"It's the Super Bowl, you either make the viewers laugh, or you make them cry." So said Fred Diaz, Nissan VP of sales and marketing, while we sat together in a cramped temporary office on the Detroit Auto Show floor a few weeks ago.
Then he flipped open a laptop plastered with a large U.S. Marines sticker.
He was about to show me a rough cut of Nissan's first Super Bowl commercial in nearly 20 years. (The last one was the classic "Pigeons" spot that aired in '97.) This new short film had cost, I'd wager, several million dollars, not including the millions Nissan had to pay for the of airtime. I was on set for the filming the week before Christmas at Circuit of the Americas, so I knew the basic storyline.
Nonetheless, I hoped that Diaz had chosen to go for the laugh. I'd hate to sob in front of the Jessie Ventura of auto execs.
A handful of suited men entered the office, exceeding the legal occupancy limit. Diaz hit a button, the video started, and Harry Chapin's "Cats in the Cradle" played from the tinny computer speaker. The ad ended with a dark screen. Nobody spoke.
"Fellas," I said to no one in particular, my eyes moist, "Help me change the subject before I start bawling."
Diaz just smiled.
Enter the Race Car
To us, the star of the show isn't human, but the odd-looking red race car that debuts near the end. The man behind that car is Ben Bowlby; in my opinion, he's the Colin Chapman of the modern racing era. He's also the guy behind the DeltaWing, the phallic prototype that was the zaniest machine to run Le Mans since the Le Monster. Now it appears that he's done it again with the clumsily named Nissan GT-R LM Nismo (from this point on, I'll refer to the car simply by GT-R LM).
The new GT-R LM is, like the Deltawing, just plain batty. For a full tech rundown, check out Marshall Pruett's deep dive, but the basics will leave you wondering what Bowlby's been sniffing.
Power comes from a 600-hp twin-turbo V6 mounted in front of the driver. The car itself is front-wheel drive. The gearbox resides in the nose and it not only distributes engine power to the wheels, but also drives a pair of flywheels that live under the driver's legs. Those flywheels power the rear axle with up to 1000 hp (!) for three-second bursts. Furthermore, the front tires are about twice as wide as the rear, the reverse of almost every race car.
The car was built to the current Le Mans rulebook, which has cultivated a wonderfully diverse garage. Audi, the modern Le Mans juggernaut, runs a diesel hybrid; Porsche built a turbocharged V-4 gas engine for its electrified car; and then there's Toyota, which has a non-turbo V8. "It's a brilliant time," said Bowlby.
During the commercial shoot at COTA, Bowlby played not the role of engineering pioneer, but rather of an expectant and worried father. His curly hair was overgrown ("I haven't had a haircut in three weeks") and the fatigue is obvious. This was the first time the GTR LM had ever been to a racetrack, and the team had been working around the clock to get it ready. As all this is happening, somewhere inside himself, Bowlby must be gunning for redemption.
Under his tutelage, the DeltaWing ran Le Mans in 2012 as a Garage 56 experimental entry, but crashed and retired midway through the race, its promise unfulfilled. Afterwards, Bowlby joined Nissan and built the very similar Nissan ZEOD RC hybrid race car that ran Le Mans in 2014, again as a Garage 56 entry. It retired early on with a gearbox failure.
Soon after, the consortium that owns the DeltaWing design sued Nissan and Bowlby. The case is ongoing and the DeltaWing currently races in the U.S. without Bowlby. It qualified fourth at this year's Rolex 24 race, but the gearbox gremlin struck yet again. Don Panoz, who now runs the DW team, .
READ MORE: Developing the Nissan GT-R LM NISMO
It's not hard to imagine that someone with Bowlby's background would hope to finally show the world that his off-the-reservation designs are really genius—not just different. The GT-R LM represents his shot at that redemption.
More reasons for heartburn surface: At COTA, it's raining and 45 degrees. Nissan doesn't have rain tires, so they cut grooves—by hand—into a set of slicks. It's the best that can be done, but it's hardly ideal. The guy behind the wheel, Jann Mardenborough, won Nissan's Sony Playstation GT Academy in 2011 and became a Nissan factory driver. He reminds everyone of Lewis Hamilton. He's just 24 years old.
The Nissan whizzes down the front straight followed by a camera car. "Tell him it's first gear only!" shouts Bowlby, clearly annoyed. Then he pauses and says to no one in particular, "Did you see the spray behind he car?" The water droplets swirled in a spinning cone off the car's rear. By the look on Bowlby's smiling face, that's exactly what he wanted.
