It all started in 1972. My family had just moved to Bell, California. I was in third grade and used to see these little Datsuns flying around the neighborhood. They were lowered with racing stripes and fast. I thought they were cool little cars. So in 1975 I was walking home and I saw a '69 Army green 510 come by; vrrroom. I said, man that thing was going fast, then all of a sudden it makes a left turn up my street. I said, no way, and started booking over there. It belonged to the guy that just moved in five houses down. So I came up to the guy and said, man that car is cool. He asked if I knew what this is and I said yeah it's a Datsun 510.
His dad had an Austin Healey with a Ford 289 so they were always wrenching. He said "next time we're working do you want to come on over and help?" I said, sure. So that next Saturday I went over and it was awesome. I helped out and learned a lot; that first hands-on experience was the spark.
It wasn't until my senior year in high school that I got my first 510. I dug working on it. All I had was a vise, a file, a drill and a handsaw but I could make all kinds of stuff for it. After high school I went to Cal State Long Beach in the Industrial Design program.
I met Tod Kaneko in 1982 when I was a freshman at CSULB. At that time I had my license suspended for street racing. I got six tickets in a week. Ouch. So I had to ride my bike the 21 miles one-way to school or take the bus. I was on the bus one day and I see this bitchin 510 blast by, just screaming. It pulled into the school parking lot. Man, I missed my first three classes walking the lot looking for that Datsun.
I found his car and put a note on it; he never called me. So I saw it again and figured he was a Monday, Wednesday, Friday student so I waited at the school entrance and sure enough he rolled in and I ran him down ... said "Yo, I'm Mario and I'm into 510s." He was shy, nervous, low key and I was hyper, flying off the hook. He said, "uhh, okay but I gotta go to class." I said fine I'll walk you to class. He told me about his 11-second, 2.3-liter turbo four Pinto, motorcycles all kinds of stuff. I got to know him, did some work for him and we're good friends now 23 years later and we both still roll dimes.
Anyway, my materials teacher had a student, Matt Wise, who had just opened a race shop, Patrick Racing in Gardena and he asked my teacher if he knew someone in the program that was into cars and interested in a part-time job. We did work for some guy named Rahal; I didn't know who he was back then. We also did stuff for the Andrettis and I knew that name. We did a lot of road racing stuff but not drag racing, which by that time was my gig.
In about '92 when the Honda thing was starting to blow up Matt closed the shop. I went to DP Racing in Huntington Beach. Don Oldenberg was a big 510 guy. When I was at CSULB we toured a composite manufacturing facility. When we pulled in I saw this 510 on a trailer and snuck out from the tour and ran down the block and ogled that 510. That was the first time I met Don. I learned a lot from Matt and Don and use those lessons everyday.
I busted out on my own in 1992. I had a mobile turbo system service. I rolled a Mazda RX-7 and loaded my band saw, welder, grinder and the necessities and built turbo kits on the road. I did the system on Phil Lee's MR2 which was featured in Turbo. Later he wanted us to open a shop together. I said no. He said he knew of a building that was just $800 ... 1,700 feet for $800 bucks. I said okay.
I must have turbo'd 100 Hondas. I turbo'd Archie Medrano's car and he was faster than anyone else. (Archie held the fastest Honda title when it was in the 11-second range.) He was on top for a little while but he was cheap. He didn't want to upgrade turbos, intercoolers; upgrade everything and the guys stepping up passed him by.
Little by little we started making money and buying better and better equipment. I got a better band saw, sold the old one. I also got a $7,000 welder for $2,500 from a guy who had never plugged the thing in. I keep learning about welding. That's how TSR Fabrications (Toe Speed Racing) keeps growing.
I am an artist at the core; drawing, painting stuff like that. I put the same expectations into my welding; always getting better. My ultimate goal is to weld like a robot; that kind of exactness, that kind of consistency. Some new technology comes out and I am all over it. But for advice I always go to the old timers. They always have some tricks up their sleeves.
When it comes to equipment I am a diehard tool-a-holic. I love good tools; old aircraft stuff to new software. I am always cruising swap meets for hidden gems. Take my welding helmet, it will trip people out. Only old timers know this lens was made by Bausch & Lomb and is the same lens that was on Neil Armstrong's visor when he walked on the moon. It's called Cool Blue and I got from a guy who used it for 45 years. People that know what this is always want to buy it. You can see everything. It is almost like welding without a shade. The smaller lens setup was $200 in 1972!
