Sung Kang’s Rally Datsun 240Z Took SEMA by Storm. But There’s Way More to it Than That

The car, named the “DocZ,” represents an entire found family of Z craftspeople and enthusiasts.

byKristen Lee| UPDATED Dec 24, 2021 11:38 AM
Sung Kang’s Rally Datsun 240Z Took SEMA by Storm. But There’s Way More to it Than That

On a foggy night in Baldwin Park, California, a lone coyote swaggered across the empty road and disappeared down a quiet residential street. It was replaced by Sung Kang, who materialized out of the gloom to pull a gate open, beckoning me inside. The shop where we were meeting isn't open on Saturdays, but Kang wanted me to come see his car—a safari-inspired Datsun 240Z—and to tell a story.

If you paid any attention at all to this year’s SEMA show, you’ll recognize the project. It’s a 1971 Datsun 240Z that’s been decked out in red and black paint as a homage to the livery worn by the Datsun 240Z 1971 East African Safari Rally car. Christened “DocZ,” the car was part of Nissan’s official display and ended up taking home the show’s Best Asian Import Award. It drew all sorts of attention, but in reality, it represents so much more than just another fun Z build.

The car, the award, and Kang’s celebrity status were a media darling trifecta—but the reason Kang called me a couple of weeks after SEMA had ended was that he wasn’t happy with how the coverage went. People were more interested in him than the community activism the DocZ stands for. The stories all focused on his fame—Wow, Nissan’s showing a Z customized by Sung Kang!—but failed to ask the people actually involved any real questions. He wanted to change that.

Following Kang into the shop, listening to him talk about a build, and being surrounded by tuned and modified Datsuns with enough power to blow up the sun, it was hard not to feel like I'd just stumbled into an alternate The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift universe with Han Lue. But this story isn't about Fast and Furious or Han. It isn't really even about Sung Kang. It's about the DocZ, a half-Mexican man from Guatemala named Erick Aguilar, and the community the two have built up together.

The Doc

The Z was already painted red and black à la the East African livery by the time Kang stumbled across it during his nightly perusal of Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist right before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Turned out, it was a Mexican racer that had been impounded and was headed overseas to be sold when enthusiasts Jose Villegas and his father, Dr. Joaquin Villegas, thought they'd buy the car, fix it up, and take on the Baja 1000 as a team. They'd started printing out the stickers and everything, trying to recreate the rally look, but then life's other priorities happened and the car wound up sitting in a friend's shop, rotting away.

It was in bad shape, Kang said. Like, rusty as hell and basically put together with duct tape. But it immediately grabbed his attention. He liked the Z so much that he wanted to keep its theme, keep its color scheme, "resurrect this car."

Shortly after buying the Z, Kang headed over to his friend Rogelio Ruiz's shop—Rogelio's Auto Upholstery, which Kang described as a down-to-earth family business that's touched "every relevant car... in Southern California"—to pick up some bench seats for his Datsun 320 pickup. He mentioned that he was thinking about starting on a new Z project. Ruiz pointed out a figure in the corner and said, "Oh, you got to meet the doc. The doc of Zs. In our community, Erick [Aguilar] is the doctor."

Ruiz's clarification of our community wasn't lost on Kang. "The thing I noticed about [Aguilar] is that within this microcosm, he's kind of like the mayor," Kang said, referring to the vibrant but often underrepresented car community made up of people who maybe don't speak the best English or have six figures to drop on a restomodded 911. "He's a mentor, he's a godfather. He takes care of people." The DocZ is so named because it was once owned by a doctor, but it's also named for Aguilar.

With meticulously parted hair and a winning smile, Aguilar is the one who will go to junkyards, salvage Zs, resurrect them, and put them back out on the road affordably because he loves them so much. Aguilar is the one who can get handed a bucket of bolts or hardware from a Z, pull out any piece, and tell you exactly where it's from. His Z credentials number in the tens of thousands of hours. So if Kang was to learn anything about Zs from anyone, Aguilar was his man. 

