Jackie Ickx and the Porsche 936, Jim Clark and the Lotus 49, Ayrton Senna and the McLaren MP 4—some drivers will always be associated with one car and one era. For the fabled Nissan 300ZX Turbo, that driver and era was Steve Millen in 1994, and his story—from tragedy to triumph—part of what makes the 300ZX Turbo one of Nissan’s most important race cars
Nissan had debuted the 300ZX road car at the Chicago Auto Show that year, and it hit all the right notes for their marketing department. The race division, meanwhile, knew a thing or two about how to win in IMSA, this after their GTP program had won the title in 1989. They followed exactly the same blueprint as they did in GTP, but this time the local tuners they turned to were South Carolina-based Clayton Cunningham Racing.
The new car managed a respectable win at Mid-Ohio in its debut season in ’89 with John Morton doing the wheel-work, but the year was spent mostly chasing the all-conquering, rally-derived Audis.
A legendary relationship was forged the day Millen signed on the dotted line, one that has gone into the pantheon of motorsport legends.
Steve Millen, the Cunningham Racing 300ZX, and the legend of Phoenix
Millen won the GTS Drivers Championship in his first season, against Ford and Mazda’s best efforts, and in 1993 secured a dominant win in the GTS class at the Sebring 12 hours. Millen and Nissan’s story, however, while immediately successful, had only just begun—a tale that begins with tragedy and ends with a sugarcoating so thick not even Hollywood would consider it believable.
It begins at the Glen on a hot day in June, 1993. Steve Millen, in his IMSA GTS Nissan 300ZX, is leading the race and the championship. In second place is his team-mate Johnny O’Connell. Winding through the Esses, Millen went to lap the Argo JM19 of Brent O’Neill. The two cars touched, Millen went into a harmless spin and then, in a blink of an eye, he was collected by his team mate at 140mph.
The impact is as enormous as it was sickening. O’Connell’s car burst into flames, and in the midst of this chaos lay the remains of Millen’s Nissan … and Millen himself, trapped in the smoldering wreck as the red and yellow flags waved frantically in the sudden, chilling silence.
Jaws of Life, a twin-fractured skull, massive damage to his facial muscles and nerves, and eventually an arm held together with titanium were just some of the consequences of the impact for Millen. It was a long road back, but in October of 1993, Millen convinced a reluctant Nissan that he was ready to return to action.
He arrived at Phoenix for the test with tears streaming from a left eye whose lid was sealed open, his facial nerves shot. It took less than a dozen laps for Nissan to call the test quits—Millen was bang on the pace almost immediately, and ready to bring the battle to the Roush Racing Mustangs that had secured the title in ’93 in Millen’s absence.
From tragedy to triumph
Daytona, 1994. Millen, with his titanium arm, stuck the 300ZX on pole and took a commanding lead until, 9hours in, the crankshaft broke leaving the sister 300ZX of Scott Pruett to inherit first place. With three hours left, the rains came and Millen was summoned from the pits and ordered into the Pruett car—the 300ZX’s capricious nature in the wet needed experience, and Millen duly delivered, taking the number 75 to an historic win, over 20 laps ahead of second place.
At Sebring it was Millen again. He told Autoweek many years later, ‘So now we’re into the program five, six years, six years for these cars and the car was damn near bulletproof. And when you got into the car at the beginning of a 24-hour race, you didn’t think, well I’ve got to nurse the brakes, I’ve got to nurse the gearbox, I’ve got to nurse the engine—you just drove it. You just drove it and you drove it and you drove it hard.’
This, the sorted 1994 version of the 300ZX Turbo, is the car that you’ll be driving in Project CARS 2.
Le Mans and the Holy Trinity
With Daytona and Sebring in the bag came the realization that no car or team had ever won the Holy Trinity of endurance racing—Daytona, Sebring, and Le Mans—in one season. A call to Nissan Japan later, and the budget was secured: Millen, with his titanium arm and frozen-featured face, was going to Le Mans with Cunningham to seal his spot in motorsport history.
At Le Mans in 1994, GT racing had effectively replaced the world sports cars prototypes that had died (except for in the US in the IMSA series) the year before. Le Mans, though, was always about prototypes, and the Automobile Club de l’Ouest came up with an innovative equivalency formula that would allow GTS cars to compete for the overall win against the LMP and IMSA WSC cars. Millen and the Cunningham 300ZX Turbos were in with a real shout, and their qualifying run—ninth on the grid and only eight seconds off the Pescarolo Courage C32LM Porsche on pole—gave them serious hope.
The race, though, was anti-climactic. The number 76 300ZX of Eric van de Poele lasted less than 30 laps before reliability—that was the 300ZX’s strength—began to also plague the Millen number 75. Still, the engine was good for 210mph down the Mulsanne, and it won the GTS class, finishing fifth overall despite an hour spent in the pits repairing first a broken gearbox and, later, a failing camshaft. Barring that, the 300ZX could so easily have won the world’s most famous endurance race.
Back at IMSA, Millen continued to dominate the championship: by the end of the season, he’d added the IMSA driver’s championship to his Daytona 24 Hours and Sebring 12 Hours, and Nissan was crowned IMSA GTS Manufacturer’s Champions.
And that was that: IMSA ruled turbos illegal at the end of 1994 in order to help the local big-block brigade, and that consigned the 300ZX Turbo to the history books as one of the most dominant race cars that had ever graced the endurance racing scene. Twenty-three later, it has found its way into Project CARS 2 in both its 1994 versions—the 24 hour Le Mans and Daytona spec’, and the IMSA spec’.
Whichever you choose (one has working headlights and the Le Mans livery, the other was used for the shorter sprint races with the sticker lights), you’ll be assured of a car that was a proven winner for half-a-decade.
Millen, meanwhile, ended up being Nissan’s number one factory driver for seven years, winning two IMSA GTS titles and securing Nissan two manufacturer’s titles en route. Nissan and Millen came back with a V8 for the 1995 season, but it all ended badly on April 30 when, at Road Atlanta, Millen suffered terrible injuries, including a broken neck, in another massive shunt. Showing his usual grit, he soldiered on until the end of the season until Nissan pulled out of IMSA completely, and he retired from racing.
The 1994 Cunningham Racing Nissan 300ZX in Project CARS 2 is a rolling, fire-breathing piece of IMSA history. When you’re out there at Daytona trying to tame the light-switch turbo lag before the 800 horses spool you into a donut faster than you can turn the wheel, spare a thought for Steve Millen, the man whose frozen nerves were as cold as the ice in his veins.
Project CARS 2 will be released in late 2017 for the PlayStation®4 system, Xbox One, and PC