I met Frank Leary when I was still in diapers. My father had recently been given his first franchise station with Chevron, located in Mountain View, CA. Frank was the service manager at a shop down the street called FAR (Foreign Auto Repair) Performance; their specialty was upgrading Datsun/Nissan 240Zs (and 510s) for street performance and racing. Frank was recognized as one of the top two or three Z-car performance mechanics in California at the time.
An Austin-Healy Was His First Competition Car
Frank used to come down and help my father with heavy duty vehicle repairs. He drove an old Austin-Healy that he was working on for local track racing, and my father would pay him for his help at the shop with basic repairs, fuel and tires. Frank would also machine parts like drums, rotors and flywheels for cars that my father was working on. When he took his car to the tracks around the San Francisco Bay Area, it would be adorned with the “Dan’s Chevron, Mtn, View” logo.
My first memory of Frank is when he brought that Austin-Healy to our house in Sunnyvale, CA for a BBQ with our families. My father brought me out to the car in our driveway and stood me up in the driver seat with my hands on the wheel; my mother documented the moment with our old Sony Hi8 video camera. My father tells me one of his earliest memories regarding Frank’s racing was when Frank finished building the engine for the Austin-Healy, using a tire as an engine stand and started it up sitting in the tire on the floor using an old oil can as a fuel source, minus exhaust and cooling system, just to make sure the engine would run.
Frank Was One of the First to Adopt the Datsun/Nissan Z
Nissan introduced what was called the Fairlady in the Japanese market near the end of the ’60s. Mr. K., Yutaka Katayama, president of Datsun (Nissan) USA at the time, was big on performance cars at time and was a firm believer in the mantra “Race on Sunday, sell on Monday.” Before a big SCCA race at Laguna Seca in 1971 where dozens of Datsun cars were entered, he told reporters, “We are having a love affair with the automobile. We do not want to build for you a chair to ride in on your freeways. American cars are built to be sofas. The Americans take their houses with them. We race to build a better car… And we race to win.”
The two main racing teams running Datsun/Nissan cars at the time in SCCA regional and national events with Nissan/Datsun support were BRE – Brock Racing Enterprises – up through the early ’70s, and Bob Sharp Racing through the ’80s. Bob Sharp was the only real competition in SCCA when Frank started gaining recognition.
Most teams were running the Datsun 510 as their primary effort in SCCA B and C Production class racing. Datsun was trying to phase it out of production by the mid-’70s, though. Frank and the management at FAR Performance were visionary and saw the Z car as the “car of the future” for Datsun USA in SCCA racing, so they started developing performance parts for it, with Frank leading that development team. That’s when he got his hands on a second-hand 240Z that he started working on in his spare time, getting it ready for SCCA regional competition.
While Brock Racing Enterprises in its waning years and Bob Sharp Racing in its formative years on the east coast were both still putting their main SCCA competition effort into the 510 with an “Oh, yeah, there’s this thing also” attitude towards the 240Z until around ’72 or ’73, Frank’s only effort was in the 240Z he was putting together with my father’s (mostly financial) help.
“Any Car Frank Helped Prepare Was the Cream of the Field”
I got extremely lucky while I was researching this article. I found almost two dozen people online who either worked with Frank at FAR Performance, competed against him or had a 510 or 240/260Z worked on by him at FAR Performance. Those who either drove cars he prepared or drove against people who did all said something along the lines of, “If Frank Leary worked and put his blessing on a car, it won the next race it ran.”
Leary Helped Datsun/Nissan Extend Its Dominance in SCCA Racing
When Datsun USA first tested the waters of racing in the United States in SCCA, it was a resounding failure. The son-in-law of the head of west coast Datsun was a racer and thus, unofficially, the company’s full support went to him and his roadsters. Then Toyota spurned Texas dealer and race team owner Pete Brock and gave their new “supercar” to Carroll Shelby to compete with. Brock contacted an old mentor of his from Japan, who then contacted an old friend of his, who then had Nissan Japan put their support behind Brock’s Brock Racing Enterprises.
