What’s the smartest thing to do with your 38-year old project Datsun after you’ve driven it nearly 400 miles from home in the searing August heat? Why, put it on the track at one of North America’s classic Formula 1 circuits of course! Optimism was the order of the day this summer when I brought my 280Z to the 2016 running of the International Z Car Convention in Toronto, Ontario, the largest gathering of like-minded Datsun and Nissan owners on the continent.
Tracking a classic–particularly one that’s a work in progress–means being open to adventure, which is code for “maybe you’re not going to be driving it home.” All I can say after my ZCon 2016 experience is, message received, universe; message received. It went a little like this.
The hour-long drive from downtown Toronto to Canadian Tire Motorsports Park (as Mosport is now formally known) adds to the toll exacted by the previous day’s highway run from my home base in Montreal. It’s already uncomfortably hot, and cracking even an inch of glass in any first-generation Z car creates a mighty vortex that sucks exhaust fumes from the rear of the car through the various seals, fumigating the interior and slowly replacing all of the oxygen in your blood with less-nourishing carbon monoxide. Some speculate that the coupe is actually more aerodynamic when driven in reverse. I consider trying this longer than I should. Probably due to lack of brain oxygen.
It’s not like I didn’t have a plan for this. I spent the previous week scraping adhesive from the Datsun’s rear deck and installing new hatch rubber as well as the seal over the left-hand taillight that sits over the exhaust pipe. Why not both tail gaskets? Because I’m a lazy, lazy man–and now I am paying the price for my sloth. You could easily wring a quart of kerosene from the t-shirt I am wearing, and the inside of the car swirls with unburned hydrocarbons deposited by the 280Z’s straight-six engine. At this point, I’d have to be out of the car for at least six hours before my own breath would pass a sniffer test at the local inspection station. “Yeah, the car passed smog, but the driver is a gross polluter.”
Arriving in the Mosport paddock, I’m dismayed to discover that the weird “sprong” noise that appeared in the front suspension the night before hasn’t fixed itself in the seven hours that the car was sitting parked. After passing through tech, I head over to the Canadian Tire tent where my friend, Zack, is working for the day. With two pairs of eyes we quickly determine that the top hat on my left coilover is spinning in place when I rotate the steering shaft, causing the spring to release tension rather loudly. Just as rapidly we dismiss the idea that this is in any way dangerous to drive at track speeds. Or anywhere, really. It’s just totally cool. Noisy, but cool.
I realize people are taking a step or two back from me in conversation. I suspect it’s because I smell like the inside of an oil barrel.
After the driver’s meeting, I walk back to the pits with Jerry, a long-time member of the Z Car Club of Ontario that is hosting this year’s ZCon. He tells me that there was once a hardcore group of racers that led the group to the track as often as possible, but in a refrain that will be familiar to anyone who’s been around cars most of their lives, family, children, and jobs spread that nucleus to the wind. These days, he says, it’s mostly cruise-ins and car shows, and even that’s an accomplishment.
The first on-track session goes reasonably well. A lack of instructors has me sitting in the advanced run group all by myself, but after a couple of laps I’m back in the groove at Mosport, a track I’ve had the pleasure to drive several times in the past. This is the first time in my Z, however, and while negotiating the 90-degree right-hander onto the front straight my wheels hit something hard enough to snap the steering wheel in my hands and amplify the clunk to the degree that I pit in on the next lap. Of course everything is fine under the hood, which provides me with exactly the right level of false confidence to set up what was to happen next.
I’m 19 minutes into my second set of laps for the day when I first notice the odor of coolant. My old nemesis. A heater hose failure dumped antifreeze all over the passenger floor two months before, and so of course that’s the first place I look when the sickly-sweet smell hits my nostrils. The carpet is dry as a bone, however, and the temp gauge is still sitting right in the middle of what I’ve come to understand as normal, so I chalk it up to fluid escaping the overflow tank and decide to stay out for the cool-down lap.
Which is a mistake. At this point I’m at the tail end of Mosport’s long uphill straight and the sticky flecks spattering my windshield aren’t just obscuring the track ahead, but also making it hard to see the steam that has begun to pour out from the front of the car. I pull off-line as quickly as I can, kill the ignition, and coast gracefully into the pit-lane feeder grid facing entirely the wrong direction. I pop the hood and try to locate where, exactly, in the completely-soaked engine bay, I have been betrayed.
The mental brow-beating begins. Mosport is a very fast track, and a car as light as the Datsun can hold momentum through almost every turn. Maybe it was a mistake to push as hard as I did on the rear stretch. Perhaps gusts of 120-mph are a bit much for a car that has yet to successfully complete a full track day without being black-flagged for dropping some type of fluid (usually coolant, although sometimes gas) in its wake. It could be time to invest in a tow vehicle. Or a Slip ‘n Slide that I just drag behind the car.
I’d take all the clunking in the world now. Let it sprong at all four corners. Squeak with every gear shift. Anything but this mess.
I’ve pushed the car under the Canadian Tire tent where Zach graciously clears out the gear he needs to actually do his job, and with his colleague and certified tech, Houman alongside, figures out that I’m looking at a water pump gasket failure. A call goes out on the ZCon PA to ask if anyone in the paddock might have a replacement, while I prowl from one trackside garage stall to the next in search of RTV. I luck out twice in quick succession: 6th Gear Motorsports hooks me up with just enough sealant to get the job done, and when I make it back to the car Greg at Whitehead Performance has dropped off a gasket, with the promise of a full water pump replacement, too, should it be required.
Neither will take any cash from my hand. Car people are the best people.
I’m gently scraping dried-out gasket guts from the inside of the water pump with a box cutter when a racer named Kayla stops by for moral support. I’d met her the night before in the pre-tech inspection line, drawn to her completely badass 280Z’s missing hood and gaping front end, which displayed a robust L28 featuring an M42 head fed by a Megasquirt stand-alone fuel management system. She’d built it herself (and swapped in a five-speed transmission with 3.90 gears) and driven it up to Mosport from Albany, New York. It was only her second track day, and yet, her car was completely together at this point, and certainly not bleeding coolant all over the asphalt into a makeshift dam created out of beach towels and cardboard. Kayla had studied to become a mechanical engineer. Clearly she was a good student.
There’s been an unending stream of Datsun owners checking in to see if they can help deal with the mess that is my car, which is almost back together at this point. When the time comes, I fire up the engine and let it idle for five minutes while Houman keeps an eye on where the pump meets the engine. It stays dry, even when held at 3,000 rpm, which is impressive given that of the five bolts holding the part in place, only four were extricated without snapping off inside the block. Four bolts will get me home, but they most likely won’t hold up to the rigors of One Last Session on the track. I feel confident in this prediction, given that even with five bolts in place it didn’t fare so well.
Rush hour traffic in Toronto provides the ultimate test of the car’s cooling system. On the highway back to the hotel I build a bivouac of good juju by mentally projecting my intentions to add an electric fan, replace the radiator, and swap out every single one of the original owner’s garishly-braided red coolant hoses. I also make a mental note to invest in a gas mask, a move that will certainly only further enhance the steam punk aesthetic of my car’s bumperless, mismatched side-mirror aesthetic. Maybe I’ll add a rabbit’s foot, too. And a dreamcatcher. Plus a horseshoe. Oh, and drill out that broken bolt. The positive thinking, or maybe it’s Houman and Zach’s good wrenching, gets me and the Z home, where I’ll definitely get to work on all those improvements before the next track day. Probably.