Checkered Flag, or Red Flag?


Forum Health Inspector
January 17, 2007
Checkered Flag, or Red Flag?

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla., Jan. 11 — After years of expanding its presence in the United States and beyond, the Toyota Motor Company of Japan recently issued a 2007 forecast that would make it first in global sales, ahead of General Motors.

And now, Toyota is about to begin competing with its American counterparts on yet another level: Nascar’s premier circuit, the Nextel Cup.

Toyota teams have been testing their Camrys here this month at Daytona International Speedway, where they are inspiring anticipation and anxiety as the Nextel Cup season approaches. Toyota will be the first foreign brand to compete in stock-car racing’s top series since Jaguar in the 1950s.

Engineers at Toyota Racing Development, a competition division that builds engines and provides engineering support, have been working for more than a year for this moment. Their mere presence here, however, is making some uneasy. While Toyota scrambles to prepare its Camrys and build its race shops for the Nextel Cup circuit, competitors are accusing the company of raiding teams for talent and raising the costs of operation by offering drastically higher salaries.

It is a departure from the universal welcome bestowed upon Dodge when it announced it was re-entering the Cup series in 2001 after a 16-year absence. Its parent company, DaimlerChrysler, was based in Germany, but Dodge was viewed as an American-born brand.

“People always fear the unknown,” said Ty Norris, general manager at Michael Waltrip Racing, a new three-car team that will race in Toyotas with the drivers Michael Waltrip, Dale Jarrett and David Reutimann. “It’s a new thing to be concerned about.”

Earlier this month, a half-dozen Camrys rolled onto the pavement at Daytona International Speedway to take their first laps as full-fledged Nextel Cup competitors. The speeds soared and dipped during the annual preseason tests representing the unofficial beginning of the 2007 season. The Daytona 500 is scheduled to be run here Feb 18.

Toyota entered Nascar competition through the Craftsman Truck Series in 2004. Since announcing a year ago that it would join the Nextel Cup competition, the company has seen a debate escalate in this insular sport over what is considered American-made in today’s global economy. As Toyota drivers are quick to point out, Camrys are built in the United States, the Ford Fusion is produced in Mexico and the Chevrolet Monte Carlo comes from Canada.

“If you’re going to argue with me about not being American,” Jarrett told reporters this month, “check and see that that TV you’re watching was made in the United States that you’re watching our great races on.”

One fear is that Toyota will spend its way to domination in the sport, raising costs for everybody and perhaps eventually running off an ailing domestic manufacturer. Officials at Ford, which has struggled financially while sales of Toyota’s have gained greater share in the United States, have been most vocal in their criticism.

Dan Davis, director of Ford Racing Technology, said his manufacturer’s Nascar operation is financially sound. But he said Toyota’s spending spree in acquiring crew chiefs, drivers, engineers, tire changers and other support personnel has affected his teams. That includes Robert Yates Racing, which lost Jarrett and his UPS sponsorship.

“I think they have been predators, and people would say that might be extremely negative,” Davis said. “I would say that in the business world, people are predators. That’s how you get things done.

“When anything new comes in with a lot of resources, then those entities are going to try to acquire the best people, the best equipment, the best that they can get. That’s a bit predatory to me. And if you pay people more money than they were getting and you entice them other ways, in a way that’s more than normal, then it’s a bit predatory.”

Team Red Bull has been accused of paying 200 to 300 percent more to hire John Probst, a top Ford engineer. Davis said he heard that Michael Waltrip Racing came up with more than $20 million to lure Jarrett, the 1999 Cup points champion and a favorite among longtime Southern race fans, away from the Yates team. Salaries are a closely held secret throughout Nascar, and Michael Waltrip Racing officials have denied those figures.

Davis said he voiced his concerns privately with Nascar. So far, Nascar officials say they see this as business as usual in a sport in which teams openly raid competitors. Earlier this month, for instance, Roush Racing hired the crew chief Larry Carter away from Michael Waltrip Racing.

“We hear just like everybody else,” Robin Pemberton, Nascar’s vice president for competition, said in a telephone interview. “We don’t get into the book work of anybody. We don’t know what people are paying. It runs in cycles. When you have new teams coming into the series, you’re going to have to do something to ramp up.”

Still, Toyota has yet to compete in its first points race, and it is already on the defensive.