This was about 1968 or 1969. By 1971, Brock and his driver, John Morton, were on their way to starting Datsun’s dominance in SCCA. Nissan’s support was later transferred to east coast Datsun dealer Bob Sharp’s SCCA racing team. This union cemented the dominance in SCCA racing that the 510, 610, 710 and then the Z cars have enjoyed in their individual classes up to the current day.
Frank started building and driving his own 240Z at events in the San Francisco Bay Area around this time. According to the people I spoke with who raced against him between 1972 and 1977, if he showed up, he won. If he wasn’t there but a Datsun 510 or 240Z he’d prepared showed up, it won.
SCCA C Production Dominance in the 80s for Frank
In 1978, Frank was invited to the SCCA C Production Championship/Runoff at Road Atlanta, where he’d be competing for the national C Production championship in his Fremont Datsun-sponsored and Frogline Engineering (Frank’s shop)-built 280Z against the likes of Paul Newman in his Bob Sharp 200SX, and Jim Fitzgerald and Logan Blackburn in their personally-prepared 280Zs. Frank won. According to the poster I had on my bedroom wall in 1984 when I graduated high school, he’d gone on to obtain full Nissan factory sponsorship and won several regional and national C Production championships. He’d also given me a love of going fast by this time.
My Father Always Tried to Keep Me “OEM” As I Grew Up
As mentioned above, my father owned a Chevron station near FAR Performance when I was very young. The mechanical work he did for his customers was on factory stock vehicles. Outside of gas and oil sales on the islands, his bread and butter was regular maintenance and repair. The first repair job I can remember doing on my own was a “basic tune-up” on Mrs. Fulghum’s 1953 De Soto, where I sat on the fender well and changed the cap, rotor and plugs when I was about six.
It didn’t matter how the customer drove their vehicle; my dad always recommended either factory OEM parts or direct replacement parts from Napa, Anderson, Moog/TRW, Raybestos, Atlas, etc. Frank was inadvertently instilling the love of going fast in me during his visits, when he would describe his latest race or the latest car he was working on at FAR. Factory production (and every driver’s need for gas) may have put food on my table and given me a childhood anyone would envy, but I was hooked on the idea of going fast from a young age thanks to Frank and the stories he told.
Frank Helped Me Build a Race Car
Here’s a secret that, up until quite recently, only about five people other than I knew: Frank Leary helped me buy my first car and then turn it into a race car. Oh, yeah. My mom and dad are not two of the people who knew that secret. In fact, back then, when I was 13 years old, my dad probably would have yelled himself blue and purple if he knew I was planning on building a race car.
As long as I can remember, my “life plan” was to attend the Naval Academy and then become a fighter pilot. I planned and schemed to make this dream come true – I joined a Naval ROTC program and kept up a regular correspondence with my Senators and Representative, etc. However, there came a time when I also decided that race car driver might be a good fall back option.
So I gave Frank as much money as I could out of what I was earning working at the Chevron station and anything else I could do to make a few bucks. Before long, there was the hulk of a junkyard ’69 Camaro sitting in Frank’s shop that he had bought using the money I’d given him – money that only three other people knew wasn’t being used at the Century Theaters or Vallco Fashion Park. Before long I was driving that Camaro at the track at Santa Clara County Fairgrounds, and then Laguna Seca and Sears Point in the amateur classes of various series.
Neither of my parents would have approved if I had told them, “Hey mom, dad, I’m heading out to the race track to race my car.” Especially when I had just started high school and didn’t have my driver’s license yet, and they had no idea I already owned a car, let alone a race car. As far as they knew, my allowance and the money I earned working at the Chevron station went to movies with my friends, parts for my bicycle and candy. I paid for those things by betting on myself in bike races so I could have money to put towards my race car. That’s the car I drove to visit my “girlfriend Teri from boot camp” in Long Beach in 1984. My parents think I drove the 1971 Ford Maverick they gave me. I loved that Maverick, but it was never really mine. The Camaro was.
Although I’m much older, calmer and, hopefully, wiser now, thanks to Frank, I still dream of racing. I still dream of sitting behind the wheel of a car on a track competing against several other drivers, fighting against their driving skills and the capabilities of their cars. Hopefully, I’ll never stop having that dream.