Toyota at 10: Manufacturer has long-term plan
September 03, 2014, Kenny Bruce, NASCAR.com
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The words came loud and fast over the public address system.
"Who wants to see Chevy win today?" the announcer screamed, drawing plenty of cheers from the crowd assembled at Michigan International Speedway.
"Who wants to see Ford win?"
More cheers. The fans, it seemed, were split.
And then came something new, as the crowd was asked how many were hoping for a Toyota victory at the 2-mile track.
"You heard a lot of noise. Yeah, we were not the most popular manufacturer at Michigan," recalled Dave Wilson, president and general manager for Toyota Racing Development, USA.
"But to win there was really special."
The year was 2004, and it was the debut season for Toyota, the newest automaker in one of NASCAR's top three national series. Chevrolet, Dodge and Ford teams competing in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series suddenly found a newcomer in their midst.
They soon found a newcomer in Victory Lane as well, as Travis Kvapil, competing for Bang Racing, won the Line-X Spray-On Truck Bedliners 200 that July day at MIS.
It was the first victory for Toyota in one of NASCAR's three national series.
By season's end, the manufacturer had been to Victory Lane three more times.
The following year, Toyota teams scored nine more victories, and in 2006, Todd Bodine claimed the series' championship with Germain Racing. Toyota also clinched its first manufacturer's title.
But long before the championships, and likely even before Kvapil's win, the question was already being raised.
"The icing on the cake, once we started racing in the Truck Series," Wilson said, "was when we started hearing from our own (TRD) team members and from the folks at the plant, from dealers -- and what they were saying was 'this is awesome; when are we going to go Cup racing? When are we going to go to the Show?' "
It wasn't a "foregone conclusion" that Toyota would eventually begin supporting teams at the Sprint Cup level, he said.
"We thought we would. We aspired to. We had to sell it into our management group that this was the right place for us."
Ten years after its debut, it's a question that's no longer asked.
Courtesy of Toyota Racing
• First season of competition: 2007
• First pole: July 1, 2007, Dave Blaney, Bill Davis Racing, New Hampshire Motor Speedway
• First win: March 9, 2008, Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing, Atlanta Motor Speedway
• Driver championships: 0
• Manufacturer championships: 0
• Wins in series: 65 (through Sept. 3, 2014)
• First season of competition: 2007
• First pole: Feb. 24, 2007, Dave Blaney, Braun Racing, Auto Club Speedway
• First win: July 28, 2007, Jason Leffler, Braun Racing, O'Reilly Raceway Park (Indianapolis)
• Driver championships: 1 (Kyle Busch, 2009)
• Manufacturer championships: 3 (2008, '09, '10)
• Wins in series: 93 (through Sept. 3, 2014)
• First season of competition: 2004
• First pole: March 13, 2004, David Reutimann, Darrell Waltrip Motorsports, Atlanta Motor Speedway
• First win: July 31, 2004, Travis Kvapil, Bang Racing, Michigan International Speedway
• Driver championships: 4 (Todd Bodine, 2006, '10; Johnny Benson, '08; Matt Crafton, '13)
• Manufacturer championships: 6 ('06, '07, '08, '09, '10, '13)
• Wins in series: 123 (through Sept. 3, 2014)
Two concerns hung over Toyota as it prepared to launch its NASCAR program.
The first, coming from outside the company, was that the hugely successful group would simply come into the sport with an open wallet and purchase the best teams, drivers and crews.
However, Toyota officials took just the opposite approach, in most cases reaching out to those who were interested in starting brand-new teams and building from the ground up.
According to reports at the time, as many as 84 potential and existing teams either were courted by Toyota officials, or approached Toyota themselves as the automaker prepared to enter the Truck Series.
Eventually, only four organizations were chosen -- Bang Racing, Darrell Waltrip Motorsports, Innovative Motorsports and Bill Davis Racing.
That might have quelled some concerns, but it also meant the newest player would face tremendous growing pains. Two of the first four organizations, Bang Racing and Innovative Motorsports, would last only through that inaugural season.
"They didn't want to buy their way into the sport; they wanted to have new owners," said Michael Waltrip, younger brother of Darrell and one of the first Sprint Cup team owners with Toyota backing. "They wanted to help grow the sport, and I think their presence here has grown the sport immensely. Not only new car owners like myself, but new fans, a different demographic of people who maybe drove Toyotas started watching NASCAR and maybe folks that were NASCAR fans decided that they thought it would be OK to drive a Toyota since Toyota was here."
The second concern came from within -- building acceptance in what is still considered a uniquely American sport. Toyota officials knew there would be some backlash from some fans.
"We did a lot of research," Wilson said. "We talked to a lot of fans before we ever turned a wheel in this sport. Our management was very sensitive to how we overcome this potential resistance that the fan base may have to a 'foreign' company.
"We had a certain reputation, whether it was perception or real, that we would come into the sport and spend too much money, that we would ruin the sport."
Coming in through the Truck Series, he said, gave the company a chance "to just start building those relationships. Not just within the NASCAR community but within the NASCAR fan community."
Tom DeLoach, owner of Red Horse Racing, said the brand was "kind of semi-loved and kind of semi-unloved" when it arrived on the scene.
DeLoach, who had been a co-owner of a Sprint Cup team before making the move into the Truck Series, had years of experience in working with global companies during his tenure with Mobil.
