japan, during the design of the Datsun 240Z.

Tim Suddard
Tim Suddard Publisher
12/10/18 4:57 p.m.

I always feel that attention to detail, thoroughnesss and neatness overcome some budget deficits.

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