ZCON Is Proof You Can Socially Distance and Still Come Together to Celebrate Cars

Fifty years ago, Nissan, badged as Datsun in the United States, shook up the automotive industry when it released the original-model-year Z-car. Japanese automotive manufacturers had garnered a reputation for offering basic low-buck alternatives to Detroit’s big three and Europe’s storied marques, but they were rarely recognized for building noteworthy competitors. Nissan’s attractively packaged 240Z changed the game.

50 Years of Z and an International Unveiling

Fast-forward to September 14-19, 2020, at a 33rd International ZCON in Nashville that nearly wasn’t. Faced with COVID-19 restrictions and a host of inevitable obstacles, the Z Car Club Association worked with Nissan Motor Corporation to put together a socially distanced event aware of CDC and local recommendations and guidelines. Thanks to (carefully planned) timing, ZCON 2020 provided an opportunity to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the original 1970 Datsun 240Z and give Z-car enthusiasts of all models a unique “drive-in” viewing of the Nissan Z Proto unveiling.

The highly anticipated sports car’s first appearance was streamed live from the Nissan Pavilion in Yokohama, Japan, on September 15 and connected during the broadcast to ZCON in Tennessee. Convention guests were hosted by the Nissan North America team, ZCON executive staff, and noted car collector and comedian Adam Carolla at the Graystone Quarry, an event property located just a few miles from the host hotel and Nissan’s North American headquarters. 

To work around the unique challenges of COVID-19, ZCON guests watched the presentation from their vehicles. The international reveal, unique setting and unprecedented circumstances created a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

We were so excited to share the Z Proto reveal with all of the Z enthusiasts attending ZCON as well as everyone around the world,” shared Nissan Communication Manager for Sportscars Jonathan Buhler. “It was a truly special night that I myself along with everyone there will not soon forget!”

ZCCA and ZCON

Created in 1990, The Z Car Club Association is a not-for-profit that “helps to support and grow the grassroots Z car community.”  The organization offers regional club support across North America, assists with event planning, and hosts the annual International Z Car Convention, known as ZCON. ZCON’s first event dates back to a gathering in Aspen, Colorado, in 1988. ZCCA was formed a couple years later after local club officials met with Nissan Vice President of Marketing Hadley Chamberlain, who suggested that a unified organization with central leadership would ultimately yield a stronger association with the brand.

Thirty-three conventions later, ZCON has evolved into a six-day event featuring multiple car shows, track days, autocross events, tech talks, casual social activities and bookend banquets. Most ZCONs are hosted by a local Z Car Club that, after winning a bidding contest, tackles the majority of the planning and legwork to facilitate the convention. Breaking with tradition for 2020, ZCCA ran the event directly for the 50th anniversary celebration with the help of volunteers from a dozen different local clubs.

A Convention in the Shadow of Nissan’s North American Headquarters

Although named for nearby Nashville, the event’s host hotel was located about 20 miles south of the city, in Franklin, Tennessee. Track-based events took place at the NCM Motorsports Park in Bowling Green, Kentucky. 

Owned and operated by the National Corvette Museum, NCM proved an excellent partner for ZCON. The track was specifically designed as a “safe and challenging environment where drivers of all ages, interests and skill levels can become more proficient behind the wheel.” Lane Museum also serves as the home for Nissan North America’s Heritage Collection. Limited-capacity, socially distanced education sessions were available throughout the week.

Over six days, more than 500 registered guests arrived at the event—quite an accomplishment in a time when most conferences are being held virtually or not at all. Event organizers worked diligently to create a safe environment, using spaces that in a normal year would accommodate three to four times as many guests.

COVID-19 added another dimension to the weekend as Z community club members from across the U.S., Japan and Canada participated in various activities using web-conference technologies. Thanks to Zoom and Facebook Live, ZCON was able to continue on as an international event, despite current travel bans.

Friday’s tech talks took place in the same banquet hall as the opening and closing ceremonies. This change allowed guests to spread out and meet Tennessee’s occupancy requirements. Eric Bizek, Josh Martin and Mauricio Rosales, otherwise known as the team at Salt Lake City-based JDM Legends, opened Friday evening’s session. The trio shared details from their professional journey, which began with restoring vintage Japanese cars and led to their Velocity Channel television show, JDM Legends. The likable gang spent time throughout the week connecting with fans and enthusiasts.

Closing Friday’s tech talk was none other than the legendary Peter Brock. Known at ZCON primarily as the B in BRE, Brock’s career as a designer, writer, photographer, driver and entrepreneur is without equal. 

During the session, Brock explained how his time at Hino and a broken contract with Toyota led him to Datsun in the late 1960s. Not only did Peter Brock turn Datsun into a recognized leader in racing, winning the SCCA Trans-Am Championship in both ’71 and ’72, but his feedback helped transform a less than perfect engine into the rock-solid inline-six that ultimately powered the vast majority of 240Z cars.

Saturday morning’s People’s Choice Car Show was the biggest event of the weekend. Held at the same location as Nashville’s Cars & Coffee event, the show celebrated Datsun, Nissan and Infiniti vehicles. Special features included a 350Z NISMO Owners' Group reunion as well as examples from every generation of the Z-car. The People’s Choice show was a nice counterbalance to Tuesday’s points-based ZCCA Judge Car Show Competition. Top prize at Tuesday’s show went to Jeff Mader and his immaculate 1970 240Z. Mader’s car also received the awards for best engine and best exterior.

Throughout the convention, the ZCON team commemorated Yoshihiko Matsuo, the design team lead for the 240Z who recently passed, and Yutaka Katayama, affectionately known by enthusiasts as Mr. K or the “father” of the Z car. Special memorabilia and thoughtful remembrances during the banquets allowed for a community response to the loss. Additional VIPs seen during the week included ZCCA founder “Mad Mike” Taylor and Mr. K’s secretary, Johnnie Gable.  

"This year's event celebrated 50 years of Z heritage while introducing a prototype for the next car,” said ZCCA Director and ZCON 2020 Chairman Christopher Karl. “Enthusiasts from over 40 clubs came out to Nashville for the ZCCA's 33rd annual ZCON event driving around 400 Z-cars, with stunning examples from every generation of the iconic nameplate."

While the exact dates and details for ZCON 2021 are still being finalized, show organizers announced that it will take place in August of 2021 and be hosted by the Z Car Club of Colorado in, you guessed it, Colorado. Visit zcon.org for more on ZCON 2020, including car show winners, and information pertaining to next year’s event.

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