"My parents were busy making a living and trying to feed us," Kang explained. "The concept of leisurely time was not really available to us. And this notion of being in a garage with your pops, working on some cool car? Having those quiet moments? That's what you see in the movies. That's what white people did.

"[So the] whole idea of the relationship between father and child, [it's] something that I was searching for my whole life," he went on. "This sounds kind of corny, but I'm looking for my Mr. Miyagi." And in Aguilar, Kang found him.

For Aguilar, the 240Z was love at first sight. When he was 18 or 19 in the late '80s, a friend had called him to see about a car at work that didn't start and needed help to get running. Aguilar pulled up in his Ford Capri—which was "beautiful... all painted, engine all done, interior all done," according to him—saw the non-running Z, and traded his car for it on the spot. "When I saw this car, I was like, 'Oh my God. This is my dream car,'" Aguilar said. That was the start of it all.

Like so many others during that era—people like Stephan Papadakis of current Formula Drift glory—Aguilar's automotive career started out with street racing and, eventually, evolved into legal and sanctioned drag-racing. (Aguilar appears in a 2003 MotorTrend feature about Hondas that could run in the 10s. There's a literal mountain of trophies with his name on them in an out-of-reach corner of the shop.)

"I started working a lot with Hondas and doing a lot of racing, but the [the 240Zs] were always behind me," Aguilar said. "I always had this passion and love for these cars. I used to buy a lot of them—as many as I could—fix them up a little bit, and then sell them for nothing just so they can be on the road. They're such beautiful cars that I didn't want them to go to the junkyard to get disassembled and crushed."

Aguilar's shop, Erick's Racing Engines, reflects that love—but, more importantly, is a place where he's built a home for those who are otherwise uncertain of where they fit in in the greater automotive landscape. But to Aguilar, if you love Datsuns and Zs, then you're already worth his time. And while it's subtle, it's also distinctly there: Walking into Aguilar's shop gives a sense of stepping into a non-white space that wordlessly welcomes people of color.

"A lot of guys come to me and definitely they're not able to go to a big shop because they know that if they go there, as soon as they take one step in, all they're going to talk about is how much it's going to cost," Aguilar said. "Here, I help them as much as I can with the knowledge and experience I have and try to make it as affordable as possible for them. Just to keep these cars on the streets and alive."

And so when Sung Kang came knocking, Aguilar treated him just like anyone else coming through his shop and eager to learn. "I took the challenge. The journey of working on this car was amazing because [Kang] got to learn a lot," he said. "It was something he's never experienced before, how we take the whole car apart and we rebuild all the parts." They didn't go and simply buy new replacement parts. They repaired what they could, sending things out, fixing them up, and putting them back in.

Aguilar has worked to uplift and empower members of his community long before Kang met him. "I try and help as best as I can," he said, "but now having [Kang] on my side, it's just a whole different experience. [Now] there are a lot of people from everywhere watching what we're doing. It's been great, I feel like I'm in a place I've never been before."

The DocZ is a beautiful build, there's no doubt about it. But the most important thing it represents is Aguilar and his community that came together to make it happen. People Kang (and likely the mainstream automotive scene) never knew existed. 

"Because we are not white, we don't really shine like we should," Aguilar said. "And we were all collaborating, we were all working on this car—that was amazing because we've made one big family together."

A Z Rolodex: The Build Details

When Kang looks at the DocZ, he doesn't see just another show car that won some award once. Its message, twofold, is far more triumphant than that. First: "The [DocZ] is a symbol of everything in my community that is positive," he explained. "Every single item on this car has been touched by a friend." And second: It's hopefully the roadmap to future Z builds more within reach to more enthusiasts.

Aguilar himself was in charge of all of the DocZ's disassembling, assembling, engine tuning, drivetrain, and suspension. The suspension was a particular point of pride. The car originally came with a good system, of course, but he said he knew how to improve it.

