ENCORE: LOOKING BACK AT THE 280ZX FLOPPERS
Originally published February 2006
When Datsun took on America in Funny Car
Once upon a time, less than 30 years ago, a foreign car maker could enter an American racing series dominated by American-made cars and not be the subject of continuing controversy.
Those of you who also watch circle track racing know a lot of hands have been wrung the past couple of years over NASCAR’s decision to grant Toyota eligibility to run its Camry coupes and Tundra trucks in the Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Craftsman Truck series.
Besides the idea of letting a Japanese manufacturer participate in what was always the all-American sport of stock car racing, the worry was, and is, that Toyota would spare no expense to engineer winning cars and trucks, possibly driving American car makers out of the game. It’s how Toyota and Honda engines came to dominate Indy Car and Champ Car racing in the late 1990s and early 2000s, forcing Ford and General Motors out of those series, although that hasn’t happened in NASCAR – yet.
The National Hot Rod Association made a similar decision back in October 1979, when, as imported cars were becoming more and more acceptable and popular with the American public, it announced a rules change to allow foreign car bodies, 1975 or newer, on Funny Cars.
If there were any worries, the foreign invasion of Funny Car didn’t run the omni-present Plymouth Arrows, Dodge Challengers, Ford Mustangs and Pontiac Trans-Ams of the time into oblivion. One published report had Tom McEwen considering ditching his Corvette for a wedge-shaped Toyota Celica body, but that never came to pass.
However, several smaller teams took a look at the low, sleek, slope-nosed Datsun 280 ZX and thought, “That could be a fast Funny Car.”
Thus, as the 1980 season opened, three veteran AA/FC teams had 280ZX bodies on the strip or in the works – John Collins, Gary Densham and Tim Grose. More would follow in both the nitro and alcohol Funny Car classes, and those who ran the 280ZX would be the only foreign-bodied Funny Cars until Alan Johnson ran a Toyota Celica for Gary Scelzi and Bruce Sarver in 2002.
Collins’ 280ZX, with substantial backing from Japanese electronics giant Pioneer Car Stereos and some help from Datsun, was the first to see action, although Densham thought he would beat Collins to the punch. Densham recalls his time with the Datsun “the worst experience I’ve ever had in racing.”
“I had these illusions that I could get some money to run the Datsun,” said Densham, who was running a Pontiac Trans-Am body at the time. “I had a shop teacher who did all the motors for Paul Newman (the movie star who was driving a factory-backed, road-racing 280ZX with Bob Sharp Racing), so I thought I had some sort of an ‘in’ that I could go to
Datsun and get some money.”
Besides, he just liked the look of the import.
“Actually, my wife owned a 240Z,” Densham said with a chuckle. “The sport had always been Mustangs, Camaros, and the 280Zs were hot rods. It didn’t have the 427 (cubic-inch engines), but it was a hot rod, so it seemed like a logical thing to run one. It looked cooler than the rest of the cars. Besides, I didn’t know anyone at Porsche or Ferrari (laughs).”
Densham said he was led to believe that debuting the Datsun flopper could give him leverage for at least a partial factory deal.
“It looked like I had something,” Densham said. “I was running 25, 30 times a year, primarily on the West Coast, and Collins had his deal where he was running national events along with match racing. I had a proposal to give me a little money, and I would run Division 7 and another 20 match races, and I will give a body to Collins, and they can make whatever deal they want. At the time, I was asking $25,000, which would easily finance me for the year.”
However, Collins had run with Pioneer backing since 1978, first in a Plymouth Duster, then a Trans-Am that was considered one of the best-looking Funny Cars of its time. At the same time Densham was looking to get his foot in Datsun’s door, Pioneer was making a deal with Newman and Sharp to sponsor the Datsun factory road race team, and Collins was perfectly placed to take advantage of the tie-in.
“I brought Pioneer into motorsports, worked on that deal for a year and a half,” said Collins, who lives in the Tulsa area and is in sales with a Chevy-GMC dealership. “When Pioneer was in contact with Bob Sharp Racing and they brought Paul aboard, I went to Sharp for help with Datsun. They used their influence to get me in the door. I know Raymond (Beadle, of the Blue Max) tried to get Datsun, and I understand Kenny Bernstein was pursuing them. I think NHRA changed the rule to allow me
to run the car; we were already working on the deal.”
Meanwhile, Densham was building his 280ZX, saying he “spent six months working on the plug, making the body” at chassis builder Ken Cox’s shop.
How he made the mold for the body plug, though, is part of the “worst experience” saga.
“I had a friend who was the manager of a Datsun dealership,” Densham said. “So I ‘borrowed’ a ZX off the floor, told him I was thinking of getting one, and took the mold off of it.
