Featured: What It’s Like To Race A Nissan GTP ZX-Turbo At Age 23

What It’s Like To Race A Nissan GTP ZX-Turbo At Age 23

By Andrew Golseth
November 14, 2016

Photography by Will Mederski

For some of you, 23-years-old was a while ago. Just try to imagine 23-year-old you behind the wheel of a 1988 Nissan GTP ZX-Turbo. Now, fail to accurately envision what that’s like and, instead, listen to Theo Bean, because this speedy millennial can tell you what it’s like to drive the 1988 season GTP championship conquering legend.

Andrew Golseth: Theo, you’re on the up-and-coming within the racing realm. Tell, me, how did cars and racing start for you?

Theo Bean: Well, my dad has always had a huge love for cars and that kind of rubbed off on me. He’s been racing for more than 30 years and brought my younger brother and me into it. We never actually went to the races when we were kids much, but when we started getting older, like 15-16, he started bringing my brother Patrick and me to the races.

Even my brother Patrick races. Currently, he’s running a ’91 Intrepid GTP car—he just started driving that. He’ll be 21 this month and he’s been racing since he was 18. He’s moving up pretty fast! We love the smell of gas and tires! 

I’ve been really lucky, getting to drive some of my dad’s awesome cars. Nowadays, I’m kind of getting to do some pro stuff too. 

AG: Sounds like the whole family shares the racing gene! What kind of pro stuff—what are you up to?

TB: This past year I started in the Toyota Racing Series in New Zealand, which is one of the most competitive things I’ve ever done. I drove a Tatuus chassis formula car, it was an awesome car but it was the racing that was really something else. The entire field was covered by less than a second, first to last, which is pretty outrageous!

You look at some of the guys who recently drove in the Toyota series and see what they’re doing now, you got Lando Norris who won the NEC cup and Formula Renault 2.0—that kid is going to be an F1 driver in 2-3 years. The Toyota Racing Series is great—even the guys who don’t finishing at the top are doing insane stuff, which is really cool.

Two years ago, Lance Stroll was running in the series with Nick Cassidy and now Stroll is going on to be a Williams driver. The level that’s been going on there, it’s pretty crazy. I’m excited to see who will be driving this year. The word is getting out as this is the thing you gotta’ do to move up.

AG: Speaking of other drivers, who are some of your heroes and what are your ultimate career goals?

TB: I grew up watching Michael Schumacher. Growing up at that time, he was just so dominate. I’d wake up early every Sunday and my dad and I would watch F1 together. My dad would just be sitting there in awe at what Schumacher could do and, you know, I was always in awe at what my dad was able to do. So, that was great to watch.

Schumacher won so much, so many races. He was just so dominate. I loved that aspect but he was also well liked. You know, you see some of these drivers out there and they’re not as likeable, even if their teams are. But everyone liked Schumacher. I also really liked Wayne Taylor. I mean he got to drive some of the coolest cars in the world.

AG: Definitely. Now, let’s get to it: let’s talk about the Nissan—what’s the history with that? Is that your personal car?

TB: It’s a 1988 Nissan GTP ZX-Turbo. It’s my dad’s car, though I wish it were mine, but I don’t have my own car yet! (laughs) I’ve been lucky to drive some of my dad’s really cool stuff. My father bought this car directly from Nissan in the early 90s, shortly after it was phased out of the series by the NPT-90 cars.

These were built for the IMSA GT Championship and were the first cars to beat Porsche’s 962 in the series. Driver Geoff Brahbam drove the #83 car to victory in 1988—this car is the second #83 car. So, this one was used as the backup but it was specified exactly to the primary car. It got every upgrade the racecar got because it was the backup to the very car that went on to win the championship.

AG: Going from a Miata to a DB4 to a Tatuss Toyota Racing Series car is kind of all over the map. Where does this car stand in comparison?

TB: It is, by far, the most violent and brutal car I’ve ever driven. It’s a little technical because it doesn’t behave like a normal car. For instance, there’s no front sway bar so you have to put giant springs on it to stiffen it up. You have to give the rear a ton of toe so it’ll turn, because it under-steers pretty bad through the slow stuff.

It’s like getting kicked in the back of the head by a mule when the turbo spools up. When you get out of the car, you’re bruised. It’s got a pretty big steering rack in it so you’ve got to put a lot of input in to get it to turn. It is fast! We’re not even running at full boost, not even to full power like they had back in the day, and it’s still the fastest thing I’ve ever driven—and I’ve been lucky enough to drive LMP2 cars from 2005-2006, and the Nissan feels faster.

It’s got a single turbo V6, a heavily modified version of the 300ZX’s VG30ET engine, I think it’s putting out around 800 horsepower right now, but it ran closer to 900hp back in the day at full boost. We still have another 4 or 5 psi we could crank up. Even on lower boost, it’s manic. And it puts the power down, which is the real crazy part. You’d expect it to just spin tires and go nowhere, but it just sticks.