"I've done racing all my life, so we developed a lot of performance parts," he explained. "Back in the day, we had to build everything. There was nothing that we could go and buy. That gave us the chance... to be engineers. We never went to school to be engineers, but we had to engineer everything we wanted ourselves. So in this case, with these cars, there were a lot of parts that needed help, like the suspension and the brakes and all that. [With] the experience we have through all these years, now we can design a better part for the car.

"Same with the engine," he went on. "I've built thousands of engines for racing. Taking this engine apart and looking at it, I automatically know how we can make it better."

"When people talk about these 240 restomods, working with [Aguilar] has taught me the beauty of the original design," Kang said. "All these restomods like the FuguZ"—that's Kang's other Z project—"I call them circumcisions: Slaughtering and cutting of the body. You basically ruin the car. It's basically a different car once you swap the engine out and you start cutting everything up.

"With [Aguilar], the idea is everything is just a plus," Kang went on. "It's all original with a plus. That's why these wheels are 16x9 with a zero offset so we don't have to cut anything."

The DocZ uses a set of custom gunmetal gray three-piece wheels from Jacky Jiang at Relations Race Wheels. Jiang usually makes off-road stuff, but one day he said he wanted to make wheels for road cars and Kang wanted a homage to the original Fairlady Z432 Kobe-Seiko wheels. This is the resulting set. They bear a small engraving that reads, "78 nanakorobi yaoki"—a proverb that means "fall down seven times, get up eight."

"My Japanese friends use this saying like, 'Hey man, adversity teaches you to be stronger.' So I named it 78, simple as that," Kang explained. Typically, a custom set of three-piece wheels is pricey, but Kang assured me that's the last thing he and Jiang want. "If there's anything that comes out of it, it's that it's affordable to the college graduate. I don't want it to be some multi-millionaire that has these parts," he said.

The steering wheel is from Jason Chou of NRG Innovations, whose goal isn't just about making money, it's about having a legacy, servicing the community, and also learning. That's why the quick-release hub reads "innovation" in Japanese, "family" in Korean, and "passion" in Chinese because there's historically been deep divisiveness within the Asian communities.

The interior came from Aamir Ali, a doctor, and Lotfi Aichour, who works in IT, both based in London but who helped Kang source carbon fiber and vintage '80s JDM fabric through their company, CarbonSignal. "[They] have a stash of Datsuns that their wives don't know about in Dubai. They're these crazy dudes that just love Zs," Kang said. They helped Kang design the front body kit, all the carbon fiber parts, and the interior—even asking him for his shoulder measurements so they could fit the seat to his specifications. With assistance from Ruiz of Rogelio's Auto Upholstery, Kang got all the Dubai pieces and the DocZ's headliner installed.

John Williams, a machinist specializing in dress-up kits and aluminum billet parts for the 240 and 510 community, made the oil cap and the housing surrounding the striking pair of vintage Seiko stopwatches fixed to the center console. A project started with the help of Nick Ferrell of DC Vintage Watches, they are, perhaps, the coolest part of the DocZ's interior. 

Kang popped off the stopwatches for me to see. Behind them, the plating bears Williams' namesake, as well as one from Taka Sato of Kyusha House, who both designs watch plates and specializes in carburetors. 

With the bespoke seats and dash, the DocZ has a 22-piece interior kit. It sounds like it should price into the tens of thousands of dollars, but Kang said the whole thing cost $6,000: "It's because it's made in Dubai and I'm using vinyl, not leather."

Ben Silverstein at Dapper Lighting did the headlights. A father-son duo, Salvador and José Fonseca of Ricky's Auto Glass installed the windshield. The taillights, seals, and all the little parts (door locks, little screws, hardware, window pieces, were all done by Jeff Ballone of Datsun Garage. Ballone deals in replicas, which helps keep the costs down.

