Jim Fitzgerald’s Fast But Notorious Nissan 280ZX

Story by Preston Lerner • Photography by Kristina Cilia • Historic Photography Courtesy Z Car Garage

Jim Fitzgerald didn’t need a nametag at Nissan’s traditional Runoffs dinner. Jovial and larger than life, Fitzy was a well-known character in club racing, and as a past national champion in a Datsun Roadster, he was Nissan royalty. Still, a badge was pinned on his lapel when he arrived: “DH,” it said in large letters. For “designated hitter.”

The year was 1980. The place was Road Atlanta.

Although it’s hard to imagine now, when amateur racing sanctioning bodies are thicker on the ground than mushrooms after a prolonged rain, the SCCA used to be the only game in town, and carmakers treated the Runoffs like a Big Deal. Nissan had dominated the C Production class for 10 years with various iterations of Z-cars, the streak started by John Morton in the famed BRE Datsun 240Z back in 1970. This time around, six 280ZXs had qualified in the top 10 in the hands of Datsun diehards such as Bob Leitzinger, Logan Blackburn, some dude named Paul L. Newman in a Bob Sharp entry, and Fitzy on the outside pole.

But the fastest qualifier was a seemingly obsolete E-type Jaguar driven by Freddy Baker, and it was Fitzy’s job to make sure the Jag didn’t run away and hide. The designated hitter, get it?

As the cars rolled onto the front straight to start the race, Fitzy’s ZX veered right and traded paint with Baker’s Jaguar even before taking the green, flag. It wasn’t exactly a hip check, but it wasn’t strictly kosher either. “There’s no excuse, really,” announcer David Hobbs said disapprovingly on the television broadcast. “It’s a perfectly straight piece of road.”

Former Nissan Motorsports manager Frank Honsowetz speculates that Fitzy was merely trying to close the E-types’s exhaust pipes rather than crash it out of the race. The collision cost both drivers momentum, and Blackburn swept into the lead. But Baker quickly powered past, with Fitzy hounding him through the esses. The Datsun briefly got by the Jag, with two wheels in the dirt, before being outdragged down the back straight. “Fitzgerald is certainly using more than his fair share of road here,” Hobbs commented.

For the record, Fitzy raced Baker cleanly the rest of the way. At the start of the second lap, he muscled halfway underneath Baker in Turn 1 and easily could have punted the Jag off the track, but he instead held his line to avoid contact. Nevertheless, he was later black-flagged and DQed. Baker ended up winning, with Newman, the previous year’s champ, in second.

Return and Rebirth

Fitzy would return to the Runoffs with the ZX three more times, twice, finishing fourth. He also campaigned the car intermittently under the Jim Fitzgerald Racing banner in the IMSA GTU class before folding up his tent and joining Newman at Bob Sharp Racing. After passing through various hands, the car was bought and restored by Adam Carolla, one of the Nissan world’s most prominent collectors.

Two years ago, he sold it to Alex McDowell. “It was in rough shape when I got it,” McDowell says. So he sent it to Rob Fuller at Z Car Garage in San Jose. “I knew about the car because I’m a Datsun nerd,” Fuller adds.

Carolla had restored the ZX to GTU rather than C Prod specifications with various aero bits, wider fender. flares, and bigger wheels and tires. Fuller reverted to a smaller rear tire to get the ride height where he thought it ought to be. He also refreshed and dyno-tuned the engine as well as overhauled the brake system. Meanwhile, the suspension was rebuilt with new Koni strut inserts and rear shocks, and the transmission was replaced with a close-ratio Nissan Competition Option 2 gearbox.

“Frank Honsowetz speculates that Fitzy was merely trying to close the E-types’s exhaust pipes rather than crash it out of the race.”

McDowell chose to retain the red, white and blue Activision livery from the car’s IMSA days rather than go back to the silver and purple Proformax paint scheme it wore during its stint as the designated hitter. When we caught up with the Datsun at the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion in August, it looked awesome. Sounded pretty good, too, with its 2.8-liter inline-six pumping out about 300 horsepower. “It’s got just enough torque to where you have to be careful with your inputs,” McDowell tells us. “You have to dance it around. But when you do, it’s predicable and easy to control.”

McDowell is a millennial who hadn’t even been born when the 280ZX debuted in 1979, and he runs a shop in Miami that focuses on German high-performance cars. But like Fuller, he’s got a thing for Datsuns. He already owned a 1967 Bluebird and a Hakosuka GT-R when he heard that Carolla’s car was for sale. McDowell wanted to add a Z-car to his stable. But more than that, he says, “I really loved the Jim Fitzgerald story.”

Newman’s Right-Hand Man

Fitzgerald is mainly remembered for two things: his death, at 65, in a Trans-Am race in 1987, and being Newman’s longtime partner in crime. Newman once quipped, “I keep Fitzy on the team because when he’s around and people keep asking me why I’m still racing, I tell them to ask the fat guy over there. He’s older than I am.”

And Fitzy had his own shtick: “I get tired of the writers who use the words ‘grizzled veteran.’ They never say ‘classy,’ and some even say ‘fat.’ That really hurts. They just think I’m fat because my suit is loose.”

The jokes obscured Fitzy’s undeniable skills behind the wheel. the SCCA officially calls him the winningest driver in its club racing history. He also trained hundreds of racers as the chief driving instructor at Road Atlanta. Better still, Bob Sharp now says, “He was a goodwill ambassador for racing.”