“I thought, ‘Hey, let’s be clever and tape the car off completely, so I won’t scratch the paint or dent it.’ When I untaped it, there was some sort of chemical reaction between the paint and the tape, and the paint came off. It made the car look like a zebra. So, I had to stay up 20 hours to re-do the paint, the emblems, everything, to have it looking new and get it back to the dealership by Monday morning.”
Densham eventually finished the car for 1980 opening races, but before he could be the first to run the new body Collins had one.
“Ken Cox is great, but he was absolutely the worst businessman I ever met,” Densham said. “He got in a pinch, needed money, so he back doored the car to Collins; he had it two weeks before I did. There went my leverage.”
“I ended up with the Datsun sponsorship. That was a tough thing for Gary,” said Collins, who debuted the Datsun at the NHRA Winternationals.
“I had a rolling chassis with an engine; I think that’s what activated me getting the body first.”
Collins said his total sponsorship reached into six figures, and some technical help came from Datsun
“Datsun gave us advice and help, but as far as taking the car into a wind tunnel, no,” Collins said. “No one was doing that back then.”
Densham completed another ZX body, hung it on his chassis and ran it for the first time a couple weeks after Collins.
Meanwhile, Michigan-based Funny Car pilot Grose, who wrenched cars for Nelson Carter and Don Schumacher before running and driving his own Monza starting in 1977, was working on his own 280ZX package for 1980.
Unlike Collins and Densham, who had financial as well as competitive interests in the Datsun, Grose looked at the ZX for its possible aerodynamic benefits.
“I always looked at doing unique things – things the NHRA and IHRA didn’t always allow,” Grose said from his engine shop in western Michigan. “I was working with the spoiler, with vented windows. When the Datsun came about, it had some packages with louvered side windows, louvered back windows, plus the nose was really good. Right off the bat, I could tell it was very slippery aerodynamically.”
Grose debuted his 280ZX at the Bakersfield March Meet, where the original Datsun flopper, driven by Collins, met its demise in just its second race, after an oil leak sent Collins into the guardrails.
Fortunately, Collins was already having another Datsun built by Pat Foster and Jerry Hume.
Grose went on to have his own ZX misadventures, starting at his first Division 3 race of the year. His Dastun body was hung over an old Foster chassis which he said flexed so much at the top end, he couldn’t keep the throttle open all the way to the finish line.
“Our car was four inches lower than Collins’ or anyone else’s, had louvered windows,” Grose said. “At the first Division 3 race, in Cincinnati, we had the field covered, even though I couldn’t drive it through the lights. Then I started thinking I must be getting too much air under the car, so after the first round, I covered all the louvers with silver tape.
“So, in the second round, I got to the 1000-foot mark, still had the motor wide open, with all the windows taped up. All the air got on this big spoiler, and there’s this big ‘BOOM.’ There was so much downforce, it broke the body in half. It’s something to see the ass end of your car four feet in the air. That’s when I changed all my theories about aerodynamics.”
After patching the body back together, Grose went on to an even bigger incident at the NHRA Springnationals, when the throttle hung open and the Datsun destroyed itself after crashing into the guardrails on both sides of the track at full steam.
Miraculously, Grose walked away more or less unhurt and set about building a new ZX from scratch, with tubing placed to solve the top-end flexing problems and “the aero package the way we wanted,” he remembered.
First time out with the new car, just weeks after the Springnationals crash, Grose qualified No. 1 at the NHRA Grandnationals with a 6.19, then ran 6.09 at the U.S. Nationals.
If anyone harbored any concerns of foreign domination, that didn’t happen, as the Datsun brigade experienced only moderate success in the nitro ranks. It should be noted Collins ran the only team with substantial sponsorship and help from the manufacturer. Collins ran primarily on the paid-in American Hot Rod Association circuit, winning two of the final three races of its Grand American circuit in 1981, and ran well on occasion in NHRA and elsewhere, however he felt he could
have run even better.
“The car worked great,” Collins remembered. “It was one of my more successful cars. As far as the body, it was probably the slickest out there. My biggest problem was – Bill Schultz was my crew chief, and he couldn’t get the car to run right. One day, we discovered a main fuel injector jet had been left out for three and a half months. Schultz did a great job, as far as getting the car to run as well as it did, as lean as it was running, but we probably broke $20,000-$30,000 in parts.”
Then, after two years with the ZX, Collins’ Pioneer deal went to Shirley Muldowney for the 1982 season. Collins spent that year working on a deal with another car stereo company, JVC, and sat out the season to get ready for 1983. The Datsun appeared in just one race under JVC colors, making way for a new Chevy Camaro shell.
“It was JVC’s request,” Collins said. “Being an American company, I think they wanted an American-manufactured body back on the car.”
