Uncle Samurai

America’s most expensive, technologically innovative and brutal racing series: No, not Can-Am, But IMSA’s GTP series. Preston Lerner explains how Nissan cam to rule this rowdy roost

A unique study in contrasts between stock-block behemoths and small-bore turbos, lavishly supported factory efforts and bottom-feeding privateers, world-class professionals and very well-heeled amateurs, sprint races and enduros, road courses and street circuits, the sublime, the ridiculous and everything in between. That was what International Motor Sports Association’s Grand Touring Prototype series offered between 1982 and ’93.

And of the hundreds of purpose-built and cobbled-together cars that took part, none embodied GTP’s no-holds-barred spirit better than the high-tech, fire-breathing Electromotive Nissan that won eight consecutive races in 1988 and back-to-back driver’s championships for Geoff Brabham. Driving the follow-on car, developed by Nissan Performance Technology Inc, Brabham also won the next two titles for good measure.

So how does a team win four straight drivers’ titles and three manufacturers’ championships despite factory opposition from Jaguar, Toyota and Chevrolet, not to mention a horde of Porsche 962s? In Nissan’s case, you put together an absent-minded professor, an oversized martinet, a mad scientist and an Aussie who didn’t even want to drive GTP cars in general, and the Nissan in particular.

“I was still doing Indycars when I was offered a ride in the Nissan,” Brabham recalls. “Back then, the car was black and sponsored by California Cooler. But it had crashed so many times that people were calling it the ‘California Coffin’, so I was not really keen to drive it. As it turns out, though, I fell into one of those situations that drivers dream about the right car with the right team at the right time.”

Whoa, we are getting ahead of ourselves. The Electromotive story properly begins with Don Devendorf, one of those enterprising Southern California hot rod/aerospace types who sent race cars to Europe and men to the moon. By day, he was a head-in-the-clouds — literally — electrical engineer who designed radar systems for Hughes. At weekends, he was a racer with spectacular car control who won five national championships in Triumphs and Datsuns in ostensibly amateur SCCA racing.

By the mid-1970s, Devendorf and engine guru John Knepp — the principals of Electromotive — had become Datsun’s works team on the West Coast. It graduated from SCCA club racing to professional IMSA events with various iterations of Datsun’s potent Z-car. With Knepp massaging the motors and Devendorf pioneering electronic engine management, Electromotive pumped more than 1000 horsepower out of a turbocharged stock-block power plant. At Fuji in 1982, Devendorf wowed the Japanese crowd by blowing past a prototype Porsche 956 on the front straight in his production-based 280ZX.

In 1984, Nissan introduced an all-new two-valve 3-litre V6, and Electromotive decided to use a turbocharged version of it as the cornerstone of a new GTP car. Lola was the obvious choice to build a chassis. Several GTP cars had already been fashioned out of its T600, 610, 616 and 710/711. The straightforward 810, which had been developed with substantial Electromotive input, featured an aluminum honeycomb monocoque with a carbon-fibre floor and conventional suspension consisting of unequal-length wishbones front and rear.

The Nissan GTP car made its debut at Riverside in 1985 and proved itself to be fast but fragile. You know how some cars are described as rocket ships? Well, the Electramotive P-car was a missile — impressive off the launch pad but prone to explosions.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the car was a nightmare to work on — engine changes took eight hours — and its handling characteristics put the fear of God into its unfortunate drivers. Even Devendorf, who was celebrated for his tailout style, says of the original car: “It was rather unstable. Most people would have called it diabolical.”

The car’s best — and just about only — finish in 1985 was a ninth place at Sears Point. Change obviously was in order. First, the overworked Devendorf, who was suffering from Epstein-Barr Virus, hung up his helmet. Then the physically imposing Kas Kastner, an American Alfred Neubauer who’d run Triumph’s West Coast racing effort, was hired as competition director of Nissan Motorsports with responsibility over the GTP program.

