Fun with 510s, Part 1: Ratty Road Car to Low-Budget Racer

Different Drummer Racing/Gary Witzenburg

Thirty minutes and counting to the start of our Mid-Ohio 2.5 Challenge Trans Am Series race, June 4, 1972, and I was toting a heavy transmission across the paddock that we would try to bolt into our Different Drummer Racing Datsun 510 before the green flag flew. It was the only four-speed box I could find among the nine Datsun teams there, because everyone else was running five-speeds—and we did not have the necessary parts to fit one of those into our car. Dealer/racer George Alderman had one and kindly lent it to me. I plopped it down by the car, which my volunteer crew had up on jacks with its oil-leaking gearbox already out, and they went to work. 

We had run our first-ever pro (2.5 Series) race at Lime Rock Park, Connecticut, a month earlier and finished a frustrating 12th on a track we’d never seen before, after losing a couple laps to wire up the exhaust system ripped loose by an encounter with a car we were trying to pass. Then we’d scored a 2nd-place finish in a Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) National race on Michigan International Speedway’s (now long-gone) road course, and then an encouraging win at Donnybrooke, Minnesota. We’d also won (on BFG street radial tires) our B-Sedan class in the 500-mile endurance race there the following day. And after the 18-hour slog back to my Detroit-area job, since our now-reliable 510 was running fine at that 500-miler’s checkered flag, I left it on the trailer and didn’t touch a thing.

Datsun 510 racetrack Susan leaning on hood
Gary Witzenburg

But not so reliable was my ’69 Chevy Suburban tow vehicle. Its fuel pump failed on a Detroit freeway early Saturday morning on our way to Mid-Ohio, and by the time we fixed it and got to the track, we had missed both practice and qualifying sessions. The rules would let us start from the back if we could complete at least five laps in the early Sunday warm-up. Which we did . . . while laying a trail of blue smoke from what turned out to be a broken transmission housing. We had an hour before the start to find a replacement and get it installed. And we did.

We aired our Goodyear slicks on the way to the grid and arrived just in time to start dead last (24th) with no qualifying time, while factory Datsuns and Alfas filled the first three rows: Brock Racing Enterprises (BRE) had John Morton on pole, BRE guest driver Peter Gregg third, and BRE #2 driver Mike Downs fourth. Alfa ace Horst Kwech was second, Bert Everett fifth, and Harry Theodoracopulos sixth. A few weeks earlier, I had brazenly written to Peter Brock asking him to let me drive his guest car in this race on the theory that an unknown doing well in it would make the car look better than a name driver would. He politely declined.

The green flag waved, 24 throttles slammed floorboards, the pack streamed into Turn 1, and just as I got there, someone blew an engine and sprayed my windshield with oil. Despite that, I knew and loved Mid-Ohio and started driving like a man possessed, passing cars where I could and moving up each lap. It’s a handling course, and our 510 was handling! Whoopee!

But as the race went on, I found myself fighting for control whenever I got even slightly off the racing line. What I couldn’t see through my greasy windshield was the newly paved surface breaking up and spewing loose stones (“marbles”) outside the lines, so moving over to let an occasional faster car pass became a butt-tightening exercise in control. A couple of times, I got sideways enough to send corner workers scattering. Then I wisely stopped moving over. Those factory cars had more power, so they could damn well pass me on the straights.

$300 Used Car

Triumph TR4A Racing at Waterford June 1966
Courtesy Gary Witzenburg/Albert J. Bizer

Let’s back up to early 1971. I had run a “rookie” year of SCCA Regional and club events in my Triumph TR4A in 1966, my first year out of college, then did three years’ active U.S. Navy duty. I returned to my Chevrolet Engineering job late in 1969 and spent a lot of summer weekends working tech inspection for races at the nearby Waterford Hills, Michigan, track while saving money and contemplating what was affordable and competitive enough to race next in order to maximize my four-wheeled fun.

