"What are you talking about?" Toyoda asked him. "What race? And he told me there is a 24-hour endurance race on this course. I thought I couldn't even complete a single lap of this course by myself."
Back in Japan, they began to enter real competitions.
He nervously buckled in for his first race in 2007, carefully piloting a $10,000 secondhand Toyota Yaris subcompact around Japan's famed Twin Ring Motegi raceway.
His goal: Just cross the finish line.
During his second race, at Okayama International Circuit, a white-knuckled Toyoda fish-tailed his way through the qualifying round in pouring rain.
In the final, the challenge only intensified with rival racers bearing down on him from all sides.
"I felt like I was suddenly thrown into a whirlpool," Toyoda says. "Most of the cars overtook me. Only very rarely was I able to pass somebody else."
And yet he somehow finished third in his class.
The next day, Toyoda made a fateful decision that would transform his personal identity and eventually help reshape the entire company. He decided that he would test his mettle in the 24-hour endurance run at Nurburgring.
For his first competition at the German racetrack in June 2007, Toyoda sat behind the wheel of a retrofitted Lexus IS. But even the "whirlpool" of Okayama did not prepare him for the steel typhoon at Nurburgring.
"It was much, much fiercer," Toyoda says. "I couldn't maintain my normal driving pace. I was fearful. I didn't want to get hit by the other cars. It wasn't possible to even think about passing."
But he finished, and the experience thrilled him enough to return repeatedly to Nurburgring, sometimes behind the wheel, sometimes as moral support. After becoming CEO in 2009, Toyoda scaled back competitive circuit driving amid concerns about his safety.
But he didn't give up racing. Last year, he returned to Nurburgring to drive in the qualifying run. And he still competes in about four rally races a year, in his go-to car, the Toyota 86.
"Quite a few people within the company are against the idea of my taking part in circuit races," he said. "They think it's dangerous. Even if I manage to keep my own car under control, other cars could collide with mine. In the case of rally races, it's also dangerous. But there is an interval between each car starting, so I can at least maintain my own pace in the rally."
He is solemn about safety for a good reason.
In 2010, a month after Automotive News accompanied Toyoda to Nurburgring, tragedy claimed his revered racing guru. Naruse, considered the godfather of the Lexus LFA for his role in fine tuning the car's pinpoint handling, died just outside the Nurburgring course after crashing a yellow LFA he had been test driving. It was a bitter farewell to a man who, at 67, had earned the nickname Meister of Nurburgring for logging more hours there than any other Japanese. In the aftermath, Naruse's disciples asked Toyoda to succeed Naruse as the master driver.
"They are all professional test drivers. So, of course, their driving skill is probably technically superior to mine. But I can figure out which taste should be the Toyota taste and which should be the taste of Lexus cars," Toyoda says. "There is no one else in the company who can do that."
As the master driver, the CEO is now training his own stable of possible successors.
"They have to be able to distinguish the Lexus taste and the Toyota taste," the new sensei says. "If I think there is no one I can appoint as my successor, I won't pick anybody."
Even Toyoda finds it hard to verbalize how his brands should be flavored.
"There is no written recipe. It's just my sensation," he says. Lexus should be a little funky and deliver an initial impulse to "drive this car forever," he says. Toyota should have mass-market appeal without selling out to mass mediocrity.