Robert W. ‘Kas’ Kastner, the man who turned Nissan into one of the most powerful and successful players in North American racing during the 1980s and 1990s, died on Saturday at the age of 92.
Well prior to his post at Nissan, Kastner earned respect as a mechanic and fabricator who built and raced his own sports cars. The New Yorker migrated to California after serving in the Army, and it was there in the 1950s where his achievements with tuning and driving small British cars in SCCA events established Kastner as a man whose automotive talents were destined for bigger opportunities.
Hired by Triumph to run its racing department in the early 1960s, Kastner’s innate skills and inventive nature yielded great results for the brand, and by 1970, he moved on to form his own racing team which included an expansion into open-wheel racing and the eventual creation of an aftermarket turbocharging company during the formative days of forced induction.
It was during this rich period in Kastner’s career where he met Don Devendorf, the racer and co-founder of Electramotive Engineering, who would play a central role in bringing Kastner into the Nissan family as Electramotive’s IMSA team endured a punishing introduction to the GTP class.
“My first contact with Kas was back in the mid-70s,” said Wes Moss, the former VP of Electramotive. “I had a small race and foreign car repair shop in Charlotte with a couple of partners, and a customer asked us to put a turbocharger kit on a Mini Cooper, so I got in touch with Kas to buy the kit and got it done.
“Fast-forward to 1986, and I was working with Don Devendorf and John Knepp at Electramotive in a continual thrash on the Lola-Nissan GTP car. We had just about run out of Band-Aids for the GTP car, Kas and Devendorf had a relationship back in the SCCA Triumph days, and we needed financial and organizational help. The motorsports department at Nissan also needed help; as I recall it, Don suggested Kas to head the Nissan motorsports effort, Kas accepted the job, and came on board with a focus on getting the GTP program competitive.”
At Devendorf’s suggestion, Kastner was charged with overseeing Nissan’s GTP program, and he turned it into a powerhouse. Image via Marshall Pruett Archives
Mark Raffauf started with IMSA in the 1970s, and remains there today, having seen many teams and personalities come and go. He bore witness to Kastner’s leadership style as the floundering Nissan GTP effort went from an afterthought to an unbeatable force as Geoff Brabham and Electramotive – later known as Nissan Performance Technology Inc. – captured four straight GTP championships from 1988-1991 while setting the record for consecutive wins.
“Kas Kastner was already a West Coast sports car legend before he even came to IMSA, and when he did arrive to take over the corporate helm of the Nissan GTP program, it was in the beginnings of the developmental process of the car, made originally from a Lola T810 chassis,” he said. “The whole program came together with the very first all-California designed and built GTP-ZX Turbo car.
“Under Kas’s relentless pressure, the original Electramotive team went through numerous teething and developmental issues; they would be fast, they would qualify well, they would lead, but victory was elusive over two seasons of trying. Kas pushed hard for them to build their own cars, and when something broke, they went home and fixed it, and came back; something else broke, they fixed that, and came back. One day it all came together, and all of the problems went away and the rest was history in the Camel GT for four years.”
Trevor Harris was tasked with designing the 1988 Electramotive chassis that Brabham used to destroy the GTP opposition, and went on to pen its replacement, along with IMSA GTOs and Race Trucks for Nissan on behalf of NPTI.
“I’ve had two bosses I’ve regarded as my favorites. One was Dan Gurney, and the other was Kas Kastner. I really loved Kas,” said Harris, who drove out to Las Vegas on Friday to say farewell to his old friend. “We had some great times in France when we ran at Le Mans, and so many race tracks over the years, and away from the track drinking and telling stories. When he hired me in 1987 to design a new GTP chassis for Nissan, it only took an hour, Kas and me talking, and I got the job. He wanted advice on what to do, had a limited budget, and I started in July of 1987. We didn’t have much time to get something done for 1988, but the rest was history. It’s a huge loss for me.”
Brabham (left) remembers Kastner as a real racer with a “siege mentality”. Image via Marshall Pruett Archives
Based on the number of people who wanted to pay tribute to Kastner, it’s clear he made a sizable impact on many who were fortunate to orbit his world.
“Kas was a real racer and we hit it off right from the beginning when I joined Nissan,” Brabham said. “We had a siege mentality. It was us against everyone else. He did a lot for me, for which I will be forever grateful.”
