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The Way It Is/ Will Detroit be able to respond to Toyota’s challenge?

by Gordon Kirby
Automobile racing has always been driven by the manufacturers. Almost invariably, the sport’s greatest eras have been pushed forward by competition among manufacturers whether it was the early days of Grand Prix or AAA Championship racing, Le Mans or sports car racing, CART and IMSA in their heydays, or of course, Formula One and NASCAR today.

But as every student of the sport knows, manufacturer involvement is a double-edged sword. Sports car racing in particular has been through a series of booms and busts over the years as manufacturers came, saw, conquered and then departed the scene. And of course, both CART and IMSA are classic case studies of sanctioning bodies which imploded because of catatonic inabilities to control the excesses of competing manufacturers.

In the mid-nineties, CART enjoyed the financial and promotional benefits of four, competing manufacturers--Mercedes-Benz, Ford, Honda and Toyota. Today, Champ Car struggles along without any manufacturer support while the IRL survives almost entirely because of Honda’s largesse. Following years and years of inept management and without any competition among manufacturers both open-wheel series are on life-support.

As we all know, each of IRL and Champ Car are in dire straights with thin fields, few name drivers and little or no national media coverage or recognition. Watching the country’s dueling open-wheel series sink to such a low level has been a very sad, debilitating experience, but I’m afraid neither series have yet to hit rock bottom.

Chip Ganassi put the situation into perspective in this space two months ago. “Let’s face it,” Ganassi said. “When you look at the commercial sponsorship side, or the business model of open-wheel racing, I’m afraid to say it doesn’t exist. There is no business model and that makes it very difficult to make it viable in the longterm. The fact of the matter is until open-wheel racing is made a viable business by the powers-that-be, it’s simply dying a slow death.”

Meanwhile, the ALMS is enjoying a bit of a revival with Audi, Porsche and Acura (Honda) joining the game while the rival GrandAm series has been bolstered by the likes of Toyota with its Lexus brand, as well as Porsche, Pontiac and Ford.

Of course, NASCAR is the place where the big bucks are invested in American racing by the manufacturers. Since NASCAR’s start almost sixty years ago, the Detroit manufacturers were the primary financial force behind stock car racing. Many people forget that there was a time in the mid-sixties when NASCAR was in trouble after the manufacturers pulled-out of racing in 1958, agreeing not to compete. In 1965 for example, Richard Petty spent most of the year drag racing and ran only a handful of NASCAR races. But over the next few years, Detroit got back into NASCAR in a big way and have been there ever since.

This year witnesses the arrival of the first foreign manufacturer to compete in NASCAR’s top division since Jaguar dabbled in NASCAR fifty years ago. As expected, Toyota has made a slow start in Nextel Cup racing after first entering NASCAR’s truck series in 2004. Toyota won the truck championship last year with Brett Bodine and has moved into the Cup and Busch series this year. Toyota is supporting three Cup teams, two Busch teams and six truck teams.

At Daytona this year, TRD’s Lee White said he expects Toyota’s Cup teams to start showing competitive form in the second half of this season. “I said it back in Charlotte in October; we are just about where we expected to be today,” White commented. “We have brand new engines, brand new teams and brand new cars. We are here for the long haul. Based on the testing I think we have a shot in the second half of the year when we go back to each track for a second time. Hopefully, you are going to see a good representation of where we are going to be at the end of the year and where we are going to start for next year.”

And as White told me at Daytona twelve months ago: “We won’t really come onstream until 2010.”

F1 apart, Toyota has achieved success in every racing category it has entered. In the USA, Toyota has always been able to win races and championships, no matter how many years were required to get there. Increasingly, as Toyota became one of the world’s greatest manufacturing giants, there was no shortage of money as the company won first in off-road racing, then in IMSA GTO and GTP, followed by CART, IRL, and now GrandAm (with the Lexus brand).

In CART, Toyota took five years to become competitive but when the company’s engines finally came onstream Toyota also substantially upped the ante with multi-million dollar subsidies for a few top teams. And of course, a giant legal squabble between Toyota, Honda and CART in 2001 over subtle ways of cheating the pop-off valve resulted in both Japanese manufacturers and a handful of key teams leaving CART for the IRL. That essentially, was the end for CART.

In F1, Toyota spends more money than Ferrari, Renault, Mercedes-Benz and BMW. It’s annual F1 budget reportedly totals $600 million per year with 1,200 employees working at its team headquarters in Cologne, Germany. And too, Ralf Schumacher’s incredible $26 million yearly salary is second only to Kimi Raikkonen’s stunning $50 million deal with Ferrari.