"I worked internationally so I appreciate the international piece. When Mobil went into Formula One racing, we married up with Mercedes. So for me, an international manufacturer, I'm fine with it, because I see that we're in the international economy. So let's don't get all bent out of shape because of American vs. non-American.
"You look at where the jobs are, where they build the cars, where you create the jobs. And if you go back and look at what Toyota's done, it was a lot of noise, but when you cut through the noise, it's 'Hey, the jobs are in the United States.' They build a lot of cars in the United States. That creates a lot of jobs in the United States. That always frustrated me when I saw that."
In 2013, Matt Crafton (ThorSport Racing) became the third Toyota driver to win the Truck Series title. It was his first title and the manufacturer also won its sixth championship.
Crafton, whose teams fielded Chevrolet entries until making the switch in 2012, said he saw first-hand what the addition of Toyota brought to the series, and to NASCAR.
"I was on the other side of the fence at that point," Crafton said. "One of the things ... I had seen was in the previous seasons before Toyota came in, the other manufacturers had pulled back so much. We didn't get hardly anything. They did help us a little, but not much. As soon as Toyota came in, (the other manufacturers) stepped it up. Because they didn't want to have the new kid on the block come in and beat them up. I saw that. It was huge.
"Even when I wasn't driving for Toyota, I said it was great because it made everyone else step up their support."
Courtesy of Toyota Racing
The 2007 racing season was one of change for NASCAR. Not only was the Sprint Cup Series debuting a new car, labeled the Car of Tomorrow, for the first time, but Toyota was joining the ranks of Nationwide and Sprint Cup teams as well.
The company's approach hadn't changed -- find new owners and build from the ground up. For Sprint Cup, that meant aligning with Michael Waltrip Racing and Red Bull Racing. A third team, Bill Davis Racing, was the lone group already in the sport, and made the switch from Dodge to Toyota.
"They paid a price for that (approach)," said MWR driver Brian Vickers. "It took a while for teams like Red Bull and MWR to really get going. But ... I think they earned a lot of respect for doing that, and if they didn't, they should have. Anyone that didn't respect that just probably wasn't ... you weren't going to get them anyway. Their mind was already made up."
While Toyota teams had 13 victories and won 17 poles in the Truck Series in '07, as well as a pair of wins and four poles in Nationwide, the Sprint Cup efforts produced only a pair of top-five finishes.
But from a timing standpoint, the move into Nationwide and Cup was on target, according to Wilson.
"This was us working in concert with NASCAR," he said. "We had a timeline. We came into Nationwide and Cup in the same year. I remember having the conversation with NASCAR; there may have been a consideration to push our entry back one year because ... the COT came on board (that year).
"It would have been cleaner, and less expensive for us, to come in in 2008. But NASCAR wanted us there in '07. We wanted to be there in '07. But it really came together pretty much as we hoped it would."
Then, in 2008, Toyota added another team to its roster -- Joe Gibbs Racing.
Four races into the new season, JGR driver Kyle Busch scored the first Sprint Cup victory for Toyota, winning the Kobalt Tools 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
"That was special," Wilson said. "It was first Cup win, that's a given, but really behind that, what makes it special is that Joe Gibbs, his family, his organization, they took a leap of faith. This is an organization that had already won three national championships with Chevy, had been with Chevy for 14 years. Certainly through 2007, we hadn't established ourselves; we were learning, learning about what it was going to take to win.
"To have that validation, to put those guys in the winner's circle, I think Kyle won eight races that year, there was a tremendous sense of validation with that."
For Gibbs, the switch from Chevrolet to Toyota wasn't made in haste. The team owner is fiercely loyal to the organization's sponsors, and aligning with Toyota was a huge move.
"I think what made it difficult was we had 15 years with GM," said Gibbs. "You go through so many things when you're in a racing program -- there are extreme highs, extreme lows, you win championships. So you develop all those relationships and partnerships, so it's hard when you've got to make a decision like that.
"But we felt like after analyzing it, if you really look at the lineup inside GM, Rick Hendrick (Hendrick Motorsports) was in there and had won championships, Childress (Richard Childress Racing) had won many championships, and had been there longer than we had. We felt like moving to Toyota -- this is a very competitive world -- it gave us a better chance to distinguish ourselves and maybe be an elite team for a manufacturer that racing means a lot to.
"Certainly I think this partnership for us has been great. It was the right decision; we all feel that, way, a hard one but the right one."
Courtesy of Getty Images
Today, Toyota supports seven organizations fielding 18 teams in one or more of NASCAR's top series -- Sprint Cup, Nationwide and the Camping World Truck Series.
In 10 years, those teams have combined for 281 victories, five driver championships and nine manufacturer titles. Although they've yet to walk away with the biggest prize, a Sprint Cup championship, Toyota drivers have finished second in the standings three times in the last four years.
"This isn't something we try on for size," Wilson said. "NASCAR isn't going away. For us, where I knew that we did our job in getting that understanding is 2004, our first in the Truck Series, ... at the time our president Mr. (Yukitoshi) Funo coined the phrase that we will be in NASCAR for 100 years.
"It's a figurative statement. ... It's an understanding of the sport and it's an understanding of the cultural relevance that the sport has in this country. It has nothing to do with whether we stay or go but as long as NASCAR is around, we're going to be around. That's very much the mentality."