MOTOR RACING GRAND PRIX OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA : Kastner Is in Perfect Position--He Has Sure Thing at Del Mar

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The big, baldish man with the bushy mustache reminiscent of a British cavalry officer's--earphones over his ears and radios at his hips--normally is an austere presence along the pit wall. He is usually frowning, cajoling crewman, barking orders, pacing up and down.

This week, though, he has been all smiles.

R. W. (Kas) Kastner, director of racing competition for Nissan, is in a no-lose situation.

One of his two drivers, Chip Robinson or Geoff Brabham, is going to win the International Motor Sports Assn. GTP championship in today's season- ending Camel Grand Prix of Southern California at the Del Mar Fairgrounds.

Robinson and Brabham have won six races this season driving together in the red, white and blue turbocharged ZX prototype. Brabham, the defending series champion, has won three times driving solo and Robinson once, but Robinson leads in points, 219-215. Price Cobb, in a Jaguar, is third with 189.

The winner in today's two-hour race around the 11-turn, 1.6-mile circuit through the fairgrounds parking lot will get 20 points, so no matter where Kastner's drivers finish, they will be champion and runner-up.

Brabham will start third and Robinson sixth. Wayne Taylor of South Africa in a Pontiac-powered Spice qualified Saturday at 90.832 to win the pole. Bob Earl of Larkspur, Calif., in a Chevrolet-powered Spice, is the other front-row car.

When Brabham and Robinson finished 1-2 at Sears Point two races ago, it clinched the manufacturer's championship for Nissan--the first time a Japanese company has won the title in IMSA's 20 seasons.

And Bob Leitzinger, Kastner's driver in the GTU class, clinched the individual championship last Sunday at Laguna Seca.

No wonder the man is smiling.

"I think Kas has to be the man most responsible for our success," Brabham said. "Before he joined the Nissan race program, it hadn't had any success. He has been the catalyst. Before Kas, racing did not rate very high on Nissan's agenda. He changed all that, then he got the team, the drivers, Don (Devendorf, the car builder), everyone working in the same direction."

Kastner, 59, who had a long career as team manager for Triumph in the sports car era of the 1960s and as owner of a turbocharging development company, joined Nissan in February, 1986.

"Before I could beef up the racing, I felt I had to beef up the company's awareness of the racing program, and what it meant to them," Kastner said. "I wanted to create a feeling that Nissan Motorsports was a heavy hitter in the game, but first I had to get management to feel that way. Racing was not much of a priority three years ago."

The priority has progressed to a point where last Wednesday, Nissan executive vice president Tom Mignanelli announced the purchase of Devendorf's Electramotive Engineering firm with plans to install Devendorf as president and move him from El Segundo into a huge facility in Vista with the sole purpose of building winning race cars.

Kastner's association with Devendorf goes back to 1968, when Devendorf was one of the Triumph team's drivers. Devendorf later won national road racing championships for Nissan in every IMSA category--RS in 1977, GTU in 1979 and GTO in 1982.

"Sooner or later, when you're dealing with Donnie, you're going to come up a winner," Kastner said. "But his worth was so important on the technical side that we had to get him out of the habit of driving himself. We wanted him in one category and two professional drivers in the cars.

"Donnie's the kind of a guy who if you asked me 25 years ago to get us to the moon, he's one of the first ones I would have called."

Kastner also changed the philosophy surrounding the racing program.

"The first thing I did with the race car was insist we ran fast and ran up front. I didn't want any cruising around trying to finish just so we could say we finished.

"I would rather go fast and break. Then we'd fix the problem and go faster the next time. We kept doing that until one day we were going fast and finishing, too. That's when I knew we had accomplished something."

One of his first decisions was to sign Brabham, who had been rumored as getting an Indy car ride with Pat Patrick, to join Elliott Forbes-Robinson as a team driver.

In his first race in a Nissan, Brabham fulfilled Kastner's philosophy by putting the car in the front row at Riverside. It didn't finish, but it showed the racing public that it was fast.

A series of niggling problems, ranging from blown tires to minor structural failures, kept the Nissan from the winner's circle all but once through 1987.

"We started 1988 by switching tires, from Bridgestones to Goodyears, and hired Trevor Harris as chassis designer," Kastner said.

"The big turning point was the change in tires. The Bridgestones were fast but to win races we needed a tire that could be raced on hard, all the way. Also, the testing we did for Goodyear helped pay the bills."

Brabham responded by putting together a stretch of eight consecutive IMSA Camel GT wins and was named driver of the year by the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Assn.

"It got to where I wished it would never end," Brabham said.

Chip Robinson, who joined the Nissan team this season, won the GT championship in 1987 driving a Porsche 962 for the late Al Holbert.

Even though Brabham had won the national championship for him last year, Kastner insisted that there was no No. 1 or No. 2 on his team.

The drivers concur. Even though they are racing against one another today for the $150,000 championship bonus, they insist relations couldn't be more cordial.

"I can't think of another major racing team, except for Penske with Rick Mears and Danny Sullivan, where both drivers could be going for the championship, and both are relatively happy with the situation," Brabham said. "And I think you have to give Kas credit for creating that atmosphere."

Robinson says one reason for the team's success is that each driver pushes the other.

"Now that there is only one race left, obviously we're thinking about all that Camel money and what it would mean to us to win the championship again, but it's certainly going to be interesting," Robinson said. "Whatever happens, this has been my favorite season in all my years of racing."

Another reason for Kastner to smile is that he has already signed Robinson and Brabham for 1990.

"When I have a pair of dice that continually come up 7 and 11, I certainly don't want to change things," he said.

And what will Kastner's instructions be to his drivers before today's 2:30 p.m. start?

"I'll tell them to go out and fight it out like brothers." Kastner said. Then, with a devilish smile, he added, "But no hitting."

Race Notes

Pete Halsmer of Anaheim won the GTO championship by finishing second to his Mercury Cougar teammate, Wally Dallenbach Jr., of Basalt, Colo., in the one- hour GTO-GTU race Saturday. If Halsmer, 45, had finished third or worse, Dallenbach would have won the title, but Halsmer passed Steve Millen in a Nissan with 13 minutes remaining to take over second place--and his first series championship in two decades of racing.

Pole-sitter Hans Stuck of West Germany, who had won the last four GTO races, dropped out when the engine in his all-wheel Audi 90 Quattro failed. Stuck's teammate, Hurley Haywood, also dropped out with engine trouble.

Jeremy Dale of Canada, in a Dodge Daytona, won the GTU race and finished fifth overall behind the two Cougars and two Nissans driven by Millen and John Morton. . . . . Bob Leitzinger, the GTU champion, dropped out when his Nissan 240SX crashed into the tire wall.

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