Thirty minutes and counting until the start of our Mid-Ohio 2.5 Challenge Trans Am Series race, June 4, 1972, and I was lugging a heavy transmission around the paddock that we would attempt to bolt into our Different Drummer Racing Datsun 510 before the green flag flew. It was the only four-speed I could find among the nine Datsun teams there, because everyone else was running five-speeds – and we didn’t have the necessary parts to fit one of those in our car. Dealer/racer George Alderman had one and kindly loaned it to me. I dropped him off next to the car, which my volunteer crew had jacked up with the oil-leaking transmission already out, and they went to work.

We had run our very first professional race (2.5 Series) in Lime Rock Park, Connecticut a month earlier and finished a frustrating 12th place on a track we had never seen before after losing a few laps due to connecting exhaust system. lost due to an encounter with a car we were trying to pass. Next up was a second-place finish in a Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) national race at the (now long-gone) Michigan International Speedway road course, and then an encouraging victory in Donnybrooke, Minnesota. We had also won our B-Sedan class there the next day (on BFG street radials) in the 500 mile endurance race. And after the 18-hour return trip to my job in the Detroit area, since our now reliable 510 was running fine at the checkered flag of those 500 miles, I left it on the trailer and didn’t touch anything.

Datsun 510 race track Susan leans on the hood
Gary Witzenburg

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

We showed off our Goodyear slicks on the way to the grid, arriving just in time to start 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 topper Horst Kwech came second, Bert Everett fifth and Harry Theodoracopulos sixth. A few weeks earlier I had cheekily written to Peter Brock asking him to let me drive his guest car in this race, on the theory that an unknown who did well in it would make the car look better than a well-known driver . He politely declined.

The green flag waved, 24 throttles slammed into the floorboards, the pack poured into Turn 1, and just as I got there someone blew an engine and sprayed my windshield with oil. Despite this, 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! Hurrah!

But as the race went on, I found myself fighting for control whenever I strayed even slightly from the racing line. What I couldn’t see through my greasy windshield was that the newly paved surface was disintegrating and spewing loose stones (“marbles”) outside the lines, so driving forward to occasionally let a faster car pass became an exercise in control. A few times I went so sideways that corner workers scattered. Then I wisely stopped moving. Those factory cars had more power, so they could pass me damn well on the straights.

$300 used car

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

Let’s go back to early 1971. I had piloted a “rookie” year of regional SCCA and club events with my Triumph TR4A in 1966, my first year out of college, and then spent three years on active duty in the U.S. Navy. I returned to my job at Chevrolet Engineering in late 1969 and spent many summer weekends doing technical inspections for races at the nearby Waterford Hills, Michigan track, saving money and thinking about what was affordable and competitive enough to race next to maximize my performance. fun on four wheels.

I opted for a Datsun 510. With front disc brakes, independent rear suspension and a beefy 1.6-litre OHC engine, it was a bit of a poor man’s BMW. Competition parts were available through BRE and quite affordable; Datsun offered $100 “emergency 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 came together to support major Trans Am races.

Datsun 510 circuit
Different Drummer Racing/Gary Witzenburg

Leo Adler Datsun (in the Detroit suburb of Farmington Hills) agreed to sell me a beat-up 1969 510 four-door with a worn clutch for $300 (new 510s had a $1999 sticker at the time) and replace the clutch. The dealer also sold me parts at cost and let me store and work on the Datsun in a small building behind the service shop. It wasn’t the dollar sponsorship I was hoping for, but it certainly helped.

I’ve driven that 510 on the road enough to see what a cheap, tinny car it was at the time compared to my 1970.5 Chevy Camaro. With a paltry 96 horsepower, the Datsun was slow and tippy, riding high on its soft suspension and skinny tires. The interior was cheap plastic with unsupported seats in the front and a simple bench in the back. Hardly a workable track car.

But it weighed only a few 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 grow to a strong, sturdy, reliable, even a likeable racer. And that slow but steady upgrade process would be helped considerably by a man with money renting my 510 to put it through driving school and a few regional races. I traveled with him, fixed and maintained the car as his crew, and luckily he didn’t wreck it or crash it.

Season one

Datsun 510 Race Track Grattan Driver's School
Gary Witzenburg

I disassembled it, had a roll bar installed and took it to the May 1971 SCCA Competition Driving School in Grattan, Michigan. SCCA required two schools to obtain a regional racing license at the time, 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 track, but running that wimpy 510 around it at (even modest) speed was clearly comical.

He was painfully slow on the straights and wallowing in the corners, and in the short school-closing race he damn near went belly-up into Grattan’s tight right-hand hairpin. While accelerating past the apex on the first lap, the horizon suddenly tilted as the right side of the car left the track. Instinctively I turned the wheel to the left and it slammed back to the surface. Wow! My instructor saw that and thought it was hilarious, but he gave me the passing grade I needed. According to my race log, I finished second in class in that race, probably because there were few cars in it.

Datsun 510 Race Track Grattan Driver's School
Gary Witzenburg

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

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

Then I was stunned when I had to provide my Social Security number, because even that mediocre result yielded a small prize that had to be reported as taxable. That sparked an inspiration: why don’t I start a company that sells racing parts, racing suits, helmets, etc. and writes off my racing costs as business expenses? Thus Different Drummer Racing was born.

Back to Central Ohio

Datsun 510 race track racing action
Different Drummer Racing/Gary Witzenburg

As I rode hard in the 1972 Mid-Ohio 2.5 Challenge Trans Am race, I had no idea how we were doing or what position we were in, but I felt good and had a blast. At one point, we heard later, the track announcer somehow called me – a completely unknown amateur who was clearly riding his tail off – the race leader! He must have messed up his lap chart. And when the checkered flag dropped during the 50-lap race, we were amazed to learn that we had finished seventh and won $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, the Alfas of Everett and Kwech third and fourth. Could I have won in that BRE guest car? Probably not. But it would have been really fun to try.

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

To be continued . . .

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