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Like many hot-rodders, Mike Smith of Tuscumbia, Alabama gravitated toward classic American muscle car early on. During high school a 1972 Chevy El Camino served as his daily transportation, and he spent much of his teenage years wrenching on his ’74 Nova drag car whenever time allowed. Having grown up around racing – both at Wisconsin’s Great Lakes Dragway, where his father worked, and at the dirt tracks where his cousins raced – Smith was already well-versed in intricacies of competition by the time he got his turn behind the wheel. But after a succession of subsequent drag builds that included a fourth-gen Nova and several Fox-body Mustangs, he realized that he wanted to venture off of the beaten path a bit.
“I’ve always wanted to be different, to have something that was a little bit of an oddball,” he says. “In my early twenties I got a Chevy II wagon with an inline six-cylinder engine and I added a fogger system to it. I probably put 300 bottles of nitrous through it. It was really just about having fun. I like the Mustangs and all – they work really well as race cars. But everybody has one.”
That philosophy inspired Smith to bring home his first Datsun 1200 back in 2016. Found on Craigslist and bought on the cheap, he affectionately refers to that ’71 model as the "Ratsun". “I still have it today,” he explains. “It’s kind of a sleeper build – it looks pretty rough. It’s got a 3800 V6 out of a ’97 Pontiac Grand Prix that I turbocharged, and I added nitrous as well.”
These days Smith races in small tire series behind the wheel of several different machines. While he can often be found at the helm of cars like Team 256’s Ford-powered 1979 Chevrolet Malibu, his love of the unusual led him to buy a second Datsun in early 2019. “I found this 1972 Datsun 1200 on Facebook Marketplace,” he recalls. “It had been set up to run NHRA Super Gas; it had a turbocharged Nissan inline six with a burned-up piston when I bought it.”
Eager to get the 1200 back in fighting shape, Smith pulled out the motor, transmission, fuel system components, and all of the car’s antiquated electronics. He also sorted out the rear four-link setup, fabricated a set of shock towers and a custom K-member that would allow him to run modern suspension hardware up front and upgraded the brakes before shoehorning a nitrous-fed 428ci Ford small-block into the engine bay. While the Ford mill was seriously potent, Smith quickly discovered that the setup came with some compromises.
“It was fast, but it was a wheelie monster,” he tells us. “I could not keep that thing on the ground. It was a wild ride and it put on a good show, but it would tear up the oil pan and transmission pan when it slammed back down on the ground. It put down decent times, but I knew there was a lot left on the table.”
Smith ran the car that way for about a year and half before pulling the motor and gearbox out for use in the aforementioned Malibu. After being placed on the backburner for a time, the Datsun eventually scored a 4.3-liter V6 out of a third-generation Chevrolet Silverado. “I kind of approached it like an LS, and we were able to get good power out of it – we made 893 rear-wheel horsepower with that engine. But we busted a piston, so after that I had DSS build a custom set for it and we put it back together. After that it was running well…until it broke a rod in the water box at Lights Out.”
He rebuilt the engine again with a stronger set of rods, and the results showed promise during initial testing. But after the engine spun a bearing at a race the following weekend, he decided it was time to make a change. “I think it’s an oil starvation issue at high RPMs, but either way, we’ve pulled the six-cylinder out for now.” After the second failure, Smith turned his attention to a 5.3-liter LS that he had sitting in his garage. Although it was originally earmarked for another project, he knew that the LS could deliver the reliability that had the Datsun had been lacking up to that point.
Equipped with a beefed-up rotating assembly, a Summit Stage 2 Turbo camshaft, BTR valve springs, 210lbs fuel injectors, a Holley single plane intake, and a Precision 8385 turbo running 26 pounds of boost, Smith estimates the E85-fed power plant is making more than 900 rear-wheel horsepower. “We’re using a Terminator X to control everything,” he points out. “It’s an awesome setup! I like the simplicity of it, and it’s nice to have boost control so that everything’s integrated into one system. I actually just switched the other Datsun over to the same setup as well.” The power makes its way to the rear wheels through a two-speed Powerglide transmission and a Ford 9-inch rear end with 4.10 gears.
Inside the Datsun it’s all business – the 8.50-certified roll cage, aluminum Kirkey race seat, and RaceQuip harnesses are on board to keep Smith safe at the velocities this machine is capable of. Autometer gauges work alongside the Terminator X’s digital display to provide the real-time vitals. The Lexan windshield and big aluminum drag wing on the rear decklid give the exterior a similarly purposeful look, but it’s worth noting that the 1200 retains all of its original body panels as well as its factory bumpers.
Smith notes that, at 2550 pounds with driver, the Datsun is actually heavier than some people might guess, but its diminutive size also makes it easy for people to underestimate what it’s capable of. “When I first got it going, we won either the second or third small tire race that we took it to, and I’ve won Radial Fest a once or twice with this car.” Smith has secured multiple wins in Mean Street-class bracket racing with the Datsun as well.
While the current setup is more conventional than the V6 combination that formerly motivated the car, he admits that the reliability has been a nice change of pace. “For now, I’m going to run the car as it is and enjoy it for a little while. But that’s not to say that it won’t change again. I’d love to put the 4.3 back in the car – we just need to get the oiling problem sorted out. Knowing the kind of power we’ve already made with that setup, I think it could be even faster than it is right now. Don’t get me wrong, the LS is great. They work, and that’s why everyone uses them. But it just goes back to that need to do something that’s a bit different.”