Here in the United States, TRD’s facility in Costa Mesa, California and Honda’s similar Honda Performance Development plant in Santa Clarita represent massive investment, too, in resources, capabilities and people. Neither of Chevrolet, Ford or Dodge have anything like it. TRD currently operates its NASCAR program from temporary facilities in High Point and Mooresville, but has purchased 89 acres in Rowan County, thirty-five miles north of Charlotte, where a purpose-built 30,000-35,000 square foot facility will be built. Forty to fifty people will be employed at TRD South when it opens for business at the end of 2008.

The challenge for GM, Ford and Dodge will be to respond to Toyota when its NASCAR program comes fully onstream in 2010. If the Detroit manufacturers are able to fight and compete with Toyota over the longterm it will make NASCAR even stronger. It would be good for the country and good for the sport if Detroit is able to respond, but in these historic times as the American automobile industry undergoes profound changes and as their resources are outstripped both financially and technologically by Toyota, it’s not going to be easy. It will be compete or perish.

Dan Davis, boss of Ford Racing Technology, says NASCAR is too valuable a marketing tool for the Detroit manufacturers to allow Toyota to steamroller them. “From a marketing standpoint, we get tremendous return on racing in NASCAR,” Davis said. “We’ve seen that in the past and it’s still there. These days, for a company like Ford that is struggling, you really have to maximize your return. So you put your money where you can really make a difference and you can do that in NASCAR. It helps us sell product and as long as we’re able to see good returns on where we spend our money we’ll keep doing this and we’ll keep doing it with vigor because you have to win and you have to do a good job.

“If there ever is a day where the return is not there, then we’ll look elsewhere,” Davis added. “But right now, it’s a really good return. You’ve got a fan base out there that is huge and growing and helps us sell product. As long as we can do that we’re here and we’re here with vigor.”

In closing, I want to stress how much I sympathize with my longtime colleague and friend Robin Miller who documented in his Speed.com column last week how shabbily he’s been treated for attempting to write the truth. The same thing has happened to me over the past dozen years as I too lost job after job. After four or five attempts over thirty years to start or develop a broad-based American racing magazine I found myelf shoved to the sidelines three or four years ago as I came off the loser in a series of unbelievably Machiavellian political games.

Last year, I launched this website and started writing my weekly column because I had no other outlet or publication in which to properly cover the sport. I have to say it’s been a delight to write whatever I choose without a publisher or editor leaning over my shoulder telling me not to write this or that. After years of censorship, having the freedom to write what I please has taken a great weight off my shoulders.

Over the years, quite a few people have tried to silence writers like Robin Miller and myself. They may have done us some financial and professional damage but they’ve failed to break our pride or spirit. All they’ve done is make the sport smaller.

Plus: Montoya, Pruett, Gurney, Fogarty and Braun Showed Their Talent South of the Border

Last weekend’s Busch/Grand-Am double-header in Mexico City produced a pair of new winners as Alex Gurney and Jon Fogarty scored a great win for Bob Stallings’ Gainsco team in Saturday’s Grand-Am race and Juan Pablo Montoya strutted his stuff as he scored his first NASCAR victory on Sunday for Chip Ganassi and Felix Sabates. Gurney and Fogarty are excellent young drivers who came up through the open-wheel ranks (Fogarty is a double Atlantic champion) and would be racing Indy or Champ cars if IRL or Champ Car were at all healthy.

And too, eighteen-year old Colin Braun showed his talent by qualifying on the pole and running away with the race’s first half in Krohn Racing’s Riley. Again, if open-wheel racing was thriving a bright light like Braun would be racing Indy or Champ cars. It will be interesting to see what the future holds for Braun. Will he too end up in NASCAR?

Montoya was the man to beat in the Busch race as he came back from an extra stop caused by a refuelling problem to win in style. Juan Pablo clearly was quicker than anyone else through the esses and also under braking for the first turn where he was able to maintain more momentum than anyone else as well as using a much more useful line for outbraking. Unfortunately, Montoya blotted his copybook by being too impatient, misjudging his passing move on teammate Scott Pruett. Had he played it a little cooler, Juan Pablo could have passed Pruett cleanly a lap or two later and produced a one-two sweep for Ganassi and Sabates. Of course, nobody was surprised with Montoya’s superb form in Mexico. As he said himself, the challenge now is to win on an oval.

And finally, a message to ESPN who forgot that 1964 Mexican GP winner Dan Gurney also won now fewer than five NASCAR races (including four in a row) at Riverside in the sixties. The provincialism of our domestic TV commentators continues to amaze.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2007 ~ All Rights Reserved

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