Long before he became general manager of Portland International Raceway, E. C. Mueller served as the public relations man for Electramotive Engineering.
“When I think of Kas, I think of someone who was confident, determined, strategic, and always had the end game in mind,” Mueller said. “Right after Kas was hired by Nissan, we went to Firebird Raceway in 1986. The first year of the GTP program in 1985 was, let’s say, very challenging. Electramotive had always been successful, and quickly, prior to that with championships in SCCA, IMSA RS, IMSA GTU, and IMSA GTO. Everyone was a bit rattled going into 1986, and no-one knew what to expect from Kas.
“So as the PR guy for the team, I decided to focus some time chatting up Kas and getting to know him. At one point I said something like, ‘Well, it sure would be nice to be competitive.’ He looked me in the eye, those steely blue eyes blazing, had his finger pointed at me and said, ‘Competitive, hell! Championships are where we’re headed, that’s what matters. The talent and know-how here needs to get organized. And, that’s why I’m here!’
“That fire and determination became the hallmark over his tenure at Nissan and the championships are the legacy. He was a major mentor in my life and I will miss him tremendously. I was able to visit him last month and I treasure the several hours we spent reminiscing and laughing hysterically throughout a wonderful afternoon.”
It was on another visit to the Arizona road course where future Corvette and Cadillac Racing legend Johnny O’Connell was introduced to NPTI in the early 1990s through Kastner’s eye for spotting young talent.
Kasnter’s eye for driver talent helped the likes of Johnny O’Connell get their breaks. Image via Marshall Pruett Archives
“Kas was responsible for what was probably my biggest break,” said O’Connell, whose IndyCar aspirations were fading. “I’d just moved to Phoenix to work at the Bondurant Driving School. NPTI was testing there at Firebird with Geoff Brabham and Bob Earl. I went over to say hello to some of the crew guys I knew when one of the engineers asked me if I’d like to get some laps in the next day as Geoff had to leave early, and that Kas had been wanting to give me a look.
“At that time, he was to sports car racing what Roger Penske was and is to IndyCar. Such a positive and almost fatherly type figure to me that I didn’t want to let down. Always both kind and encouraging to me throughout my career. Kas was one of racing’s greats.”
The Leitzinger family felt Kastner’s influence in IMSA’s GTU category where its various Nissan models delivered major victories and championships for the brand.
No way Leitzinger was going to be able to under-quote to run a GTU program on Kastner’s watch. Image via Marshall Pruett Archives
“In 1988, Kas Kastner and Frank Honsowetz asked for a quote to run a GTU effort for the 1989 IMSA season,” Bob Leitzinger said. “Many hours of work later, Kas asked for my budget number. Kas looked at it, and said ‘No! That is not enough, we will go with my number!’ He was one great guy to work for, and a real friend.”
With heavyweight Nissan factory programs running in three of IMSA’s four top classes, Raffauf was in awe of Kastner’s capabilities.
“Kas was a quiet but firm leader, a pleasure to work with in his dealings with IMSA, crafty and wise, and someone who would never give up,” he said. “One of the most driven individuals, determined to succeed, (that) IMSA’s paddock has ever seen over the years.
“As the team grew from a smaller Devendorf Electramotive group into, at that time, the titanic NPTI organization, with over 250 employees designing, building and developing Nissan race cars for both for IMSA and overseas, Kas managed the growth and success with ease and a calm approach that brought the entire organization to a new level as a whole. There was never any drama with Kas, just a determination to get the job done and succeed. He quietly motivated the Nissan brand, group and team to get it done and then tell the world about it. And that they did.”
For Moss, Kastner was the embodiment of everything that made Electramotive, NPTI, and Nissan a powerhouse presence in the sport.
“Kas brought increased budget, full-time pro drivers, the latest technology, moved Don out of the cockpit to direct team management and technical development, got Trevor Harris on board full-time,” he said. “Later, with an assist from Trevor Harris, he got Geoff Brabham on board and paid him well enough to stay. Later he enabled us to add Chip Robinson to the team. In short, Kas saved our collective asses and made us winners again.
“Kas had many sides. He connected well with the hands-on shop and crew guys, had a sense of humor, was hard-assed when necessary, respected by all, loved by many. He had already had a substantial career going back to the U.S. Triumph racing program; the Nissan GTP program was, in my opinion, the capstone on his long motorsports career.”