The Staff of Motorsport Marketing
The Staff of Motorsport Marketing Writer
3/28/18 11:58 a.m.

Story by Jim Heine • Photos Courtesy Nissan

John Morton’s motorsports career is legendary. He drove for Shelby, helped put Nissan on the map, and posted wins at Sebring and Le Mans. The man himself is remarkable, too, with those iconic glasses, a friendly demeanor and the desire to help animals in need. This spring’s Speedfest at the Classic Motorsports Mitty, scheduled for April 27–29 at Road Atlanta, will honor Morton as well as two of the brands that defined his career: Nissan and its predecessor, Datsun.

John Morton’s introduction to racing follows a familiar line. “My dad took me to races when I was a little kid, and I got interested in it,” he says. “And I had a neighbor across the street that had a sports car–an MG–and I got rides in that. Pretty soon, I wanted to be a race car driver.”

For Morton, that ambition stuck through high school and two years of college. After that second year at Clemson University, in the fall of 1962 he left Illinois for California to attend Carroll Shelby’s new driving school. His driving instructor turned out to be Peter Brock.

Morton eventually worked for both men: first Shelby, then Brock. The rest is history.

Initially, Morton recalls, he was not enthusiastic about the idea of a Datsun 510 as a race car. Another model in the brand’s lineup struck him as a more sensible choice. “We had run the 240Z successfully, and it even looked like a race car,” he explains.

Not so the 510. “Even though it was going to be for a professional series, I didn’t have a lot of hope for it because it just didn’t look like a race car,” he says, chuckling. “It was an economy car, and we were going to be racing it against cars that had tremendous racing pedigrees. So I wasn’t optimistic to begin with.”

What made the 510 a great car, he observes, was a great engine. Of course, the team had pushed theirs far beyond its roughly 100 stock horsepower. “We had an excellent engine program, and at BRE, by the end of the first year with the 1600, we were making 190-plus horsepower out of it. It was very, very susceptible to modifications.”

The chassis wasn’t bad, either, Morton adds. “I don’t want to say [it was] a copy of a BMW 2002, but it was similar–the rear suspension, and the front was MacPherson strut,” he says. “It was kind of the best layout of the time for a small sedan. It didn’t give up anything in basic design.”

It didn’t hurt that BRE had an exceptional crew. “We had Trevor Harris and Mac Tilton and any number of experts that could get the most out of what we had,” Morton continues. “I think if we’d had a BMW 2002 with the same team, we would have won the championship with that–or probably even with an Alfa.”

Still, BRE and Morton took an import econobox from a Japanese car company that few Americans considered race car material and racked up an impressive record during their two-year stint in the 2.5 category of Trans-Am.

Behind the wheel of the No. 46 Datsun 510 campaigned in 1971 and 1972, Morton led every 2.5 Trans-Am race BRE entered. He also won 16 poles and 12 of 19 contests. “I doubt that there’s ever been a single car that’s had a more impressive record,” he says.

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