The term “gentleman driver” is often used as a euphemism for a racer with more money than talent. But Fitzy was the real deal–an amateur who could race heads-up with the pros. Trained as an engineer, he spent his professional career working for a company that supplied components to a phone company. But when he wasn’t earning money, he was spending it to satisfy his huge racing jones.

Like a lot of club racers, Fitzy began by running a car–an Alfa Romeo Giulietta Veloce, in his case–that he drove to the track, where he taped up the headlights and removed the windshield. He later bought a Morgan, ostensibly for his wife, that he transformed into a weekend racer. While racing Morgans he met Sharp, who suggested that he switch to Datsun, which was then making a big push in grassroots road racing.

In 1968, Fitzy followed Sharp’s advice. By the time he won his first national championship in 1970, Fitzy enjoyed a modest factory deal that included some money plus free or dramatically discounted cars and parts. For example, the 280ZX that would become notorious as the designated hitter came straight from Datsun as a body-in-white.

Throughout the 1970s, Fitzy was damn near unbeatable in club racing. Altogether he won more than 350 SCCA National races and was later inducted into the organization’s hall of fame.

“When I got started with SCCA I was a student of racing, and he was one of the drivers I studied because he just seemed to glide around the track and he had an innate ability to find holes in traffic,” says Lyn St. James, who later scored class wins at Daytona, Sebring and the Nürburgring. “He always reminded me of jolly Nick because he was a little pudgy and his face would be red when he got out of the car.”

Full Time at the Track

Fitzy retired from the workaday world in 1980 and began full-time as the chief driving instructor at Road Atlanta, where he trained a lot of the top NASCAR stars for the road races at Watkins Glen and Riverside. (Actress Marsha Mason was another one of his celebrity students). He also competed on a semi-pro basis with his own hand-to-mouth operation before deciding to rejoin Bob Sharp Racing.

Starting in 1984, Fitzy served as Newman’s wingman in the hot new Nissan 300ZX Turbo. At the Runoffs at Road Atlanta, Fitzy led the first 11 laps of the GT1 race–until a downpour soaked the track at Turn 6. He skated into a ravine, and the rest of the field followed him, like lemmings leaping off a cliff.

“It didn’t seem like it was going to end,” he said afterward, looking dazed. “There must’ve been 10, 12 cars hitting that guardrail. It was like explosions. You couldn’t believe it. I never saw anything like that in my life.” Sixteen of 18 cars crashed and seven drivers were hurt. Fitzy was declared the winner after the race was red-flagged.

Generally speaking, PLN was a tick faster than Fitzy, and he led the way for several one-two finishes, most notably in the GT1 class at the Runoffs in 1986, where Newman won by six-tenths of a second. Sharp insists that there were never any team orders. “But Fitzy knew where his bread was buttered,” he says, “and he didn’t want to beat our star driver.”

Fitzy and Newman remained a formidable duo on and off the track. A People magazine story referred to them as “the aging Butch and Sundance” and “The Geritol Gang.” But even as they entered their AARP years, they were still the liveliest pair in the paddock. As former Nissan Motorsports parts manager Tom O’Connor recalls, “No matter what he was doing, whether he was winning or losing, Fitzy always had a good time.”

But an Untimely End

Sponsored by Planters Peanuts in Trans-Am competition, the Turbo 300ZX was wicked fast in a straight line but not so good in the twisties. Fitzy generally qualified in the top 10 and posted four top-six finishes over the next few years. The end of the 1987 season found the Nissans on the street circuit at St. Petersburg. Fitzy qualified 12th but moved up three positions during the first two laps. Then, disaster.

As he bent his Nissan into Turn 1 he clipped a concrete barrier, sending him spinning 180 degrees. The passenger side of his car pancaked against the K-rail on the outside of the corner at about 100 mph. Fitzy remained slumped in the cockpit, motionless, during what seemed to be an interminable wait for the emergency crew.

Later, friends speculated that Fitzy had suffered a heart attack on the front straight and was already unconscious when he crashed. But driver Paul Gentilozzi, who was directly behind the Turbo Z, saw things differently.

“I think Fitzy got on the power a little early for the temperature of the tires,” Gentilozzi said during a 49-minute red flag. “He’d been spinning the tires out of the turn. He seemed to have more horsepower than he’d had previously. And as he exited the turn, I saw the back tires light up, and he caught the outside of the concrete barrier, and that spun him around.”

Fitzy was pronounced dead on arrival at a local hospital. An autopsy cited a basal skull fracture as the cause of death–the precise injury that the HANS Device would later be developed to prevent. Newman delivered the eulogy at Fitzy’s funeral: “All I know is wherever he is, he has a helluva ride.”

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bobpink
bobpink New Reader
3/7/20 11:49 p.m.

Good article minus some details I think. The inital restoration of this car was completed by Bob Postell and John Williams in Atlanta in the early 2000s. John drove the car in a couple of events, but don't know that he had it completely sorted out before it was sold. Even though the bits to restore the car to its original CP configuration came with the car, the IMSA bodywork in the Activision colors was already done when Postell bought it and he finished up the livery. This is how the car looked (photo of car at Road Atlanta with the Elva in the background) when Adam Carolla acquired it.

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