California. Beaches as near as the mountains are far, home to two world-class cities, and an overall bastion of good tacos. It's the same state where you having the wrong exhaust system can get your S13 impounded and where a root canal's less invasive than some bi-annual smog checks. Mob around in a heavily modified Japanese car in this state and you'd better be incredibly sneaky or a stickler for rules.
Johnny Tran tried being sneaky, the results of which had him and the handful of Nissans he's owned in more trouble than any grown-ass man's got the patience for. "I was getting pulled over all the time, and other cars were getting pulled over for no reason, getting harassed by cops, and getting sent to the state referee," the San Jose native says about one of many crackdowns the state issued some 10 years back. "I wanted something smog-exempt that would keep me under the radar."
Johnny got things half right. His '72 240Z isn't about to fly underneath anybody's radar, and that's OK, because it'll do it while following every bit of the state of California's bureaucratic-ridden, modified-car minutiae, the most important of which is the rule that says that just about any car sold before 1976 is exempt from almost all of this nonsense.
Which is exactly what led Johnny from a string of late-model 240SXs to Datsun's 240Z, a car he knew little about, had no idea what engine he'd stuff into it, and was precisely what he had to have. "I've always had love for Nissans," he says. "I think the rear-wheel drive [layout] and their styling [is what] got to me."
It's the 400-whp, bored-out, and Mazworx-built SR20DET swap Johnny went on to drop into the Z that's reinforced that love, though. It's an engine combination that beat out the eight-cylinder GM engine he'd initially contemplated and that's outlasted the other three SRs he's had swapped into place and subsequently blown to bits at the track. "I've blown three fully built SR20DETs before [giving] up and deciding to lean on Mazworx," he says about the string of failures that've each proven their unworthiness.
The engines have yet to replace themselves, but Johnny's got the next best thing: brother Sunny Le, owner of Tech3 Performance, who handles most of the Z's dirty work. "By no means am I a grease monkey," Johnny admits. "I leave the work to the guys who know it best." The planning, the parts sourcing, and the driving, however, that's all Johnny. "I have a passion for aftermarket parts, and [I] can talk parts, mods, and builds all day," he assures. "But I have no desire to wrench."
It's the driving that's always appealed to Johnny's sensibilities anyways, beginning some 12 years back when he bought his first car, an S13. "I didn't know what I was getting myself into," he says about his first track day at nearby Thunderhill Raceway Park not more than a year after picking up the car. "It was amazing, and I was hooked." It's that experience that, for Johnny, has led to a whole lot more days driving the car and a whole lot less of it sitting in donut shop parking lots vying for stance cred.
That doesn't mean Johnny's given the finger to how the car ought to look, though. Things like the car's Japanese-only fender-mounted mirrors, its custom paint, and its Work Meister CR-01 rims make you think this Z's destined for an auditorium full of judges doling out points for JDM trinkets and stretched-on tires, but look closer and its Wilwood brakes and six-point 'cage reveal its true purpose.
"It is a Datsun, after all," is how Johnny rationalizes how often the car's driven both on the track and on the street. "I drive it more than [half] the time," he says, acknowledging the Miata that gets him around the rest of the time but also giving a nod to the R32 GT-R he's in the process of putting together.
There are few places that present more challenges to the modern-day car modifier than California. With ambush-style, roadside emissions tests; cops who know the differences between things like an SR20DET and an SR20VET; and punishments that are often unbefitting of the infraction, it's a rough and tough place for a kid with some lowering springs and a muffler on his Nissan. "I decided to park the car and give cars a rest for a while," Johnny says about the result of his frustrations with the system some 10 years back. But then he got smart, found the loophole, and built the car he'd always wanted, this time in accordance with the very policy makers who'd discouraged him the last time around.
"My intent was to build a smog-exempt track car that I could [drive] on the street," Johnny says about his initial plan that, if you live anywhere other than California, might sound entirely reasonable. "I think I've done just that."