The glorious satisfaction of driving a vintage car on the track
Driving a classic car in modern traffic is the automotive equivalent of wearing a bright orange reflective vest to a black tie dinner. You are the anti-SUV, the opposite of the anonymous appliance, and this becomes an open invitation for other gearheads, old-timers, and the curious to engage you in conversation at every stop light, gas station, or grocery store parking lot.
Piloting a vintage vehicle on the race track, like I do with my 1978 Datsun 280Z, puts you in a very similar type of social situation, only this time you’re under the microscope. Casual lookey-loos don’t hang around the pits and garages of your typical road course, which means you’re now fielding questions from a crowd that’s split fairly evenly down the middle into two specific camps.
The first consists of those who love to see historic metal in action as it was originally intended when it first left the showroom. The second, however, is the contingent that questions your sanity for placing a 40-year-old automobile in harm’s way, and wonders why you’re not out there in a Miata or an E36 M3 like everyone else. While it’s charming to know that there are those in the paddock more concerned with me potentially creasing body panels than what would happen to my fragile bones should ’70s crash structures encounter post-Millennium concrete, there’s part of me that can understand their point.
No one sees the world through the same lens, especially not when media and market trends have spent years training enthusiasts to revere any pre-1980s automobile as either a blue chip investment or museum piece that no one is allowed to touch without wearing three layers of white gloves and a burn-after-dusting tissue paper suit. If that’s your approach to appreciating classic cars, then someone like me showing up to redline a straight-six engine designed with a slide rule while ignoring the occasional puff of blue smoke is going to seem absolutely insane.
I grew up a different way. My childhood was spent putting hundreds, if not thousands, of miles on a fleet of ancient Studebakers, Fords, and the occasional Buick or Oldsmobile with my father at the wheel. His cars were enjoyed from the inside out, and I became fascinated by just how different the world looked through decades-old glass versus the more modern machines that populated my day-to-day environment.
Thanks to my work as an automotive journalist, I routinely have the opportunity to drive cutting-edge sports cars on some of the most exciting race tracks in the world. These cars are packed with the latest traction and stability control technologies, the foremost in power-adding turbos and superchargers, and trick suspension systems that can think faster than any human being when it comes time to evaluate the road ahead. Indescribably fast and equally friendly to drive, they offer a safe and sanitized plug-and-play performance highlight package.
When I punch the clock at the end of the week and open the door to my own garage, I no longer have any interest in duplicating this digitally-curated driving experience on my own time. I want to drive a vehicle that feels absolutely nothing like the impressive, yet surprisingly homogenous cars I so selflessly sampled in the line of duty. I want something that is as light as possible, and which is easy to source parts for and work on myself using basic tools. To achieve all three of those goals, I had to step into the Wayback Machine and emerge in an era where the only silicon to be found on the roads was in the chip providing the most vestigial of direction over my Datsun’s fuel injection system (my one reliability-enhancing nod to our modern age).
There are hundreds of thousands of Z cars out there, which means if I do happen to tag a tire wall, I’m not robbing some future progeny of their inheritance, nor am I pulling a painting off the wall of the Louvre. The thin steel in my 280 also tips the scales at 2,200 pounds, which makes it easy on consumables and fun as hell to brake late, or not at all. I poured time, effort, and probably too much money into correcting the first-generation Z car’s Achilles’ heel—a lack of chassis rigidity and suspension adjustability—but left the drivetrain entirely stock and still haven’t touched any of the rust on the body. A set of sticky tires and a shocking degree of negative camber later, and I had a unique car that can keep up with far newer track rats while forcing me to be totally present behind the wheel through every single apex and braking zone.
You can’t see a single dollar that I’ve invested in my Datsun unless you put the car on a lift—nor can you purchase the temporal displacement of turning back the clock lap-after-lap for any amount of cash in any existing automotive dealership. Sitting there on pit lane, quietly rusting on its replica rims with its chipped paint and mismatched side mirrors, I catch more than a few puzzled looks from drivers wondering why I’d bother to spend Honda S2000 money on a car that will lose in a straight line by any minivan on the market. “It belongs in a museum”’ their eyes cry out to me, echoing a line made famous first by Indiana Jones and, later, Barrett-Jackson.
Maybe I do, too. Or maybe we’ve just shown up at the same place for very different reasons.