On the Set
There's a reason movie productions have been likened to military operations. Not only is there an army of people and equipment, assistant director Thomas Smith barks like a drill sergeant—"Stand OFF!"— when I try to ask the director a question during filming.
One of the hospitality suites with room for 500 guests has been converted to a makeshift dressing room and stuffed with more clothes than a J.Crew catalog. Five tractor trailers sit below in the parking lot. In the garage next to the race car, there's a million-dollar Porsche Cayenne with a massive camera crane mounted to the roof and NASA-grade interior electronics. Assorted race cars—extras in the TV commercial—fill another garage. Off to one side, alone, the sacrificial Nissan GT-R that will be crashed for the film sits alone, as if it's contemplating its execution. At lunch, among the camera guys, the crew, the make-up artists, the who-know-what-all-these-people do, I see stunt driver Rhys Millen. It's that kind of varied scene.
There's tension, too. Not just with Bowlby and his new car, but everyone knows they've got to get everything in the can this week.
Lance Acord is the commercial's director. Tall, thin, and handsomely dressed, he's bundled up like an English farmer. As far as I can tell, Acord, who was the cinematographer on Lost in Translation, is not an intense car guy. The cars, he tells me, are just a conduit to tell the tell the father/son tale that unfolds in the Super Bowl spot. The basic storyline was hashed out over the previous few weeks, but there's still room for improv. "You want the set to be loose, but tight," says assistant director Smith. I get what he means. Keep your schedule, but have time baked in for changes.
"The Super Bowl is the one time of the year you can lay on the syrup," says Jason Locey, one of the short's writers. "It's also the one time of the year people welcome commercials into their homes."
The basic story is purposely simple: A dad, often away for his job and regretting his absence, still keeps his family number one. The father in this commercial just happens to have the job we'd all kill for—race car driver. If that invokes a twinge of envy and kills the "syrup"—after all, the guy's away to race at Le Mans, not for some sales meeting in Duluth—Chapin's song ladles it right back on.
"The car is dead."
As those words crackle over the radio, everyone knows the voice is referring to the GT-R LM. Engineers and mechanics—some thirty in all—flash pensive glances and soon after the car arrives at the end of a tow rope.
The mechanics quickly jack the car up and struggle to remove the nose—the GT-R LM is so new, the bodywork hasn't even been properly fitted. Bowlby already knows what happened. "We rounded some dogs [transmission parts] while crawling behind the camera car," he says. If breaking parts at slow speed sounds like a waste of time, Bowlby offers a more optimistic view. "This is good," he says. "After all, there are yellow-flag laps at Le Mans." The engineers go back to their laptops.
These days, the weak link in most race cars is the gearbox. The GT-R's twin-turbo V6 has already spent days on a dynamometer, so it's thoroughly tested. The gearbox, however, is a complicated, custom piece. It houses not only the six forward gears, but the differential and also a power take off that sends a shaft through the vee of the motor and to the flywheels, which in turn have their own mini transmissions.
Mardenborough, the driver, hops out and kills the wait by chatting with me about the usual race-car stuff. He's baby-faced and enormously pleasant. His story is remarkable: On a whim he decided to enter Nissan's online competition for video-game drivers (GT Academy) in 2011. To prepare, he played for 4–5 hours a day. He won and was invited to the U.K.'s national competition, where the participants drive real cars. He bought used driving shoes to attend, which must have been good luck because he won the real driving competition despite the fact that he had never slid a car before. From there, he made it into Nissan's driver's development program and he's a favorite to pilot the GT-R LM at Le Mans. "I won the lottery," he says.
The man who started the lottery is Darren Cox, the head of Nissan Motorsport. There's some logic in knowing that the guy who puts gamers behind the wheel of real automobiles is also the guy willing to fund Bowlby's ideas. "If you had a blank sheet of paper," he says, "What would you do?" He's clearly digging the project.
At 4:00 PM, the GT-R LM is again idling in the garage, its turbos whirring as mechanics top off the oil and do a round of final checks.
By 6:00 PM, the crew is filming a mock pit stop and the car is repeatedly stopped and started. By 7:00 PM, the car is broken again, this time the starter is the culprit. I leave the next morning.
If Nissan's superbowl commercial—called "With Dad"—is a hit, it won't be Diaz's first. He was head of Chrysler's Ram Trucks when that brand launched the brilliant campaign. He must have liked what he saw in the early clips because he lengthened the Super Bowl spot from 60 seconds to 90, which added another $2.4 million in air-time costs.
The race car and Bowlby moved from Dan Gurney's shop where it was built to a more permanent home in Indianapolis.
As of this writing, the car is being tested in preparation for Le Mans. And maybe Bowlby got a haircut.