It's hard to market your racing effort when your cars finish back in the pack. Such is the fate at Toyota, which has yet to find the magic engine needed to win a CART race.
Poor communication between development teams in Japan and America have hurt, but not nearly as much as a fire last year at a critical supplier's Japanese plant, which crimped development of a competitive engine. This year, Toyota is again down on horsepower.
'I live for the day we can run a race-win advertisement. It will be everywhere,' says John Koenig, president of Toyota Racing Development and vice president of motorsports for Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc.
Some followers wonder if inexperienced and inferior drivers are as much to blame as subpar engines for Toyota's poor showing. That may change later this season when veteran driver Robby Gordon takes the seat of Hiro Matsushita at the Arciero-Wells team. In his first outing under Toyota power, at the CART race late last month in Nazareth, Pa., Gordon ran as high as third before finishing seventh.
Koenig does not buy the driver theory. Subpar drivers do not spew oil on the track; subpar engines do.
'Robby's expertise will help, but Toyota will take the blame for what's happened and for our motors not being up to snuff. Any mistakes we made were in underestimating what it would take to design a race-winning motor,' Koenig says in a startling admission of failure for a Japanese company.
But Koenig adds: 'I'm optimistic for 1998. We want to start scoring some top 10 finishes quickly. I will be happy with some top fives, but I'd really like to earn these positions and not get them through attrition.'
The main reason for optimism: Toyota Racing Development in Costa Mesa, Calif., finally has its own $3 million dynamometer for testing, as well as a staff count increased to 150 from 40 just a few years ago. Before, development work was split between America and Japan, with communications and logistics hassles that slowed progress.
'The way you get more horsepower is that you have a development team of engineers on the dyno. TRD is basically creating an Ilmor or Cosworth engine from scratch here,' Koenig says.
Despite frustrating showings at the track, Toyota continues to market itself and its racing effort. Dealers, suppliers and top customers are hosted at hospitality booths at racetracks around the country.
Toyota has been the top sponsor at the Long Beach, Calif., race and a presenting sponsor at CART races in Homestead, Fla; Nazareth; Brooklyn, Mich.; and Fontana, Calif. It is the official car and truck of the Road America track in Elkhart Lake, Wis., and the official truck at Cleveland. Toyota also sponsors CART's safety trucks, which are T100s outfitted with Toyota Racing Development superchargers. And Toyota has the official car and truck for the Houston CART race.
But Toyota Racing Development gave up sponsoring the CART race in Laguna Seca, Calif., because it ran out of money, Koenig says. And if it is a debate between spending money on engine development and on advertising, horsepower talks.
'By racing, we're developing a high-tech image, and obviously winning has to be a part of that. We'll keep fighting to get there, and eventually we will be there,' Koenig says. 'We're just asking our dealers and fans to be patient.'