Jay Ataka from JDM Car Parts taught Kang about the fender mirror layout. Ataka actually knew and was friends with the 240Z's original designer, Yoshihiko Matsuo, who died in 2020. Ataka's knowledge and focus on classic Z are unparalleled. Not only is he a concourse judge for 240s, but he also has parts templates from Japan and makes tooling out of them. The resulting parts he makes are new and improved. "He's a godsend," Kang said. "As long as he's alive, we can keep building Zs forever."

Hoses came from Brendan McGrath at Dyme PSI. Jun Imai of Kaido House Garage donated the Koyorad radiator. The exhaust manifold and headers came from Manual and Daniel Delgado and Horacio Sixtos of Jmdtubes. The pistons came from Beeri Meza of Traum Pistons, whom Kang called a local artisan. Rob Fuller of Z Car Garage (and owner of a fantastic mustache) did the brakes. Kenji Sumino of GReddy zinc-plated the door latches, hood latches, "anything exposed that we missed on the first hardware delivery," according to Kang.

The cylinder head was built by a self-taught Mexican-American man named Joe Alanis, one of Aguilar's personal friends. In keeping with the idea of "original, but better," the DocZ's been bored out from a 2.4-liter to a 2.8-liter. The original engine made about 90 horsepower. ("It's about balance," Kang explained. "Finding the perfect power-to-weight ratio, not showing off how much horsepower I have.") Aguilar and Kang are hoping for 200 hp from a body that weighs less than 2,000 pounds. And from the way they describe Alanis, he sounds positively mythical. 

Apparently, he does all his work by feel in a little shed, hand-pours everything, and lives on Mountain Dew and 7-Eleven pizzas for $1.99. He barely ever talks about cars, is passionate about salsa dancing, and travels around in a beat-up Chevy Suburban. He won't finish a job until he feels like it, so you could wait about a year for a cylinder head from him. His love of the artistry was born from spending time with the Bean Bandits in San Diego—one of the earliest and most visible examples of Latin representation in modern American car culture.

But he's one-of-a-kind. "I cannot find anybody that can do that kind of work. I cannot, all these years," Aguilar said.

Kang also wants to create a line of specialized 240 toolkits. He has the prototype in the trunk of his car, which he said took about a year to create. It was done by George Liu, a Taiwanese guy at OSK Tools who's done a collaboration with RWB. Looking at the set just makes your fingers itch to use it.

Then there's the paint. It's a black and red scheme, but the red is difficult to photograph, appearing as a deep but somehow cool tone under the lights of Aguilar's shop. And subtly splashed across its hood and the driver's-side fender is shimmering koi fish that you can only see under certain light if you tilt your head a certain way.

The koi is from a scroll that Kang's wife grew up with that her father had gotten from a Japanese businessman during the war. "It always symbolized peace between Japanese and Koreans," Kang explained. People of his father-in-law's generation generally had a negative outlook toward the Japanese because of various war atrocities, but Kang's father-in-law "never had that point of view." He didn't want to generalize and had great Japanese friends. "And so when he passed away, I was like, 'How do we commemorate him and remember him in a positive way? And not put his name or some picture on there?' So we scanned the koi fish and then using ghost paint, we put this on the driver's side. It symbolizes him always being with us."

Ghost painting is a method of painting that's basically layering different coats of paint on top of each other. Think about painting a car in Forza and how you can choose different transparencies for your decals. That's what the koi on Kang's car looks like. 

"The ethos [of the DocZ] can be symbolized with this koi," Kang went on. "The Coastline Autosport Group guys—brothers Sal and JC Sanchez—their father taught them ghost painting and about lowriders and stuff." Finally, the whole thing was detailed and ceramic-coated by Eric Joseph of GTechniq.

True, prices for 240Zs aren't what they used to be, so the cost of entry isn't what it once was. "At first, we were angry with [Kang] when the FuguZ came out because we were able to buy these cars for $2,500 or $3,000, no problem," Aguilar said. "Now they're going to $7,000, $10,000, $15,000..." But he's made peace with it. "I feel that it's good. Now, a lot of people appreciate this car a lot more than before."