The 510 Phenomenon
There is something about a square box like the 510; its proportions, its sharp edges. Cars go round, cars go square, they go in and out of style to the mainstream. But 510 enthusiasts have never wavered. We just had a big swap meet at the Nissan building and 800 people and 110 510s showed up. It was mad; parts, cars, parts cars, everything was for sale.
The guys have a lot of passion for the cars. Go to the Shasta show and it's out a hand. You know the story where some guy says his girlfriend says if he work on his car one more time she is going to leave him and the guy says I am sure going to miss her. I see that all the time. It is an obsession.
The reason for the obsession is the cars are still very competitive. They are light, and they were some of the first cars on the road with independent rear suspensions.
The dime has some kind of appeal; people just love the look of it. The kids nowadays don't even know about BRE, Brock Racing, Johnny Morton and the success of the car on the track. They like the look and the untapped potential of these little cars.
I got this 15-year-old kid calling me everyday. He doesn't have any money but he's saving his allowance to do an SR20 swap. His dad is into Maseratis and Ferraris and the kid took his dad to the swap meet and showed him my car and said this 510 will beat all your cars and the dad got mad.
The big engine mods are SR20s; S13, S14, S15 turbo engines and the naturally aspirated SR20 that comes in the base Silvia. But the latest thing is the VQ swap like we did on the Monster Garage Honey Bee B210. After doing the Honey Bee in a week and getting it running the 510 has more space and it should be a slammin' combination. The weight difference is only about 60 pounds. I am getting a VQ30 350Z motor in next week and when time permits I will start prototyping the conversion.
When I showed up to the show I didn't know much about it. I don't have cable and had never seen the show. I get there, look at Jesse and thought damn that guy looks familiar. He said I know you from somewhere. I remember him when he had a VW Bug shop in Paramount and he would go to all the shows and stuff. He was kind of a different kind of guy, I am different, I am an artist. So he remembers me and asks if I am still into 510s and I said, yep more than ever.
Originally, when the production company called I turned them down and wondered how they got my name. They said they called Nissan, AEM; I used to work there, they went online and the engine swap was right up my alley. So my Mom said I should try it and there were like 2,000 people considered and got it.
So I showed up on Monday, I burned my hand all up, and did, I'd say 75 percent of the fabrication and it looked beautiful on the car. You gotta remember they're rushing you. You gotta bam, bam, bam bang it out.
We got along great the first day, but they don't like that. So they held meetings with everybody but me on the second day. We got to work and they didn't want to help. It was everybody against Mario. I said, I can deal with their plans. That's what they want to do; cool.
I got along great with Jesse then he comes in and says, 'Mario, I don't want you to work on the engine, go to the junkyard and find us a rearend.' Why would I do that when you got guys here that don't know what they are doing. Send them. I know what to do, I'm focused, I said no, I am working here.
But that's part of their deal. If you get comfortable working they shake it up. Jesse said I don't want to F with you and he went through some rage thing. The next day he came over and said he was sorry about yesterday and I said, hey man, its your show you give the people what they want to see, I am going to get this car done.
When that thing started is was like raspy V8 it was spitting fire and ready to roll. We added 222 hp to the Honey Bee; it was rated at 38 hp from the factory. It was amazing how that car moved. It was cool that Jesse was impressed with my welding.
I am still very passionate about what I do. I am an artist, I am not passionate about making money. I am into the process. The money is for buying more tools. I can take a long time because I am an artist but the people get the best possible workmanship and quality. I am aiming for handcrafted artistic pieces with that elusive robotic welding technique that work in the real world.
Better Crossmember (3/4-inch Higher Suspension Points)
Auto Tranny Cars Have Bigger Tunnels
Smaller Radiator Opening
Bigger Core Support Accepts 3-Row Radiator
Annoying Seat Belt Buzzer
Later Cars Have Some '73 Spec Parts
Heaviest Model Year
Has Tow Hooks
510 Points Of Contention
Bodies Never Zinc Coated = Rust ProblemsFactory Never Removed Rear Fender PlugsRust at Base of Fenders, Rear Rockers, Trunk, Battery Tray, FloorboardsAge of Body = Flex (Stitch Weld Panels)Worn Steering Box Creates Numb FeedbackWeak Rearend = Swap in R200 Z31 UnitWheel/Tire Size LimitationsRear 18x8 +30 (no mods)18x8.5 + 35 (modify step in inner fender)Front 7.5 max w/ 280ZX Strut Upgrade