Book Review: Developing a Champion: The Electromotive Nissan GTP Story

This excellent book written by Chris Willes depicts the various struggles and challenges that go with starting a race team with limited resources.

Below is a book review from guest contributor Tennyson Kwok.

Developing a Champion: The Electromotive Nissan GTP Story is not available on Amazon, but on Chris Willes’ Facebook page.

From 1958 to 1986, Nissan vehicles were imported to the United States as the Datsun brand. The 1970 Datsun 240Z was the company’s breakthrough as a major player in the performance car market. Since the name from change Datsun to Nissan in 1986, Nissan has continued to produce significant performance vehicles, many with racing heritage. Electromotive (located in El Segundo), was extremely important in putting Nissan on the map as a high performance car manufacturer. This lavishly illustrated book, with much first hand/insider commentary, follows the early days of Electromotive through its acquisition and incorporation as Nissan Performance Technical Incorporated (NPTI).

Chris Willes, author of this book, worked at Electromotive and NPTI from 1986 to 1993. As for myself, my coworker, Dave Devendorf, often related stories about Electromotive during this critical period, as his brother was a cofounder of Electromotive. I also owned a 1971 Datsun 240Z and raced open wheel cars with SCCA during the early years of Electromotive.

This book goes into great detail the administrative and technical challenges of starting and running a racing team with limited resources. Running a racing team while developing a complex vehicle is about as challenging an endeavor as anyone could tackle. Many disciplines of expertise is required, and not all people are willing to work the hours that a racing and a development team demands.

This book goes deeply into technical details, personnel contributions, budget restraints, and work schedule challenges. The author was able to gather multitudes of photographs, drawings, and some hand sketches to help the reader truly understand what made the Electromotive team successful. But the GTP Championships took many years to cars that were safe, fast and reliable. This book leads the reader through this laborious and challenging project. From the period 1984 through 1989 the book actually follows the team on a race by race basis.

Spoiler Alert! Below is a synopsis of the book.

The early days of Electromotive had two key players, co-founders John Knepp (President) and Don Devendorf (Vice President). Prior to starting EIectromotive in 1973, Don was already a multiple SCCA National Champion in other makes of sports cars, British Leyland Triumphs. When Electromotive began campaigning, it started with a Datsun 1200, winning the SCCA National Championship in 1973 in only the first year. When the Datsun 1200 was replaced by the Datsun B210, they also won SCCA and IMSA championships.

Obviously, along the way they got the attention of Datsun racing executives, and they were contracted to produce racing aftermarket accessories for Datsun racers, and also built customer Datsun race cars. The Datsun 240Z had been campaigned successfully as well, by BRE (Brock Racing Enterprises) with John Morton as the team driver. When BRE stopped doing business in 1973, Electromotive was then one of the primary sources for Datsun performance equipment in the United States.

John Knepp was the day to day manager of Electromotive, and had significant racing experience prior to Electromotive. Of course, Don Devendorf was also a key to Electromotive’s success. Besides being a top class driver, he was essentially a rocket scientist. He worked at Hughes Aircraft as Senior Electronics engineer, and developed many successful projects for them. This gave him the latitude to take time off as needed for his racing and Electromotive projects, although he typically worked both jobs simultaneously. For their IMSA (International Motorsports Association) Nissan 280ZX GTO, Don designed an early analog Engine Electronic Control Processor (EECP).

It was more advanced than the Porsche’s factory units at time, and was instrumental in making higher horsepower, increasing reliability, and just as important, increasing the drivability. Drivability means that the power/torque to the driving wheels is more linearly proportional to throttle position and timing, something that is difficult to achieve with the complexity of ignition timing, fuel injection, turbocharging, and changing atmospheric and engine temperatures. Later,  Electromotive production units of the digital EECU were sold under the Nissan name and part number. Of course, now EECU’s are used in virtually all automobiles.

A key moment for Electromotive was a one off race in Japan, an invitation to the 1982 World Endurance Race event held at Fuji International Raceway in their IMSA Championship Nissan 280ZX GTO (over two liters, turbocharged). It was faster than all the NISMO (Nissan Racing in Japan) factory cars, and quicker than many of the Group C (Roofed Prototypes, many with Formula 1 racing engines of 3.5 liters). That impressed the Nissan executives, and that led to the Nissan IMSA GTP program which started in 1983. The resources of Electromotive was then separated into two companies, Electromotive Incorporated (EI) and Electromotive Engineering Incorporated (EEI).

EEI was contracted to develop a NISMO and IMSA cars, with the EEI version using a Lola chassis, and NISMO using a March chassis. EI developed the engines. EEI had to develop the transmission, the bodywork for drag and downforce, and the chassis. It turned out that the Lola chassis was not designed for the high loads imposed by some of the high banked tracks like Daytona, or the amount of downforce that Electromotive was able to generate based on wind tunnel data. EEI had built their own moving ground plane wind tunnel, which was more advanced than what Lola used for their design. The increased downforce and banked turns generated very high cornering forces which subjected the suspension and the attachments to the chassis incredible loads. Many suspension failures occurred, luckily without causing life threatening injuries.

From 1984 through 1987, due to budget limitations, EEI competed in selected IMSA races, racing venues that suited their cars. Nissan almost pulled the funding for the GTP program many times, but due to the management expertise of the Electromotive’s president at the time, Kas Kastner, Nissan continued their support. In 1987, results proved that the cars were fast enough to win races (and they did), but reliability issues prevented more success. However, in 1988, the reliability issues were mostly solved, and the speed of the cars covered the fields. So the Electromotive GTP team won the IMSA Driver’s Championship (with Geoff Brabham), but lost the manufacturer’s championship by only one point to Porsche. Porsche had more cars entered per race, including the factory and independent teams, which helped the point tally. In fact, at many races, EEI only fielded a single starting car.

The IMSA Manufacturer’s Championship was finally won in 1989, by an overwhelming display of speed and reliability. Out of 14 races, there were 10 wins, nine poles, and 7 fastest laps. In 1990, Nissan absorbed EEI, naming Kas Kastner as president, and Nissan Performance Technology Inc. (NPTI) was founded, and a special facility was built in Vista California, near San Diego. NPTI would win IMSA’s Manufacturer’s Champion in 1990 and 1991, for three years in a row. However, in 1992, tire issues caused major crashes, and Toyota won the GTP championship. In 1993, IMSA announced that there would be no GTP Championship for 1994, so Nissan decided to close the NPTI facility in Vista.

 

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