Toyota’s NASCAR Program Is Still A Work In Progress


Stories Of People Who Make A Living In Motorsports

Guest Columnist

With a long career in motorsports, Les Unger is the National Motorsports Manager for Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc.

Everything we expected — and much, much more.

That’s the only way to describe Toyota’s first year in NASCAR Nextel Cup and Busch Series competition.

When we first announced our decision to expand our involvement, while continuing the Craftsman Truck Series, we knew we would encounter a significantly higher level of competition. Twenty-five years of racing in American motorsports had taught us to expect the unexpected. But nothing prepared us for our first Daytona 500.

There was already an intense spotlight on Toyota when NASCAR penalized Michael Waltrip Racing. No one may ever know all the details, but it certainly detracted from a special occasion for Toyota.

Since then the season has gone by in a blur and we’ve struggled at times. We were taxed in our efforts to help our three Cup teams develop both current generation race cars and the Car of Tomorrow, while Toyota Racing Development USA’s engineering staff was simultaneously developing and testing our first Nextel Cup engine.

With six of the seven Camry teams new for 2007, we knew just qualifying for races would be a challenge. In many respects this year has been similar to our first year in the Truck series; a new manufacturer with new teams, new cars, new engines, new drivers and lots to learn.

Still, the year has not been without its successes. In the Nextel Cup series, Bill Davis Racing and his Caterpillar Camry driven by Dave Blaney, gave Toyota its first pole at New Hampshire. Going into Talladega, there have been seven top 10 finishes and Camrys have led 150 laps. Most importantly, we continue to show improvement.

The Japanese have a word for it — “Kaizen” — which means continuous improvement. More than anything else, that’s what we’ve striven for both on and off the track this season.

The Camry teams in the Busch Series have had even more success, with Jason Leffler posting the first Camry win, at O’Reilly Raceway Park in Indianapolis earlier this year. David Reutimann currently runs second in the standings and Leffler is fourth.

In the truck series, Toyota continues to lead the manufacturer’s point race while Mike Skinner held a narrow lead for the Driver’s Championship before Talladega.

Just as important as our accomplishments on the track, has been fan response to our participation. One of our goals for increasing our NASCAR involvement included having the fans get to know Toyota better and to improve their racing experience. Our NASCAR ads even carried the tagline, "NASCAR Fans, Thanks For Having Us,” and that’s a philosophy we tried to incorporate into all of our NASCAR activities.

If you’ve been to a race this year, you may have wandered through “Toyota Live” or the “Toyota Prove It Tour” where fans have an opportunity to compete on racing simulators, participate in pit stop action, and enjoy a host of other experiences, including live music and driver appearances.

The results have been encouraging. The victory at ORP was greeted by widespread cheers, not the jeers some had feared. And in a recent survey conducted for NASCAR, 93 percent of the fans contacted said their opinion of Toyota was “favorable or neutral.” Nearly half — 48 percent — said Toyota was “good” for the sport. Only six percent said the company had a negative impact. While we still have some work to do, we’re off to a good start.

We also saw NASCAR as a way to help bring our Toyota family closer together. With about 145,000 people working at Toyota’s 10 plants and its dealerships, it’s sometimes tough to have a common rallying point. We believe NASCAR has helped fill that void and we continue to stage the largest NASCAR corporate gathering at the Nashville truck race. More than 6,500 Toyota associates and their families have turned out annually for each of the past four years.

While there’s still several races left this season and the truck series manufacturer’s and driver’s championships to be decided, we’re already looking forward to next year. The decision by Joe Gibbs Racing to campaign Camrys in 2008 for Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch has further strengthened our resolve to provide the equipment capable of running up front that the Gibbs team has come to expect, and that we have committed to our three current partners, Bill Davis Racing, Michael Waltrip Racing and Team Red Bull.

One thing is for sure, Toyota will continue “Moving Forward.”

(Original Print Date: October 10, 2007)