Eddie Wood looked at the leaden sky over Darlington Speedway and considered the impact of Toyota coming into NASCAR. "It's kinda like this weather," the veteran team owner said. "It's going to come anyway. There isn't much sense worrying about things you can't do anything about."
The rumors of Toyota entering one of NASCAR's national series began almost a year ago, but it wasn't until Speed Weeks at Daytona 2003 that the Japanese manufacturer pulled the cover off its 2004 entry into the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series.
In public, NASCAR and its team owners welcome the newcomers. But back in the garages, some aren't so sure. There are concerns about the manufacturer coming in with a huge checkbook and simply dominating the series.
The Goal Is To Win
"No one races to finish second," says Jim Aust, president of California-based Toyota Racing Development (TRD). His words may well be the mantra of TRD in motorsports and say everything about Toyota's plans to race in the Truck Series.
While Ford, Chevrolet, and Dodge all use the Truck Series as third-level development grounds for the Winston Cup and Busch series, for Toyota the trucks will be their spotlight entry in major-league stock car racing.
"I'm sure they are going to bring in a lot of money," Wood said. "I think they will do the same thing Dodge did when it used the trucks to get back into NASCAR...except I think Toyota will spend a lot more than Dodge did." It will be up to NASCAR to control how much the newcomer will influence the organization's future. And don't think for a minute that NASCAR is going to let Toyota come in and kick tailgates and take names.
"The thing that people have to realize is that Toyota has to meet the same rules as everyone else," says Wayne Auton, who heads the Truck Series for NASCAR. "We have a box--it's our rules--and they have to build a truck and an engine that stays in the same box everyone else is in.
NASCAR's Bill France (left) helped Toyota officials unveil the Tundra race truck at Dayton
"They aren't going to get anything special," Auton adds. "But at the same time, we expect them to do everything it takes to win races."
While Toyota has raced for a few seasons in NASCAR's Goody's Dash Series for subcompacts, the Truck Series will be the first non-American nameplate on a major scale in NASCAR since the 1950s when a British-made Jaguar raced in the Winston Cup Series.
While Dodge may be part of German-owned DaimlerChrysler, the cars in the Petty, Evernham, and Ganassi stables still say Dodge on them. Even though the Toyota Tundra is made in America, to many, it says Japanese on the hood. But it meets NASCAR's requirements that the vehicle be manufactured domestically and that it be powered--in race trim at least--by a pushrod V-8 engine.
The Tundra is built in Princeton, Indiana, where 100,000 are cranked out every year. In a couple of years, a new plant will go on line in San Antonio, Texas. It will be capable of producing an extra 150,000 Tundras a year.
"If we can be competitive in racing, it will expand the overall exposure of Tundras to NASCAR fans, and it will open a new opportunity for us," Aust says. "It also helps us get the message across that the trucks are built in America."
Auton figures it also will help make NASCAR's made-in-the-USA racing more popular overseas. Many Japanese follow American stock car racing. In the 1990s, NASCAR held four races in Japan. Two of them were on the Suzuka road course and two on the Twin Ring Motegi oval. The last Motegi race --for the NASCAR Winston West Series--is the only foreign race to award points. The others were exhibition races.
However, car owner Jack Roush says that back in the USA some NASCAR fans will be turned off by Toyota's participation in the Truck Series.
"Even though these Japanese companies--Toyota in particular--may have factories in the United States that use American workers," Roush says, "it's Japanese capital and the returns on the investment and all those things that wind up building the economy and building the country and building companies--all of that winds up serving an overseas interest and not our own.
Lee White has implemented several improvements to Toyota's motorsports programs.
"There will be a significant backlash between fans who will say Toyota shouldn't be here because it's bad for our economy and feel like myself, who are more nationalistic than some of our population and some of our fans."
For team owners and other manufacturers, the addition of a fourth entry in the Truck Series manufacturer's championship means a smaller share of the starting grid for everyone on race day. For NASCAR, Toyota is expected to bring along a generous budget to sponsor events and market its involvement in the series.
Seven-time Winston Cup champion Richard Petty says the benefits of Toyota's involvement will be difficult to determine. "It will change stuff and make the Big Three look different," Petty says. "When they (Toyota) come in, they're going to bring some money."