I decided on a Datsun 510. With front disc brakes, independent rear suspension, and a sturdy 1.6-liter OHC engine, it was bit of a poor man’s BMW. Competition parts were available and reasonably affordable through BRE; Datsun offered $100 “contingency” money for SCCA Regional and $200 for National race wins; and a new “2.5 Challenge” pro series for sedans with engines under 2500 cc was coming together to support big-time Trans Am races.

Datsun 510 racetrack
Different Drummer Racing/Gary Witzenburg

Leo Adler Datsun (in Detroit suburb Farmington Hills) agreed to sell me a ratty ’69 510 four-door with a used-up clutch for $300 (new 510s stickered at $1999 at the time) and to replace its clutch. The dealership also sold me parts at cost and let me store and work on the Datsun in a small building behind its service shop. It wasn’t the dollar sponsorship I was hoping for, but it certainly helped.

I drove that 510 on the road enough to see what a cheap, tinny car it was back then compared to my 1970.5 Chevy Camaro. With a paltry 96 hp, the Datsun was slow and tippy perched high on its soft suspension and skinny tires. Its interior was cheap plastic with no-support seats in front and a basic bench in back. Hardly a workable track car.

But it weighed just a couple thousand pounds, and with a succession of carefully selected, semi-affordable (SCCA-legal) competition parts and upgrades added over the year as my modest budget allowed, it would evolve into a strong, sturdy, reliable, even lovable racer. And that slow but steady upgrade process would be substantially aided by a guy with money who rented my 510 to take it through driver’s school and a couple of regional races. I traveled with him, prepared and serviced the car as his crew, and very fortunately he didn’t trash or crash it.

Season One

Datsun 510 racetrack Grattan Driver's School
Gary Witzenburg

I stripped it down, got a rollbar installed, and took it to the May 1971 SCCA competition driver’s school at Grattan, Michigan. SCCA at the time required two schools to earn a Regional racing license, but my Triumph racing season five years earlier could reduce that to just one if I performed well enough at Grattan. It helped that I remembered and liked the circuit, but running that wimpy, bone-stock 510 on it at (even modest) speed was clearly comical.

It was painfully slow on the straights and wallowy in turns, and in the short race that concluded the school, it damn-near went belly up in Grattan’s tight-right hairpin. Accelerating past the apex in first-lap traffic, the horizon suddenly tilted as the car’s right side lifted off the track. I instinctively whipped the wheel to the left, and it slammed back to the surface. Whew! My instructor saw that and thought it hilarious, but he gave me the passing grade I needed. My racing log says I finished 2nd in class in that race, probably because there were few cars in it.

Datsun 510 racetrack Grattan Driver's School
Gary Witzenburg

I painted the 510 white with black hood and blue deck, improved it piece by piece, ran enough Regionals to earn my National license, then did two National races. With B-Sedan (one class below V-8 pony car A-Sedan) fields still fairly sparse, I scored two Regional wins and eight top fives, but both National finishes (6th and 7th) were hurt by mechanical issues.

One of those was at the wonderfully fun three-mile road course at then-new Michigan International Speedway (MIS), which used the oval’s front straight in reverse direction and even featured a Nürburgring-like, banked Karussell corner. I had run a club four-hour enduro there earlier in the season (which John Greenwood won in his thundering big-block ‘Vette), and my 7th-place class finish was hampered by electrical troubles. 

Then I was stunned when I had to provide my social security number, because even that mediocre result paid a small dollar prize that had to be reported as taxable. That triggered an inspiration: Why not start a company to sell competition parts, drivers’ suits, helmets, etc. and write off my racing costs as business expenses? Thus was Different Drummer Racing born.

Back to Mid-Ohio

Datsun 510 racetrack racing action
Different Drummer Racing/Gary Witzenburg

Driving hard in that 1972 Mid-Ohio 2.5 Challenge Trans Am race, I had no idea how we were doing or what position we were in but was feeling good and having wonderful fun. At one point, we heard later, the track announcer was somehow calling me—a totally unknown amateur clearly driving his tail off—the race leader! He must have gotten his lap chart confused. And when the checkered flag fell on the 50-lap race, we were astounded to learn that we had finished 7th, winning $300 in the process. Morton had parked his 510 after 29 laps with overheating, Gregg had won in BRE’s guest 510, Downs was second, Everett’s and Kwech’s Alfas third and fourth. Could I have won in that BRE guest car? Probably not. But it would have been great fun to try.

