In 1968, automaker Nissan took its first win in the Japanese Grand Prix, a significant victory that helped pave the way for its future racing successes. Fifty years later, Nissan is still involved in motorsports, and on August 23-26, the company will become the first Japanese automaker to serve as a featured marque at the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion.
By the time Nissan won the 1968 Japanese Grand Prix (with the Nissan R381 sports racer, ironically powered by a small-block Chevy V-8), the brand was already a familiar sight in victory circles on this side of the Pacific. Nissan roadsters, sold here under the Datsun name, were raced as early as July 1961, but it took until June 1964 before driver Paul Jaremko, piloting a Fairlady / Sports 1500, earned the marque’s first overall victory in Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) competition.
Three years later, in 1967, racer Bob Sharp brought Nissan its first championship when he captured the SCCA F Production title in a Datsun 1600 roadster. The following year, 1968, Datsun race cars earned 43 victories, 42 second places, and 25 third places in SCCA competition, and at that year’s season-ending Runoffs, 17 Datsun roadsters qualified to compete (though none proved victorious).
One reason for Datsun’s success in 1968 was Peter Brock and Brock Racing Enterprises (BRE). Rebuffed by Datsun North America, Brock went to contacts in Japan to arrange secret delivery of a pair of Datsun 2000 roadsters directly from Nissan, along with a small stipend to develop the cars for racing. When the then-unknown BRE team began besting Datsun’s U.S. “factory team,” North American executives, who hadn’t been told of Brock’s inquiries, quickly made the decision to back BRE. Yutaka Katayama — better known as “Mr. K.” — used the brand’s racing success to promote and market Datsun in the U.S., a tactic that proved successful for years to come.
Star Datsun drivers John Morton and Bob Sharp. Photo courtesy Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.
The BRE team soon became a dominant force in SCCA racing, with driver John Morton taking four championships (two with the 240Z and two Trans Am titles with the 510) between 1970 and 1972. On the East Coast, Bob Sharp was also enjoying success racing Datsuns, finishing second at the 1970 Runoffs in a 240Z. From 1971-’75, however, Sharp proved nearly unbeatable, winning at least one championship for Nissan in each year from 1971-’73. In 1975, Sharp again took the C Production title in a 280Z, backing it up with a championship in IMSA’s GTU series.
In the late 1980s, Nissan once again was a dominant force in racing, this time in IMSA’s GTP class. In 1988, Australian Geoff Brabham, most often paired with John Morton for endurance races, captured wins in nine of the season’s 14 GTP-inclusive events. He equaled these nine wins in 1989, with teammate Chip Robinson adding a 10th victory to the roster for the Electromotive Engineering Nissan team. Two more IMSA GTP championships followed, in 1990 and 1991.
Steve Millen, competing in the IMSA GTS class, became the next standard-bearer for the brand, winning 20 races and capturing 23 poles in the Cunningham Racing number 75 Nissan 300ZX between 1990 and 1995. Championships came in 1992 and 1994, the same year that Millen also took wins in the 24 Hours of Daytona, the 12 Hours of Sebring, and a class win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Millen’s 1994 record would be impressive by anyone’s standards, but his achievement is all the more remarkable considering that the New Zealand native suffered catastrophic injuries in a June 1993 crash at Watkins Glen. Millen, who’d spun avoiding a stalled car in a blind corner, found himself perpendicular to the racing line. Before he could reorient his car, Millen’s Nissan was struck by teammate Johnny O’Connell’s Nissan, traveling at triple-digit speeds with no time to brake. Millen suffered two skull fractures, a broken jaw, five broken ribs, and a broken arm in the crash, yet five months later, he was back behind the wheel at the 24 Hours of Daytona.
Today, Nissan remains active in racing at both the grassroots and professional level, competing in the Prototype Class of the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. Of Nissan’s selection as the 2018 featured marque, Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca senior vice president Gill Campbell said,
This is the first time an Asian automaker’s racing heritage has been celebrated at the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion and we are thrilled to welcome Nissan and its extensive racing history into the historic racing scene. From the early Datsuns to more modern-day Nissans, their achievements have earned the respect of racers and deserve to be recognized.
For additional details on the 2018 Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion, visit MazdaRaceway.com.