A garage insider said in February 2003 that Toyota's pending entry into the Truck Series already was being used by some teams as a bargaining chip to get American manufacturers to increase support in 2004.
"We've had a lot of interest from existing teams, drivers, crew chiefs, and other people who want to start a team," says Aust.
Toyota hopes to have six trucks running next season, in three two-truck teams. "We think we can learn a lot more in two-truck operations," Aust says. "There is a much greater opportunity to share information."
TRD may go beyond six trucks "but we don't want to expand beyond our reach...when you do that, you get into trouble," Aust says. "We want to field teams that will provide us with the opportunity to win races.
"We want to match ourselves with teams that have the same goals, which will bring us drivers who want to be in this series, and who don't look at the series as a short stint and a step to move up. We are looking for teams who will be involved with us for some time."
Toyota's Tundra pickup rolls into NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series competition beginning in 2
Learning From The Past
Toyota has a reputation, deserved or not, of putting itself in the position to crush the competition. Winning isn't the goal; domination is. The company has won in sports cars, stock cars, open wheel racing, and even at Pikes Peak.
"We don't think we do things differently. All teams want to be as competitive as they can," Aust says. "It may be we are more methodical. But we aren't coming into this series to run in second or third place. No one comes into racing with that approach."
Don't expect the victory steamroller to take long to get up to speed. That's what happened when Toyota began in CART in the 1990s, and it won't repeat its mistakes.
Toyota entered CART on a limited budget and without a strong American support base to work with engine designers in Japan. For the first few years, the system produced the little engine that couldn't. Couldn't make enough power. Couldn't last the full race. Couldn't compete with the likes of Ford, Honda, and Mercedes-Benz.
It all came to a head at the 1997 Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, when the performance of the Toyota powerplant was just shy of an embarrassment to company officials visiting from Japan.
Leading The Charge
The answer was to hire Lee White to take over Toyota Racing Development's CART program. White, 56, is a no-compromises taskmaster who has been the architect behind more than 20 national championships in 30 years of sports car and open wheel racing. His resume includes the overall win in the 1994 Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona and six consecutive GTS-class victories (1986-1991) at the Daytona endurance race, plus being named 1990 IMSA Crew Chief of the Year.
Today, White is group vice president and general manager of TRD, U.S.A. Inc., where he oversees all day-to-day operations for TRD's engine-related responsibilities for the Indy Racing League, Toyota Atlantic Championship, and off-road racing, and is the point man for Toyota's debut in the Truck Series. The California shops build the engines for the Pikes Peak Hill Climb, the off-road trucks driven by stars such as Rod Millen and Ivan Stewart, and the engines for six cars in the NASCAR Goody's Dash Series. It also supplies the engines for entries in the Indy Racing League.
The first action White did to correct its CART catastrophe was to get TRD to stop fixing engines and begin fixing problems. "We kept breaking engines and fixing them, without going back to figuring out what we were doing wrong to make them break," White says.
Working with engineers from TRD and Japan, they concentrated on building reliability into the 2.65-liter, turbocharged engines. To better control the product, White moved complete manufacture and assembly of the engines to America.
Once they had an engine that would go the distance, they began working on power. And more power. And more power.
Last November, White was on the stage when Toyota picked up its 2002 CART championship trophy. "It's a beautiful trophy, and it took seven years and a gazillion yen to win it," White said at the CART awards banquet.
No one knows the exact exchange rate for "a gazillion yen," but sources within the series estimate the true cost of the championship--from entry to the end of CART's 2002 season--was about $1 billion. And that was for a title in a series that gets about the same television audience as the Truck Series.
Toyota isn't hesitant to spend the money or devote the manpower or effort required to win championships. "That's the only reason to race," says White. This year, Toyota left CART and moved to the Indy Racing League. It meant designing and building an entirely different engine for the all-oval series. During pre-season testing, Toyotas powered the fastest cars on the ovals. Lesson learned.
When the 2003 IRL season opened at Homestead-Miami, Toyotas were four of the top-five finishing cars, including a sweep of the first three positions.