Eager to upgrade drivers, Kastner hired Brabham, an excellent Indycar shoe who’d never landed a spot on a premier CART team. At his first race in 1986, in a car he’d never sat in before, Brabham stuck the Nissan on the front row at Riverside and earned local hero status.

“He [Geoff) understood how to work with his engineers, and he understood how he had to go to some goddamned cocktail parties,” Kastner says. “But what really impressed me was that he gave 100 per cent on the first lap. There was none of that three-laps-to-get-warmed-up bullshit”

Two poles and one near-win followed during the rest of the season, and the team began 1987 with high hopes and revised high-downforce bodywork developed by aerodynamicist Yoshi Suzuka in Electramotive’s wind tunnel.

After skipping the 24-hour enduro at Daytona, Devendorf and company showed up for the street race in Miami and waxed the field, Brabham taking pole, setting fastest lap and securing Nissan’s first GTP victory with co-driver Elliott Forbes-Robinson. But the next 11 races brought eight DNFs, and the Nissan never finished better than fifth.

To outsiders, at least, the signs didn’t augur well for 1988. The Nissan had been outperformed by the venerable 962, and now Jaguar was bringing over a brand-new XJR-9. After winning the curtain-raiser at Daytona, Tom Walkinshaw crowed that his normally aspirated V12s would be even quicker on America’s street circuits.

To add injury to insult, IMSA instituted air restrictors to limit the power of the turbo cars, the most conspicuous being the awesome Nissan V6.

“People used to ask me if we had 1000 horsepower. And I’d say, ‘Naw, it’s not 1000 horsepower’,” Kastner chuckles. “Actually, it was 1100 horsepower.”

Although the restrictors limited the Nissan to 750bhp, they came with a silver lining. Because there was nothing to be gained by spinning the engine ultra-fast, the limit was lowered by 1000rpm. The motor suddenly stopped doing hand-grenade imitations. Also, thanks to Devendorf’s genius for engine management, driveability was improved by generating more torque, which eventually topped out at an asphalt-shredding 800lbs ft, throughout an immensely wide powerband.

But the biggest change to the car was, well, the car itself. The chassis had been updated by Trevor Harris, the incorrigibly inventive engineer behind several championship-winning Can-Am cars but best-known, ironically, for his one failure — the bizarre tiny-tyred Shadow MkI. Harris designed a new aluminum honeycomb tub that was twice as stiff as the old one and overhauled the front suspension to make it easier to tune at the track. “I could make three spring changes in the time it took the Jaguar guys to make one,” he says.

Although the new car looked like the old one, the chassis was completely different from the engine forward. Also, the original Weismann transaxle had been replaced with a Hewland, and Bridgestone tyres had been junked in favour of Goodyears. As a result, despite the loss of 350bhp, the 1988 P-car was faster than its predecessor in race trim. The Jaguars were in for a big surprise.

Electramotive gave the season-opening enduros at Daytona and Sebring a miss. In between, at Miami, chassis 88-01 led from pole until an unscheduled pitstop. But at Road Atlanta, Brabham set pole and fastest lap, survived a Keystone Cops pitstop fire, then made up 33sec in 25 laps to overhaul John Nielsen’s XJR-9.

After that, the deluge: seven consecutive victories and seven fastest laps on road courses and street circuits, horsepower tracks and handling tracks, from the front and from behind, all with Brabham driving chassis 88-01, usually partnered by John Morton. A second car appeared at Lime Rock, where it was promptly destroyed during a shakedown run. Chassis 88-03 first ran at Portland, where Brabham and Morton started side-by-side on the front row and finished 1-2. “Nothing was in our class,” Morton recalls.

Brabham breezed to the driver’s championship, but Porsche beat Nissan to the manufacturers’ title — by a measly point—due to the sheer volume of 962s.

For 1989, Devendorf and Kastner decided two cars would be better than one, and 1987 GTP champion Chip Robinson was imported from the late Al Holbert’s disbanded Porsche team to partner Brabham. Ten wins in 15 races followed, with the toughest competition coming between Nissan’s team-mates: Brabham stole the championship from Robinson at the last race.

