Remembering Triumph, Nissan Racing Boss Kas Kastner

Kas Kastner, on left, doing some trash can engineering at Road Atlanta in 1972.

R.W.“Kas” Kastner wrote the book on Triumph competition prep. Literally.

He became the first manager for Triumph’s American competition department in the early 1960s, and soon after he was writing the prep manuals for the marque. If you wanted to put a Triumph in victory lane, you read those books. Kas, as he was known to friends and competitors, passed away April 11, 2021. He was 92 years old.

The following personal profile comes from the May 2012 issue of Classic Motorsports:

R.W.“Kas” Kastner, Triumph racing god and grand marshal for the 2012 Classic Motorsports Mitty, describes his racing style as “over the door.” While other racers peered through their windshields and slowed for a turn, Kastner had his head cocked to the side as he manhandled his car around the bend.

I’d go into a corner as fast as I could, no brakes, throw the car sideways, and come out fast,” Kastner explains. “Exit speed is the name of the game. He who gets on the gas first is fastest down the straightaway.”

Despite this aggressive and risky racing style, a true sense of danger eluded Kastner throughout his career. “I’m a competitor,” he says. “I never thought about death; it never occurred to me. Once I looked in my mirror and saw a Porsche 45 degrees up in the air, spinning on its front bumper, and thought, ‘Well, he lost it,’ but it didn’t affect my race.”

Kastner devoted his senses so completely to outgunning his competition that on one occasion, even finishing the race didn’t affect his race. 

At Pomona Fairgrounds, the battle between me and Lew Spencer in his Morgan was so intense, passing and repassing each other, that we went right past the finish line side by side, never seeing the checkered flag. We continued racing hard around the track, not realizing we were on the cool-off lap. Ronnie Bucknum had won the race and was sitting with the flag at the line, but that had nothing to do with our race.”

Grabbed by Racing
Kastner wasn’t always entranced by motorsports. He didn’t even get his driver’s license until age 19, when he was discharged from the military. After he won the first race he entered at age 21, however, racing grabbed him hard. “It becomes all you look forward to. I don’t know how to express how I feel about racing. It is so demanding; it’s just a great thing,” he says. 

That first race was in 1952 on the streets of Aspen, Colorado. His mount: an MG TD. Kastner quickly learned how to modify and rebuild engines, developing a reputation for his fast cars and fast driving. He competed for two years without losing a single race, and started tuning other racers’ cars from his shop in Salt Lake City.

Escalating success drove Kastner deeper into the world of cars. He and his family packed up and headed to Los Angeles when he accepted a job as a British car mechanic at a dealership; he was later promoted to service manager. In 1958, he took over as service manager at CAL Sales, the Triumph Importer for 11 Western states. In short order, he bought a TR3 and started racking up race wins. A year after that, he won the super-competitive Class E Production Championship. He was also appointed head driving school instructor at Riverside Raceway for the California Sports Car Club. 

Then came a crossroads. When Triumph bought CAL Sales, the company ruled that executives could not compete in racing. Kastner chose the career track over the track career: He quit racing to pursue a different calling in the auto industry. 

Kastner started making performance parts to sell directly to Triumph, a venture that grew to form the manufacturer’s competition department. Along with Fred Gamble and Mike Cook, he introduced a line of performance parts for Triumph race cars, accompanied by a series of Competition Preparation Manuals that enabled anyone with an interest and wrench-turning skills to pursue their own racing dreams. He even launched an innovative drivers’ assistance program. In short, Kastner built a bridge between the sidelines and the track, and newly minted Triumph racers crossed it in droves.

Success Highlights Team Racing Efforts
This combination of resources was a resounding success for the brand. “In Class E Production in the ’60s, if you didn’t have a Triumph, you had no chance,” Kastner says. He sponsored certain teams, joined the support effort at endurance races like Le Mans, and even performed some factory race car modifications, like cylinder head work, himself. 

There was no question [the formula] would be right,” he explains. The media churned out positive reviews, and that further enhanced Triumph’s image. 

Kastner did not go unacknowledged for his hand in this success. Corporate executives recognized his strategic importance and asked him to lead the competition efforts for all marques under British Leyland in 1970. He turned them down and resigned. “They were surprised, but I could see where it was all headed,” he explains, referring to the looming oil crisis. “The future was going to be grim.” 

Instead, Kastner continued on in the Triumph racing world with John Brophy, running teams in the SCCA, the three Indy Car 500-mile races, the Can-Am Series and the Formula 5000 Series. When the energy crisis finally put a stop to Kastner-Brophy Racing in the mid-1970s, he went on to develop aftermarket turbocharger systems before manufacturers offered them as a regular option. 

As the country’s oil woes receded, Kastner joined Nissan Motor Corporation in 1986 to lead their motorsports effort. He rocketed the team to the IMSA GTP Championship in just three years. Nissan subsequently won the manufacturers’ championship three years in a row, along with the drivers’ championship four years in a row for Geoff Brabham. “I loved GTP racing,” Kastner says. “I loved the whole atmosphere, from selecting the team and budgeting to running with the best in the world. The technical and mental aspects were an enjoyable challenge—and the team manager trickery was fun.”

The Legacy Grows
The din of turbocharged engines and cheering race fans eventually faded to silence for Kastner after he retired in 1995. He fell out of touch with the racing world for a number of years—that is, until his wife, Peggy, suggested they attend a vintage car race. “I thought no one would remember me or care,” Kastner recalls, “but when I arrived, I saw three Triumphs painted in my standard colors, and one of the racers asked me to sign his car. They all started asking me questions. I didn’t realize I had any notoriety.” He soon caught on, however, and so far he’s written four books about his Triumph days and racing experiences. 

Ten years ago, Kastner began reaching out to the Triumph racing community in another way: He decided to organize the Kastner Cup, a Triumph-only race held in a different location each year. Kastner personally declares the Cup winner based on racing performance, the presentation of the car and, perhaps most importantly, the driver’s enthusiasm. “The winner of the race doesn’t necessarily win the Cup,” he explains. “I’m looking for drivers who are beating cars in the next class up, who have a good attitude in the pits, who take pride in their cars, who help the sport of vintage racing.” There could well be 40 cars competing in the Kastner Cup at this year’s Mitty. 

Kastner, now 83, has reconnected with the machines and the scene he helped create, but does he miss being behind the wheel? “Not really, not the actual racing,” he says. “I miss thinking about racing—looking for a competitive edge, striving to be the best. I have an active mind, and I pay attention. I did whatever it took to win.”
  

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