“We’re not in the business of writing checks,” Lee White, the senior vice president and general manager for Toyota Racing Development, said last month in an office in High Point, N.C. “People go out and say, ‘Oh, Michael Waltrip hired Dale Jarrett, and all that money had to come from somewhere, had to come from Toyota’s deep pockets.’ ”

White added: “I would appreciate if Dan and some of those guys would get their facts straight. But really, the things that they say are really not about the facts, apparently. They’re defensive about their own program, and it’s easier to heave criticism over the fence at T.R.D. and Toyota. That’s just the way it is. We’re O.K. with that. We don’t expect everyone to endorse us or be a big fan. We’ll earn our stripes on the racetrack.”

That is the overriding focus as the Daytona 500 approaches. A countdown clock hangs in the California headquarters of Toyota Racing Development, where engines are being built for some of Toyota’s teams. A similar clock is on a wall at the Team Red Bull race shop in Mooresville, N.C., a second-by-second reminder that time is running out.

“Sometimes we have looked at it and said, ‘Oh, my God,’ said Marty Gaunt, the team’s general manager. Team Red Bull’s drivers, Brian Vickers and A. J. Allmendinger, will race in Camrys this year.

Gaunt’s race shop is populated by construction workers, mechanics, fabricators and others. The shop is being built at the same time cars are being finished: While the dry wall goes up, the sheet metal goes on.

It is the same at Michael Waltrip Racing in nearby Cornelius, N.C., where the shop is still under construction.

“I guess we’re a little bit numb to what is really a panic and what is just everyday business,” Norris said. “Some of these things, if it was maybe with a normal team, they would be spinning into the core of the earth crazy worried about it.”

About the only smooth transition has come in High Point, where Bill Davis Racing, which switched from Dodge, is the only established team to join Toyota this year, with the drivers Dave Blaney and Jeremy Mayfield.

Jarrett and Blaney are the only Toyota drivers guaranteed to make the field for the Daytona 500 because of Nascar’s rules involving past performance. The others will have to race their way into the handful of available spots in the 43-car field while qualifying against the deepest, most fully financed pool of competitors ever for the Nextel Cup.

When Toyota joined the Craftsman Truck series in 2004, it posted a modest four victories. In 2006, the manufacturer won a series-best 12 of 25 events and captured its first championship with the driver Todd Bodine.

Given all the criticism of Toyota, would it be easier for the company to make a small splash in its Nextel Cup debut?

“Oh, there’s no question,” White said. “Our company’s way is to just slide in under the radar.”


Article Pics (all by Robert Padgett for The New York Times):


Dale Jarrett will race in a Toyota this season and the car maker's logo will join other iconic brands at Daytona.


The Team Red Bull shop in Mooresville, N.C., is building Camrys for Toyota’s debut in the Nextel Cup. Competitors have accused Toyota of raising costs.


The Michael Waltrip Racing shop. “People always fear the unknown,” said Ty Norris, general manager of Waltrip Racing, which will use Camrys.
Last edited:
more models, more builders, new drivers, bring 'em on! looking at what the different drivers have been doing during testing, the 500 should be one heck of a race.
i'm with you on that. i mean, look no further than what JP Montoya did in his few races last season-he held his own against the old hands of NASCAR. if other drivers from others series want to drive stock cars, let them come.
montoya will be a force, but won't win a race this year. but look, we have almendinger, and that motor cross guy doing the A,B,C this year. Villeneauve is poised to start an ARCA or Truck team... this is the magnet for drivers at the top of their game in other series to come test themselves.... FINALLY!!!! I am waiting for Danica or Marco Andretti to come over... that would be a coup
Kinda tired of people getting their arse kicked fair and square whinging about it. I'll tell you what is "unAmerican" about this story... Ford crying about kicking their tail kicked in instead of fixing why they are getting their butt kicked and then taking it to Toyota. I HATE crybabies.
I am not a fan of Toyota, but that is a kick arse looking car. I may have to actually tune into some races this year. Things should get pretty interesting. :)
actually TI, getting any of the top drivers from IndyCar to make the jump would be huge, Danica, Marco, i remember seeing somewhere that the retired Micheal Schumaker(not sure about name spelling) has given some thought to driving in NASCAR as well.
hey TI, don't forget that the Rolex 24 is next weekend. a lot of the guys running the 500 will be running that as well.