Coincidentally, Densham and Grose also stopped running their Datsun bodies after the 1982 season. In three years with the ZX, sticking almost entirely to the West Coast, Densham managed runner-up spots in a 64-car show at Irwindale and a 1981 AHRA race at Spokane.
The Datsun also got Densham into an NHRA national event for the first time, at the 1982 World Finals at Orange County International Raceway, but Densham stated his World Finals experience from the year before is “probably the most memorable,” as he rode out one of the worst fireballs of the time in a vain qualifying effort that made the cover of Super
Stock and Drag Illustrated magazine.
“To be honest with you, it sure drove a lot nicer than the Trans-Am,” Densham said. “It was a whole new car. Was it the chassis or the body, I don’t know, but I loved it. With me designing the car, the way it was built, I was able to make it comfortable for me to drive. I’m not the littlest guy, and everybody was trying to make the car as low as possible.”
But, after running with no financial help, the chance to make money off the Datsun caused Densham to go in a different direction – with a Dodge Omni -- before the ’83 season.
“It didn’t look like I had any opportunities to get any money for the car,” Densham said. “Also, I’d always built my own cars, chassis, everything, but I’d always wanted to run a (Steve) Plueger-built car. Johnny Loper had bought one a few months before, but he was getting out. Then I ran two races in Australia, and a buddy of mine running BB/FC there wanted to give me top dollar for (the Datsun), so I was able to make the swap to the Loper car. That was the first store bought car I had.”
Grose went on to win the NHRA Division 3 Funny Car crown in 1981. He also went to the final round of the 1982 Gatornationals, losing to Frank Hawley but bringing home the only final-round appearance for a Datsun AA/FC in NHRA national events, and added strong showings in IHRA nationals and match races.
Grose never received any factory help from Datsun which led to a change in 1983, running a new Corvette after talking to representatives from General Motors.
“I would love to have continued with the Datsun,” Grose said. “But the Chevy guys were looking at what I was doing with the body.”
And, even as American car makers were struggling mightily against the growing number of Japanese imports, Collins, Densham and Grose all said they never heard fans boo them for running the Datsun.
“Not really, but I don’t doubt there were people in the stands going, ‘Oh that GD Jap car,’” Densham said.
“The car looked so sweet, I never heard any negative comments,” Collins said.
Other teams tried the 280ZX body after Collins, Densham and Grose brought them out. Most notably among the nitro runners, Chuck Etchells, who in 1993 became Funny Car’s first four-second pilot, swapped his aging Chevy Monza for a “Future Force” Datsun which saw action for several years on the East Coast, and Midwest veteran Dale Tuter ran his “Quik Trip” AA/FC as a 280ZX.
Datsun AA/FCs also saw action internationally, especially in Europe with Englishman Ron Picardo and Swede Lee Anders Hasselstrom, the latter with sponsorship from Flygvapnet, the Swedish Air Force. None experienced noteworthy success with the ZX.
A number of BB/FC teams in North America ran a Datsun, including future world champion Fred Mandoline, former AA/DA terrors Billy Williams/Cookie Kazanjian and Nick Boninfante’s “U.S. Male.” But the strongest ZX of the bunch, and the only ZX ever to win an NHRA national event – four in a row, in fact -- came from the Des Moines shops of Vern Moats.
One of the first alcohol funny car drivers, well-known for his stout “Smoke ‘n’ Thunder” and “Oly Roller/Iowa Roller” cars in Division 5, Moats was in rebuilding mode before the 1982 season after a devastating crash at the ‘81 Gatornationals. He also had sponsorship in place from Hamm’s beer, and he had experience with drag racing foreign cars, running a B/Altered Jaguar early in his career.
“I’d been using Ken Cox bodies, and they came out with the Datsun,” Moats said. “They looked pretty streamlined. Aerodynamically, I thought they were excellent. It was a new chassis, and the car worked good.”
Moats began running the ZX in 1982 and won two AHRA nationals that year, but it was in the second half of the ’83 season when the car showed its potential. He took the Datsun to its, and his, first NHRA national win at Denver, then reeled off wins in his next four races: a Division 5 race in Nebraska and the NHRA NorthStar, U.S. and Golden Gate Nationals. At the latter event, he set both ends of the national BB/FC record with a 6.36 second elapsed time at 236 mph.
Moats said the Datsun started humming after receiving a bit of outside help.
“Bob DeVour of Hurst was a big help with the clutch,” Moats said. “I said the car keeps wanting to wheelstand, so I was going to loosen the clutch. He said no, put weight in the front end. That took care of it.”
That was the last hurrah for the Datsun, though. Moats soon went back to an American-bodied car, as funny car shells moved ever farther from looking like their street counterparts, while no one bothered to significantly change the ZX’s profile.
Yet Moats fondly recalls his Datsun days. In fact, he might re-live them someday.
“If I were to get into the nostalgia thing, I’d look to run one,” he said.