It isn't just engines Toyota is willing to spend its money on. After Target/Chip Ganassi won an unprecedented four CART championships in a row with Honda power, Ganassi switched to Toyota when Honda refused to match its rival's level of financial support. This year, Ganassi is running the IRL with Toyota. So will many of the IRL's most recognizable names, including cars fielded by Roger Penske and A.J. Foyt; the latter has long been critical of foreign involvement in American racing.
Coming Out Strong
Toyota officials say they won't announce the 2004 Truck Series teams until the fall of 2003. Expect the company to lure a couple of front-running teams to its brand, if for no other reason then to begin 2004 with owner provisional points to guarantee starting spots early next year.
Although NASCAR's rules allow it, there are no plans for a Toyota "factory team," Aust says. "The teams will be owned by individuals and the drivers contracted to them."
Toyota already has a relationship with Foyt, Penske, and Ganassi through their open-wheel operations, but that doesn't mean it will translate into them fielding Toyota-powered trucks next year. Those car owners already have ties in NASCAR with domestic manufacturers, and running one brand in Winston Cup and another in the Truck Series could present some marketing problems.
Eddie Wood, for instance, has been involved with Ford ever since he (and his father before him) began racing. He can't imagine approaching Ford about running a different brand against Ford in the Truck Series. "I think they'd tell me to be sure to pick up my tools before I left," Wood says.
It is more likely that teams such as IWX, which won the 2002 Craftsman Truck Series championship with Mike Bliss--but had no outside sponsorship--will be high on Toyota's shopping list.
"I think they proved they could get the job done," says Bliss, who drives for Joe Gibbs in the NASCAR Busch Series this year. "I think they would be far more successful with a decent budget."
Development of Toyota's Truck Series entry is centered at TRD, located just outside Los Angeles. It is a state-of-the-art research, development, manufacturing and testing facility, all shielded behind CIA-level security. It is an all-USA effort," says Aust. "The truck design began with us. What you saw at Daytona...it all was done at Costa Mesa."
The first engines to go into the trucks will come from TRD. Most of the parts will come from American suppliers, with a few pieces produced in Japan. Among those is expected to be the cast-iron engine block. The engine was a "clean sheet of paper" project designed to meet NASCAR's specifications.
"Our approach is probably a bit different than the other manufacturers; we are coming at it from a different point of view," Aust says. "We can design anything from a CART motor to where we are now. We looked at all the other engines available in NASCAR. Our idea is to take the best of each of them and turn it into a Toyota."
While the initial batch of engines will come out of TRD's 31,000 square feet machine shop, Aust predicts that engine building eventually will shift to the Southeast, closer to NASCAR's heartland. "In time there will be the opportunity for other engine shops and individual teams to build their own engines, using parts supplied by TRD," Aust says.
The engineers who designed the IRL motor and the CART motor are the same ones who designed the NASCAR engine. "It doesn't have the same level of technology," Aust says. "We've gone from building a 2.65 turbo CART motor that operated on 34 inches [Hg] of boost to building a 3.5-liter, normally aspirated, fuel-injected engine for the IRL. Now we are designing a 5.6-liter, 360 cubic-inch carburetor engine."
Some call it "reverse engineering" or using state-of-the-art technology to build a better dinosaur--one that uses pushrods instead of overhead camshafts, no less.
"Certainly, it is a much less complicated motor, but we will come into the game against other manufacturers who have been building this engine for years and years, and are at the optimum," Aust says. "All we want to do is come into the game at a competitive level."
The truck chassis have existed for nearly a year. They were in the wind tunnel late last fall and will continue to be massaged until the 2004 season opens. White oversaw the design of the bodywork, which was done by an outside firm. Despite its Toyota badges, it is almost identical to the Ford F-150 currently in the Truck Series. "Bodywork is not our forte," Aust says. "We aren't experts in body design. Our strong point is in engineering."
White says Toyota's eventual plans are to have its cars racing everywhere from Winston Cup at Daytona to Evergreen Speedway near Seattle, with local racers able to buy crate engines ready to drop into new or rebodied chassis. Aust is a bit more vague on the company's plans.
"We are committed to the Truck Series. As far as Busch or Winston Cup, it is nice to look ahead. At this point we have no established timeline," Aust says. "It is obviously something to think about, but we need to be sure we can compete at the Truck level before we think about moving up. Certainly the competition farther up doesn't get any easier."