Sometimes it’s hard to make a business case for racing, especially if you’re an automaker that doesn’t build high-end performance cars. You imagine that would be doubly true for a carmaker whose economy sedan sales far exceed its sports car volume, in a series that’s rowdier than any of its products even pretends to be. Toyota has been doing it in NASCAR for a long time, though, and it’s not going away, even as the sport ushers in its Next Gen cars and all of the costs and regulations that come with them.
Since it has only ever competed against domestic manufacturers in NASCAR, Toyota has been targeted by some of the sport’s fans – and I would say wrongly – as a poser in the garage. People think that since Toyota doesn’t have a Camaro or Mustang equivalent in its lineup, you shouldn’t be serious about stock car racing. However, he has around two decades of track experience to prove otherwise, and he continues to build on that with his flagship team Joe Gibbs Racing and the burgeoning 23XI team co-owned by Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin.
It also goes beyond the Cup Series. Toyota has long taken a vertical approach to its stock car racing system that begins in grassroots motorsport and goes all the way to the big time as we saw at Sunday’s Daytona 500. The manufacturer supports racers early in their careers, even before they enter one of NASCAR’s three national series. Christian Eckes, 20 years old is an example, and The reader spoke with him over the weekend at Daytona ahead of Friday night’s Truck Series race.
A few years ago he was racing in ARCA and winning the championship there in a Camry. Now he finds himself in a 2022 Tundra TRD Pro race truck that is far more traditional than what we see now in the Cup Series.
“I think their commitment to success is second to none,” Eckes said of Toyota. “They provide us with so many resources – the simulator, the gym they built – everything they do, they want to do it with confidence. It’s really special to be part of the Toyota program, I’m into it now. in my sixth year.
If he’s not in a NASCAR Tundra, Eckes is likely at the Toyota Racing Development simulator he mentioned in Salisbury, North Carolina. It’s where he and the rest of Toyota’s huge team of drivers keep their skills sharp, practicing at the vast number of tracks they visit throughout NASCAR’s grueling schedule. Chevy and Ford have their own sims, but Toyota was pretty much the first to institute such technology as part of its stock car training regiment in the early 2010s.
The TRD facility is about 40 miles northeast of Charlotte, and that’s also where you’ll find the manufacturer’s wind tunnel. Aerodynamics are at least as important, if not more so, to the success of a NASCAR stock car than power. Toyota is therefore treating it appropriately, especially since the Camry body of this Next Gen car is being refined at the start of the 2022 season.
Kurt Busch is new to Toyota, but he’s not new to NASCAR. His first Cup Series race was in 2000 and he raced for every major manufacturer in the series – Chevrolet, Ford and yes, even Dodge. He won the 2004 Cup Series title as well as the 2017 Daytona 500, which means he knows high-end machines and high-level competitors, from a team and automaker perspective. Toyota’s relentless attention to detail and data is what stood out to him the most during his short time with 23XI Racing.
“There’s this whole aura of how Toyota comes to the track and being part of it now, it all comes true about what I thought – about the depth of everyone involved. Right after that I meet one of top engine builders wondering how the [Duel] the race took place last night. It was just a random text that came to my phone, like “Yes sir”. I will be there.’ And so that’s the depth I see with Toyota.”
At 43, Busch is not wasting his time. And knowing the capitalist sweetness that his boss MJ possesses, it wouldn’t make sense for either of them to partner with a business that’s only halfway there. It never was, as Busch explains.
“Ford had this family aspect with Edsel Ford and the way they operated. Chevy with Jim Campbell and the way he worked with his group, they were there really pushing hard with branding and publicity. But yet the Toyota Group, with the simulator, the wind tunnel, the reports and the race reports, everything has gone to another level.”
That kind of enthusiasm trickles down to TRD executives like President David Wilson and Technical Director Andy Graves. These two are extremely involved in the development of cars from a mechanical point of view, even if they are called combinations. They are engineers, truly and sincerely. During a roundtable, they both told me about aerodynamics and powertrain concepts that average corporate executives wouldn’t get, and Wilson says it started early.
“As a young engineer, I hunted [Toyota off-road racing champ] Ivan Stewart in the Baja Peninsula with a laptop,” he explained. It was in 1989; he’s advancing to this point and he’s been at the top of TRD for eight years. In that time, Wilson was able to propel Toyota’s racing efforts higher than ever, and into more. Of course, three Cup Series championships during the 2010s was good too.
Wilson believes that what Toyota does in racing directly affects the product offered to customers. That’s not to say we’ll see a V8-powered Camry anytime soon, but in terms of design and reputation, TRD is undeniably influential.
“What I encourage people to do is Google ‘2000 model year Camry’ and put it side by side with a 2022 Camry. You’ll be amazed,” Wilson explained. “I take it there’s been an absolute influence on the styling of our production car because of the car we’re driving.”
Now imagine if they raced a Supra in the Cup Series.
“What I’ll say a little more definitively is from a production standpoint, where TRD has had the most haywire is clearly with trucks and SUVs. I believe the first generation TRD branded off-road truck dates back to 1996. Today over 50% of the trucks we sell carry a TRD badge and that is something we are extremely proud of as our success on the circuit has continued to grow, it has really bolstered our credibility and given this brand a real boost.”
Of course, off-road trucks aren’t sports cars, and they certainly don’t share much with the Camry Cup car. But guess what most NASCAR fans drive every day? Microphones. See, it all comes together.
So the next time you see a Toyota racing Chevys and Fords on a Sunday, don’t hesitate. There’s a legit team with real racers behind each of the six Camry Cup cars, not to mention every Xfinity Series Supra and Truck Series Tundra. NASCAR is Toyota’s home and it’s not going anywhere, even as it strays from its, how to say, traditional roots. If anything, he’s even more interested in what’s next in the sport.
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