After celebrating our unexpectedly good result (and paddock neighbor Milt Minter’s Pontiac Firebird victory in the Trans Am feature race), our exhausting day was not quite over. We still had to pull Alderman’s transmission back out of our car and return it to him. Which we did.

The second chapter of this two-part story can be found here.

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Comments

    I bought a used Nomex driver suit from Gary back in 1973 when I started in SCCA. It was a 2-piece and I’m guessing he probably moved up to a more professional 1-piece model. I was so impressed that I didn’t change his embroidered on name on it for a couple years.

    Bill,
    Thanks for your note. I don’t recall but don’t doubt that you bought my old suit way back then. I hope you had fun and got good use out of it.

    Love the story, Gary. I also bought and built a 510 “race car” in the late 1970s. Used car ($250), rollbar, helmet, suit, tires, harness and the budget for an entire first season of racing in the Northeast for $2,500.
    The good news? Nearly 50 years later I’m still racing. And I still have the Datsun.

    Tom, you are one of the coolest guys on YouTube, with wonderful feature stories on car guys and gals that we probably would never ever hear about. Your video with Steve Beck and Herbie’s Cobra was fantastic. Steve is a good friend and the Cobra is always a feature at our annual LASAAC Xmas party. So, I just wanted to say “thanks.”

    And, Gary, thank you for a great story. These early 510 Club racing exploits bring back many fond memories.

    Hey Tom,
    Thanks very much for your note! I’m seriously impressed that you are still racing and still have that good old 510. I wish I could say the same but no longer have time or money for it. I hope your 510 fun continues for many more years. Keep up your great work!

    Good one, Gary! There was a time when we were young enough to work that hard to make a race. Competition is a great motivator!

    Paul,
    Thanks for your note. Yes, I worked very hard at it with little money because I loved it and for a while had semi-serious aspirations of somehow finding a paid ride and making a career of it, at least for a while. Never happened, but I had a lot of fun trying and eventually — once I became a widely published writer who was also a decent experienced racer — got to drive some other peoples’ cars much better than mine. More good stories!

    That good ol’ 510 is still one of my favorites. Brand new 1971 in orange. Within 4 weeks, I had installed a complete BRE suspension, took the stock wheels and added a 2 inch spacer to widen the wheels. She sat so low I had to take a baseball bat, had a friend roll the car back and forth with bat stuffed between the low profile tires and wheel to flair the fender. Cannon header added as well as a Sun Tach. Still suffered with poor synchronizers. My son, who is product engineer for H&R Suspension North America has helped to keep me in contact with racing as H&R help sponsor the Turner BMW Team in the IMSA GTD and GTD Pro racing. Racing a total package 510 of $3,500 vs these million dollar cars, I’ll take my 510.

    Thanks Gary, Brings back a number of my memories driving the Detroit Area Datsun Dealers “JOE HANEY” 510. All the way from WHRRI, Driver championship, SCCA Nationals as well as an IMSA “LUMBERMANS” 300 race as a GTU at Mid Ohio. May be time to write those memories up as well. Counting all WHHRI, SCCA Regional races I think we totaled over 100 wins in that car and set a new B Sedan track record every year at WHRRI for 8 years in a row lots of fun..

    Hey Byron,
    Thank you for your note and belated congrats on all that 510 racing success! I must have been off somewhere else at the time since I don’t recall competing against you, but it sounds like you would have kicked my butt if we had squared off. Like you, I’m guessing, I used to love that little Waterford track and wish I could drive it again one day.

    I bought a 69 Datsun 510 that has been a race it’s whole life It was first raced in 1972 I have 6 log books The 510 was raced in the mid West and all the way to the west coast Please contact me I have several race drivers you might know I’m also looking for some more photos

    Hi Mark,
    Thanks for your message. You can contact me through my website: witzwrites.com

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