"And that creates an industry," Kang added. "With the amount of parts available for this car, you could basically start from scratch and build one. We have friends that make 6,000 parts for it. They're obsessed."

Kang likened it to the Porsche—air-cooled 911 or otherwise—crowd. "They have a whole potpourri of stuff to dress up their cars," he pointed out. So why can't the Z? Why can't the Z do that for folks, but more affordably and more accessibly?

The Road to SEMA

The two months leading to SEMA after getting the shell of the DocZ back from the painter were, according to Aguilar, the least amount of time he's ever had to assemble a car—while still mentoring a relative novice like Kang. "The last two weeks were very tense," he said. "I was working hard to show him how hard it is to really put these cars back together."

"I questioned that," Kang responded. "I was like, why is it so tense? My mantra was like, 'It's not a big deal. Just have fun with it.' But then [Aguilar] was saying, 'My name's on it. I've spent decades building a reputation. I can't show up with a half-ass car.'"

"When I go out to a race, I'm going out there to win," Aguilar said. "That's what's giving me all those trophies. I'm prepared and I go there to show what I'm made of. My reputation's on the line. Apart from racing, this is the time I've been waiting for all my life: To bring this out and show people the love I have for these cars. It had to be a piece of art."

The car didn't run by the time it wound up in Vegas (Aguilar and Kang were nearly done with the engine when I visited) but it still took home the award that day. It was doubtlessly a victorious moment—but according to Kang, going to SEMA wasn't about the award.

"We never went there to win anything," he said. "It was just to share this story. An actor showing up with a car that wins an award? Means nothing. To me, this [car] is a representation of my friendship with [Aguilar] and what I learned from him. When I look at him... I go, 'If you were white, I wonder where you would be right now.' He services this marginalized community that's afraid to go to places like GReddy because they're gardeners and people that don't speak English. Kids skate in here when they don't know where they're going to go. But they have a love affair for JDMs."

Gate-keeping, whether intentionally or not, stops at Aguilar's front door. "It's important for them to come and see how we behave when they do," Kang continued. "It's a joke when I say sometimes we don't know what they're doing here—but that's our ethos. If we continue this down the line, we want to create a place where you never feel like you can't just drop by."

The Kids Are Alright

At the risk of sounding morbid, I asked Kang if he's worried about the Z industry he and Aguilar are trying to build once all the craftspeople they've assembled retire or pass on. After all, these people bring lifetimes of experience that are valuable beyond words.

Without hesitation, Kang shook his head and gestured at his teenaged nephew, who'd been quietly observing from a corner of the shop this entire time. "This is my first experience hanging out with the younger generation like my nephew," he responded. "I think many times the older generation underestimates them. Especially during this whole COVID pandemic, I realized, man, you cannot underestimate these kids because they survived and they're thriving. They're curious and that curiosity is going to turn into asking questions and getting answers. Humans have a need to leave some type of legacy. So people are going to continue to build cars.

"This is in our blood. It's already in his blood," Kang went on. "He doesn't like new cars. He's obsessed with old cars. I did not teach him that." (Smart kid.) "He's a 17-year-old kid in love with 50-year-old cars. There's an opportunity for him to be in this garage and learn here. Eventually, that's going to be his foundation to something bigger and better if he wants. The key is this dojo—this sanctuary—and also to learn. I don't care how much this car costs or how fast it goes. When someone loves their car and if there's a story behind it, you got to respect it. I hope my nephew learns that."

And it's not just young people. It's anyone. Anyone can come to learn. You just need to love cars.

"[Aguilar's] garage represents an access point, an open door," Kang said. "He knows that a lot of people can't come in here and just start dropping a bunch of money, but he wants them to also share his passion. He always makes it work. And through the year that we've known each other, I can say I have an older brother and a mentor—a father figure I never had." 

Aguilar looked around at his shop. "All these cars that you see here, most of it is just a lot of love that we put in them," he said. "Our hearts are in these cars and we love these cars. So we make it as our hearts tell us what to do, and that's how we make them."

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