'Racing Camrys to sell Tundras'
Toyota aims for the heartland but riles NASCAR nation ... for now
Race fans, the very blue-collar audience Toyota is attempting to cozy up to, went howling-at-the-moon nuts at the prospect of a foreign automaker daring to enter what is widely considered to be an American-only sport.
"WHY DON'T CHEVY, DODGE AND FORD START A NEW RACE PROGRAM AND LET TOYOTA AND NEXTEL HAVE EACH OTHER?" one blogger shouted.
Scores of other bloggers offered creative suggestions on where Toyota might park its Camrys.
And upon hearing the news, an angry Jack Roush, who heads Ford-powered Roush Racing, said he was ready to "go to war" with Toyota.
Although Toyota has been competing with success in NASCAR's lesser Craftsman Truck Series for three years, its latest decision obviously wasn't the happiest news ever heard in NASCAR-land. But Toyota executives tried to calm the troubled waters with assurances of their benign intentions.
"We're not spending a gazillion dollars and trying to take over," Dave Illingworth, senior vice president and chief planning officer for Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., assured fans and owners.
"We wouldn't go in there buying up Dale Earnhardt Jr., and I don't think our program is at a stage where he would consider us, either."
Toyota has not revealed the cost of its entry into NASCAR-Nextel.
CHANGE COMES HARD
Mark DeCotis, a veteran racing journalist who has covered the series for more than 20 years, said the hostile response to Toyota was par for the course.
"NASCAR has a very reactionary fan base, especially among the longtimers," he said. "Whenever anything changes, you get this visceral reaction that the world's going to go to hell in a handbasket. It's conservative; it's just the way it is."
Much of the early hostility to Toyota's appearance on NASCAR's sacred ovals has been defused by the automaker's less-than-stellar debut performance. The automaker is teamed with Michael Waltrip Racing, Team Red Bull and Bill Davis Racing, none of which are top tier. Waltrip and Red Bull are startup teams, while Davis is considered second tier despite a long history in the series.
A ROCKY START
Toyota's seven drivers have struggled just to qualify for races, failing to make the field 84 times out of 203 attempts through September. Including the UAW-Ford 500 at Talledega, Ala., on Oct. 7, Toyota has yet to win a race this season. The top Toyota driver, Dave Blaney of Bill Davis Racing, is only 32nd in overall points.
Even worse, the year opened with a scandal. At the season-starting Daytona 500, Waltrip's car was found to be using an illegal substance in an intake manifold. Penalties and sanctions followed.
"Toyota's entry caused a lot of huffing and puffing and angst among fans early on," DeCotis said. "It didn't amount to anything because Toyota has done absolutely nothing this year. It might've been different if they had turned out to be the powerhouse everyone was afraid of."
But Toyota's chances of becoming that powerhouse improved greatly in September with a decision by Joe Gibbs Racing to swap its Chevys for Camrys in 2008. The landmark move gives Toyota one of NASCAR's marquee teams. Gibbs has been with General Motors for 16 years and won three Cup championships in the past seven.
With Gibbs, Toyota gets three of the sport's top drivers in Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch; both Stewart and Busch are in this year's chase for the Nextel Cup Championship.
The shift also could bring legions of new fans into the Toyota tent if they follow the three drivers to their new home.
"If anybody would have said at the beginning of the season that Toyota would be announcing Joe Gibbs Racing being part of our overall team effort for next year, I think we all would have had a hearty laugh," Jim Aust, president of Toyota Racing Development, said at the formal announcement of the switch. Toyota Racing Development provides the engineering backup for the teams.
"We certainly are looking forward to this — a championship race team with Type A drivers and the attitude to get it done."
NASCAR is important to Toyota for more than track wins, though. The automaker's appearance on the Cup circuit puts it directly in front of an estimated 75 million fans each week, a huge blue-collar/red-state audience that essentially was closed to Toyota before it entered the series.
Toyota sales have soared on both coasts and in the Sun Belt. But only 28 percent of its total U.S. sales come from the 19 so-called heartland states in the Midwest and South, where NASCAR is a near religion and loyalty to U.S. vehicle brands spans generations.
Most markets also are big on full-sized pickups, a segment long dominated by Ford and GM. With a redesigned, pumped-up Tundra on sale, Toyota now can put its new truck in the face of tens of thousands of race-goers each week. Some races draw 200,000 spectators.
"We're racing Camrys to sell Tundras," Jim Farley said in a February interview. Farley, who was Lexus general manager until leaving Toyota recently for a job at Ford Motor Co., was Toyota's group vice president of marketing at the time of the interview.
How effective that will be remains to be seen. Racing journalist DeCotis said fan loyalty has been shifting away from brands to the individual drivers for some time.
"You don't see that brand loyalty as much anymore because fans understand there are no more Fords, Dodges, Chevys or Toyotas," he said. "Every car now has the same body, and when they go to the Car of Tomorrow next year, it'll be even more tightly controlled.
"The only difference with cars on the track today is the decal on the front."
Engines and engineering remain important competitive differentiators between the teams, though. And for a brand that has thrived on a reputation for producing reliability, Toyota hopes that Camry victories at the track might begin convincing a whole new audience that it also can build performance.