It weighs nothing—somewhere around 2,000 pounds. All that power plus the brilliant aero, the downforce it puts out, is just insane. I drove an Intrepid GTP car which is supposed to be the car with the most downforce ever made, but once you get up to speed it doesn’t want to pull anymore. The Nissan, comparatively, just pulls and pulls down the straight. It just keeps going, which is really cool. A little scary, but cool! (laughs)

COTA has a long straight but it’s not the best high speed track, and I still got it up to about 184 mph which is going pretty good—I think that’s the fastest I’ve ever gone. I’d be interested to see how quick it’d go at a track like Road Atlanta or Road America.

AG: That’s got to be incredible! So, is it pretty unforgiving? What’s it like to drive?

TB: It’s pretty planted, really. Compared to some of the cars I’ve driven, it’s planted… but when it does get away from you it requires a lot of corrections. It’s definitely not easy to drive but it sticks. Through the Horseshoe at Circuit of the Americas [COTA], through those corners it feels like it has unlimited stick—like you could drive it upside-down. In the lower speed corners it’s kind of tough.

One challenge is you can barely see out of the thing. The right side mirror is right inline with the a-pillar and there’s no rear window. The mirrors are convex to help but you really can’t see much behind you. Even the windshield is pretty small for the car.

Another weird thing with the car is it’s all kind of metal inside and the engine is surprisingly quiet. You can hear everything, even hear the wind going over the car, you can hear the linkages when you shift, which is cool. It’s so quiet that if I can’t see other cars around me, at least I can hear them.

AG: Wow, that’s pretty crazy, I’d expect it to be unbearably loud. How often do you guys run the ZX-Turbo?

TB: COTA this past week was the first time it’s run in close to a decade, but we won our first race against cars from 2007-2008. So, even though it’s older it’s still unbelievable. It’s very competitive. I’d venture to guess that if we had the new tires they’re running at the pro races, we’d be really competitive with the current prototypes.

Because the tires are coming out of out of our pocket, we don’t run as many per weekend. We generally use the same tires for a couple races, and then a new set for qualifying. We get customer tires, whereas when you’re racing a tire-sponsored event, you get special compound tires. I really think if we ran those spec tires, we’d be pretty damn close to the pro cars despite being in a near 30-year-old Nissan.

AG: How’d you place the first time racing it—did you get to log some wheel time prior to the COTA event?

TB: The engine was bolted back in a week or two before the race. So, other than sitting in it, the SVRA COTA event was the first time I’d ever driven the car and I finished first in class. So, one-for-one! (laughs)

Geoff Brahbam [the champion driver who took the ZX-Turbo to victory in 1988] happened to be at COTA that same weekend. Geoff Brahbam, he’s a legend and I was so thankful he was there. He gave me tips on how to wrangle that thing. It was a total random occurrence, but awesome.

We didn’t know he was going to be there until the day before the event. He even called his old engineer and got us their old setups they use to run. They really helped. Turns out, we were running springs up front that were 500 pounds softer than we needed to. From one session to the next, we completely changed the dynamic of the car. I don’t think we would have been as competitive without their help.

It’s been great and I hope to race it more. As long as my dad is running it, I want to keep driving it. I would never pass an opportunity to get in this thing. If someone were trying to get me into a pro car, that’s about the only thing I’d really take over the ZX-Turbo—and even then, I’d be torn. I just love the Nissan. It’s one of my favorite cars ever built.

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John G. Hill
John G. Hill
6 years ago

We just acquired this beast in the iRacing sim about six months ago. From the turbo pop-off valve sound to the quirky handling, iRacing got this car right. We race it with the Audi 90 Quattro in a multi-class series. You guys should give it a try.

Christopher Gay
Christopher Gay
6 years ago

Just another Jaguar V-12 and a Chevy. Nothin’ to see here… 😉

Christopher Gay
Christopher Gay
6 years ago

I found some snapshots I took from the IMSA Del Mar Grand Prix. This was probably 1988 or ’89. Maybe even 1990. We were on the front straight and had access to the paddock. Good times. I remember Brundle or Lammers somehow looping the Jag on the front straight and saving it without losing much time.

6 years ago

“From one session to the next, we completely changed the dynamic of the car. I don’t think we would have been as competitive without their help.”

I don’t know how much improvement was needed since they were running away from the whole field in both races I watched.
They weren’t running full boost, I’m sure most people who own and drive GTP and Group C cars are just trying to make their equipment last as long as possible between rebuilds. The main attraction at COTA for me were the Mazda 4 rotor cars and they were being run by the company.

David Plott
David Plott
6 years ago

Geoff’s co-driver in 1988 was John Morton. Together, they won 8 races in a row in the 1988 season.

Christopher Gay
Christopher Gay
6 years ago

I had a set of used brake rotors from this car from back in the day. This was the era I grew up with. I’ll never forget the Nissans, Jags, and Porsches slamming each other on the back part the track in Del Mar (where nobody could see and there were no cameras). Sh1t got real back then. Good times.

Thanks for sharing.