Devendorf estimates that Nissan had spent US $7 million to secure its first manufacturers’ title, and he figured that Electramotive deserved a bigger piece of the pie. “We were a world-class operation,” he says, “but we were working with a fixed-price, one-year contract.” After protracted negotiations, Nissan agreed to buy Electramotive Engineering from Devendorf — Knepp retained Electramotive Inc — and make it the foundation of its newly created Nissan Performance Technology Inc.

Working out of a gigantic, brand-new, state-of-the-art facility, NPTI developed the next-generation GTP car. For the so-called NPT-90, Suzuka came up with new bodywork that necessitated a new tub which, in turn, forced Harris to fashion a new rocker-arm front suspension. By the time the car was finished, there was effectively nothing left of the original Lola.

NPT-90 wasn’t ready until the season was nearly half-over — no problem, since the old car had already won four straight races, including the second of three consecutive Sebring 12 Hours. The new car scored its maiden victory at Mid-Ohio, driven by Brabham and Derek Daly. Brabham and Robinson again finished 1-2 in the drivers’ championship, and Nissan secured another manufacturers’ title. No worries mate, right?

Uh, not exactly. In fact, the new Nissan was usually outpaced by the Toyota Eagle and often had trouble keeping up with the Jags.

“The chassis was great and the engine had improved a lot,” Brabham says. “But aerodynamically, the car was a brick. It didn’t generate enough downforce, so we had to run a barn door for a rear wing.”

Drivers loved the 1988 car because its aerodynamic sweet spot was so wide that it could accommodate almost infinite adjustment The NPT-90 produced more downforce in the wind-tunnel, but on the track its sweet spot was very narrow and unforgiving; even minute changes to the ride height and rake could make the car virtually undriveable. At Road America, for example, Brabham complained that the car was vibrating so badly that he literally couldn’t see. Determined to experience this sensation for himself; Harris, sans seat belt or seat, for that matter wedged himself into the car while Brabham hot-lapped. “Indeed,” Harris says blithely of this once-in-a-lifetime thrill-ride, “the car got into a vertical oscillation that shook my glasses off.”

What kept the team ahead of the competition was its reliability — reliable drivers, reliable mechanics, reliable engines and reliable cars. “Every Saturday night,” NPTI vice-president Wes Moss says, “the car got completely rebuilt — engine, gearbox, all four corners, everything.” In 1990, not counting Daytona, the team suffered only two DNFs in 28 entries. The next year, its record was two of 26. The NPT-91s weren’t the 900-pound gorillas of IMSA — despite upgraded four-valve engines, Brabham and Robinson managed only three wins between them in ’91. Even so, they ended up first and second in the drivers’ championship for the third year running, and Nissan won its final manufacturers’ title.

Brabham scored one last victory at Miami near the start of the 1992 season, but the Nissans could not keep pace with Dan Gurney’s high-flying Eagles. By this time, NPTI had ballooned into a leviathan with a US $40 million budget and nearly 270 workers — up from 90 at Electramotive — responsible not only for the GTP programme, but also the design and the build of a Group C car. Unfortunately, the decline in the team’s performance coincided with a disastrous downturn in the Japanese economy. When the cost-cutters got control of Nissan, NPTI got the axe just before the 1993 season began.

The NPT-90 lived on for one last desultory year in the hands of Momo founder Gianpiero Moretti, who co-drove it with Derek Bell and others. Although they were second at Sebring and earned best-of-the-rest status, they were outclassed by the Toyotas, which ran the table winning 17 of the last 18 races, for those keeping score and effectively put the GTP series out of business.

Devendorf still has a bad taste in his mouth over the way things ended, but he’s still proud of his record. “Nissan paid the bills,” he says, “but what we accomplished was the product of the great racing and aerospace tradition of Southern California.” With a high-speed assist from the Wizard of Oz.