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For Anthony Palladino of St. Johns, Florida, the obsession with all things automotive began while walking by the garages at race tracks like Road America and Indianapolis. “My parents took me to a lot of IndyCar races when I was kid,” he recalls. “My mom would get tickets through her job at Mercedes-Benz, so it provided us with access to stuff that spectators normally didn’t get to see, and I was fascinated with the whole process.”
His interests would later gravitate toward dirt bikes and ATVs before he decided to try his hand at restoring a 1974 Corvette during his college days. “It was my first project car, and I didn’t really know what a restomod was at that point in time, but I knew that I wanted to modernize it a bit and make it a better driver. I was a Lego kid, and for me, the car was like a giant Lego set. I basically just started taking it apart and tinkering with it.”
After sandblasting the frame in his grandmother’s garage and rebuilding the Corvette’s 350ci small-block, Palladino had plans to create a widebody kit for the C3, but a chance discovery would cause a shift in his hot-rodding priorities. “One day I was driving past the local minor league baseball stadium, and I noticed this group of cars lined up in the parking lot. Then I noticed the cars out on the course that was laid out. At the time I had no idea what autocross was – I’d never even heard of it. But once I saw it, I immediately wanted to do it.”
Palladino soon abandoned the C3 project and shifted his focus toward contemporary sports cars. “I think I bought something like thirty cars over the next three years – cars like the Honda S2000, Subaru WRX, a bunch of Mazda Miatas, some Camaros, and some newer Corvettes,” he says. “It was sort of a ‘buy and try’ kind of thing; I’d drive them for a bit to see if I liked the platform and then I’d move on to something else.” That’s also when he started to become a regular at the local autocross and other high-performance driving events, and over time he developed a preference for the Miata platform. That soon led him down a path of MX-5 modification and, eventually, LS swaps.
“That’s what bought me to my first LS Fest back in 2013,” he explains. “I had an LS3-swapped NB Miata that I raced at the event. I didn’t win anything, but I did finish in the top ten in the autocross competition, so I felt like I did pretty well, considering it was my first time there. I was totally hooked on LS Fest after that.”
After a brief detour into modern Porsche 911 territory, Palladino turned his attention to a more affordable platform for a modern track day car: the C5 Corvette. He spent a few years competing at Ultimate Street Car Association events with his C5, but eventually it became clear that if he wanted to really stand out in the field, he would need to take a more unconventional approach.
“One day I was on Facebook Marketplace just looking around for projects, and I stumbled upon this 1969 Datsun Sport 2000 body with no frame. And I said to myself, ‘I can make that look cool.’” He quickly scooped up the Datsun body and set to work creating his vison for the ideal performer – something that embodied the best elements of his favorite sportscars. But in order to really get things in motion, Palladino was going to need a frame. “So I built a frame table out of 4x4 metal tubing and started laying out the basic elements of the chassis with the front and rear cradles from my C5,” he says. “I designed it so that the body panels of the Datsun would bolt right up and it would have the stance that I was looking for.”
After shortening the C5 driveshaft and transmission linkage to make them compatible with the new platform, he installed the Vette’s LS1 and six-speed transaxle, the latter of which he’d had rebuilt and beefed up by Liberty's Gears in Harrison Township, Michigan. Palladino also woke the 5.7-liter LS up with a Texas Speed camshaft as well as a twin-turbo setup from STS Turbo. Running at a conservative six pounds of boost, the combination makes 500 horsepower and 500 pound-feet of torque at the wheels, which is more than enough to get this 2700-pound machine moving in a hurry.
In the interest of sticking with readily-available components, Palladino’s C5 also donated its upper and lower control arms, spindles, and other suspension pieces, but the coil-overs that he’s now using are far less common. “After doing the coil-over conversion, I was initially just using sort of a random, off-the-shelf set,” he tells us. “But I took the car to the 2021 SEMA show and I met the guys at Penske – I showed them my build and they watched me run it on the course at the convention. A few months later they called me and said that they wanted to build a custom set of coil-overs for the car. So of course, I said yes.” The new double-adjustable set features remote reservoirs and custom valving that’s specific to the Datsun.
The cabin of the Datsun is a pretty no-nonsense affair, composed of a pair of Kirkey racing buckets with five-point harnesses, a Holley EFI 12.3" Pro Dash, and an instrument panel of Palladino’s own design. “I really love the flat dashboard and circular gauges on the 1965-67 Datsun Sport, but I couldn’t bring myself to cut one up to make it fit with the roll cage in the car,” he says. “So I ended up making a steel dash that replicates that look and adapted some of the original trim pieces to it.”
While the underpinnings provide the car with serious performance capability, it’s the bodywork that really gets heads turning. “I didn’t know what the fenders were going to look like when I got started, but I knew they were going to be wild,” he says. “I sort of wanted this old-school Japanese GT endurance racer look, a widebody that’s kind of squared off. So after I put the body on the frame and bolted the wheels up, I just took cardboard and taped it up to the body to try out some different ideas for the flares, the front splitter, the air dam, etc. I took pictures and sent them to a few of my friends to get some feedback, and after a few iterations I landed on something I was really happy with. At that point I got some 18-gauge steel, laid the cardboard out as a template, and cut it out with a plasma cutter. After that I just bent it by hand.”
Palladino says that the integration of the new body and aero elements was a fairly hasty affair that was initially supposed to be temporary. “I got everything welded up and sent my buddy a couple of pictures, and he was like, ‘Dude, I love it – just leave it the way it is and spray it black.’ But I wasn’t so sure – I wanted to go back and clean up some of the welds. Eventually I decided to just put a coat on it and then come back later with a grinder. The grinder part never happened, so it just has this rough and kind of dirty look to it. And that’s how it got the Dirty Datsun name.”
Although he had intended to compete in another class in the Optima series, rule changes caused the Datsun to be placed into the newly-created Outlaw class for its inaugural season. Essentially an anything-goes unlimited class, Outlaw brings together anything and everything that doesn’t fit in more conventional categories. “To be honest if I could do it again, I would have done some things to avoid being put into Outlaw. But at the end of the day I wanted to build something from the ground up, run it, and do well.” Considering the fact that Palladino took home the Outlaw class championship in the Optima series in 2021, it’s safe to say that he accomplished that goal.
He also ran the Datsun at LS Fest this past June. Although high temperatures at Texas Motor Speedway revealed some reliability issues that kept him out of the running for a spot on the podium, Palladino says the event was definitely still worthwhile. “When the car was running right it did really well,” he says. “But for me the thing that was really rewarding about LS Fest was the recognition that the car got there. Turning around and seeing a group of people huddled around your car, checking everything out, is really gratifying.”