The Toyota Goliath in
NASCAR-land

Does Chevy Stand A Chance?

Well, the stock car world has tilted on its axis and the previously unthinkable is happening – after busting ass and kicking some of the “heavy-hitters” around in the Craftsman Truck series, Toyota is making the step up to the Big Leagues in 2007. That’s when they move into Nextel Cup - soon to be renamed, probably by the time you read this, as the Sprint Cup, or Sprint/Nextel Cup, or Sprinty/Telephone Cup – whatever.

Much more important is how will Toyota integrate into what has been a domestic car manufacturer racing marketing playground for longer than most of you readers have been alive? The already overheated NASCAR rumor mill has shifted into hyperdrive because of their pending arrival. Here’s a sampling of the scuttlebutt:

  • Toyota is going to built a full-sized test track in Charlotte, NC
  • They are going to build a full-scale wind tunnel in the vicinity;
  • They have an unlimited Formula 1-like budget and are quietly underwriting the three teams fielding their Camrys in 2007;
  • They are waving so much money in front of current Cup drivers and long-time crew chiefs that everybody has their lawyers looking over their contracts to see if they can get an early-out;
  • Toyota has so much money that they are quietly supplementing the major sponsorship dollars these three teams are signing up at bargain rates.
  • They are going to effectively buy the Cup championship and drive the cost of NASCAR racing even higher than it is.

What chance does Chevrolet have with such a competitor joining the game? Nothing like being thought of as the over-dog to get a racing series in a tizzy; this bogus talk about

Glen Grissom has 25 years experience writing for print magazines including Stock Car Racing. He was formerly editor of Circle Track magazine. He also has considerable experience writing and producing Internet content, beginning as managing editor of motorsports for TNN and most recently as Internet manager for RTM Productions. He will specialize in writing circle track and tech articles. He is also an audiophile with a vast collection of old records, turntables, tuners and speakers.

Toyota’s coming scorched-earth march into Cup has become so feverish that even Michael Waltrip, supreme marketer and owner of one of the coming Camry teams that is looking to field three cars – he has secured sponsorship from NAPA and Dominoes/Burger King for two -- has taken pains to somewhat disassociate himself from the perceived Toyota corporate teat.

He recently pointed out that he’s signed up his NAPA, Dominoes, and Burger King (sharing a car) sponsorships on his own – without the deep pockets of his manufacturer helping out. He’s ponying up the money, not big bad Toyota – they are just another manufacturer in the NASCAR mix, according to him. Nothing puts the damper on that third sponsorship search if all your potential money-pockets already think you’re loaded.

Like any sort of racing speculation, the hubbub has some plausibility. Toyota has been heavily involved in their Craftsman Truck teams to the point of doing all of the R&D and building the cars, essentially harkening back to the days when there were full-on factory racing teams with hired drivers in NASCAR. But that model is done in Cup racing, and don’t expect Toyota to try to duplicate it at the Cup level.

First off, by Daytona 2007 there have to be about 100 NASCAR-approved Camry Cup cars built, or in the process of being built. Top Cup teams have as many as 15 to 20 cars per driver these days. They submitted their new-nosed ’07 Camry for approval by NASCAR in mid-June 2006. Yeah, Toyota is big and might have enough petty cash to buy The General, and has an NC-based racing and engineering operation – but cranking out that many hand-made Cup cars in such a short time is beyond even them – particularly if they came directly from a factory shop(s).

Plus, they have to have their Cup engine ready to go, too. It won’t be quite as simple as putting a different intake and larger carburetor on their proven Truck engine. So, by default the scale of their Cup participation requires that they rely on their teams to be more like the typical multi-car team of today – something Chevy has much more experience at than they do. Consequently, they will lose some of the control they had in the Truck series, and likely some of the success.

Today multi-car teams like Hendrick Motorsports, DEI, Roush, and Evernham have built up more engineering and chassis construction capability in-house than their respective associated factory. They strongly tend not to share any advantages they may find – even among co-teams – so Toyota faces a new management-balancing act in getting all their teams to spread their hard-earned information among themselves. That was easier to do when they controlled the Truck teams, but Cup teams protect their independence. The Big Three are more experienced in this balancing act.
     
One important action that is taking place, and not getting that much attention, is that a lot of Toyota Racing Development people are relocating from California to be near their High Point, NC, engineering center. TRD in SoCal has been ground central for all things Toyota racing, so this is a seismic shift of resources. The NC center is where the first 2007 Camry was built and submitted to NASCAR in mid-June.

Lee White, a senior VP and the general manager of TRD, is already relocated and plenty more of the TRD-CA crew is following. It won’t be a skeleton crew left in the Golden State, but the real factory engineering muscle is going to be applied from NC.

Don’t expect Toyota to waltz in and steal all the Cup candy – yet. It will take at least a couple of years for them to consistently win, if Dodge’s recent return to Cup racing is any indication, and that wasn’t a lightweight pocketbook or management effort.

Chevy will have to step up and work to keep its Cup teams equivalent, and given how in-the-tank their car sales are, that is a real fiscal and fortitudinal challenge. Don’t sell all your Chevy NASCAR memorabilia just yet, though. Two years from now it may be a different story.  

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