Back to News

December 12, 2023

Lee Pulliam Performance partners with Toyota Racing Development; Isabella Robusto set to drive

Toyota Racing Development is set to build upon a solid foundation within the heart of short-track racing in the southeast.

The 2024 season will see TRD partner with four-time NASCAR Advance Auto Parts Weekly Series champion Lee Pulliam and his Late Model Stock operation. Joining Lee Pulliam Performance and TRD is driver prospect Isabella Robusto, who will race most of the year in the team’s No. 55 Toyota.

Pulliam never imagined his small shop based in Alton, Virginia would one day receive support from a major manufacturer like Toyota. He is eager to make the most of this partnership by continuing to develop the next generation of competitors that now includes Robusto.

“If a company like Toyota calls you, you’re going to sit down and listen,” Pulliam said. “This is an opportunity I’ve worked hard for during my whole career. To be associated with a manufacturer like that is a tremendous deal that will be a great asset for our company.

“Everybody at TRD are racers at heart, so they want to be successful and do this deal at 110 percent, which is the same thing I want.”

With a resume that includes victories in Late Model Stock crown jewels like the ValleyStar Credit Union 300 and Myrtle Beach 400, Pulliam established himself as one of the best in the discipline during the 2010s.

When Pulliam elected to start scaling back his driving career near the end of the decade, he wanted to pass down everything he knew about proper race craft. He began emphasizing driver development at Lee Pulliam Performance.

One of the more notable alums to come through Pulliam’s shop is Corey Heim. In his lone full-time season with Pulliam on the CARS Tour, Heim earned one victory and a third-place points finish, which laid the foundation for him to become a successful full-time driver with TRD in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series.

Lee Pulliam’s legacy in Late Model Stocks includes building a program in which young drivers can develop their craft on short tracks. (Photo: Logan Whitton)

Pulliam cherishes being a mentor to drivers like Heim and so many others, adding he takes tremendous pride in seeing his development drivers find success at the top levels.

“Racing is a tough business, and you’re looking for every little edge you can get,” Pulliam said. “I was able to take some of things I learned over the years to speed up the learning process. Corey was naturally talented, but there were things I could help him with that he never really thought about.

“I want to see my drivers be successful not only when they’re in my car, but when they’re in a Truck, Xfinity car or Cup car.”

Pulliam has every reason to believe Robusto can advance through the developmental ladder just like Heim.

Robusto caught the attention of many in the short-track industry with an impressive Pro Late Model performance at Hickory Motor Speedway that saw her lead a race-high 48 laps. While battling for the win, Robusto made hard contact with the inside wall, which subsequently kept her out the rest of the year due to lingering effects from a concussion.

The path back to the driver’s seat has been long and arduous for Robusto, but she is determined to pick up from where she left off at Hickory. She knows leaning on Pulliam for guidance will only expedite her development.

“I’m feeling good and ready to get back into a race car,” Robusto said. “It’s been a long, nine-and-a-half months of sitting on the sidelines, but I think 2024 is going to go really well running with Lee. They ran so well this past year, so I think everything is going to turn out well.”

Pulliam is no stranger to finding success with female drivers. Amber Balcaen took home a checkered flag in one of Pulliam’s cars at Motor Mile Speedway. Julia Landauer claimed a Limited Late Model title for Pulliam at the same facility in 2015.

Having seen Robusto put together several strong runs that include an impressive third in the 2022 South Carolina 400, Pulliam is eager to start working with her and build upon the potential she displayed before her season-ending crash at Hickory.

“It’s always fun when you can take a female racer and whoop the boys,” Pulliam said. “It’s going to be a challenge, because the CARS Tour is about as tough as it gets, but I really feel like she’s up to it.”

Despite being sidelined for most of 2023, Isabella Robusto is ready to compete for wins in her first year with Lee Pulliam Performance. (Photo: Adam Fenwick/NASCAR)

One factor both Pulliam and Robusto believe will hasten their progress together is having short-track veteran Brenden “Butterbean” Queen a part of the program.

Queen built upon an already solid racing career in his first season with Pulliam by tallying four CARS Tour victories and crown jewel wins in the Hampton Heat and Thanksgiving Classic. With so much experience at her disposal with Pulliam and Queen, Robusto is confident she can find consistency right from the start.

Being out of a Late Model Stock for a prolonged period is something Robusto knows will result in a learning curve. Despite this, Robusto trusts everyone at Lee Pulliam Performance to guide her in the right direction so she can make her own history with the organization.

“Just taking everything in and being a sponge between [Lee] and Brenden is going to be important,” Robusto said. “I want to learn everything from their driving style to race craft and add that on to what I’ve already learned. My goal is to work on anything I need to change in the first part of the year so we can get after it for the second half.”

Pulliam believes the combination of Robusto and Queen can be one of the most potent in Late Model Stock racing, but he is also keeping his expectations in check.

Even though Heim found immediate success with his team, Pulliam knows each driver is different when it comes to the development process. He plans to work diligently with Robusto over the winter to ensure she is ready to contend with the best in Late Model Stock competition.

“With any driver, you always want to get that first race under their belt to see what areas we need to improve on,” Pulliam said. “We’d love to compete for wins right out the gate, but we need to see where we land and get better week-by-week. I think we have a talented enough group for us to go to Victory Lane next year.

“We just want to do the best job we can and represent TRD the best we can so we can have a long-term relationship.”

The influence of TRD has provided Pulliam plenty of optimism about the future of his operation. With more resources being poured into his shop, Pulliam looks forward to continuing TRD’s successful reputation at some of the southeast’s most cherished short tracks.