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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Toyota has seriously upped the ante in NASCAR

by Gordon Kirby
Jimmie Johnson may have finally scored his first win of the year in Phoenix on Saturday night but the big news in NASCAR this year is that it's taken Toyota only twelve months to get to the front of NASCAR's Sprint Cup series. The key move was forging a deal with Joe Gibbs Racing's three-car team for this season. The new partnership produced Toyota's first Cup win at Atlanta last month with Kyle Busch driving while Denny Hamlin followed that up with a second Gibbs/Toyota win at Martinsville two weeks later. Each of Busch, Hamlin and teammate Tony Stewart are solidly placed in the top ten in Sprint Cup points and are sure to win more races this year. One or more of them may also figure in the championship battle.

Toyota has raced successfully in the United States for more than twenty-five years, winning championships in off-road and truck racing, IMSA GT and GTP, and in CART with Newman/Haas in 2002 and the Indy 500 with Penske Racing in 2003. A key component in Toyota's American racing efforts is Toyota Racing Development (TRD), the company's racing division in Costa Mesa, California. TRD is run and administered by Dave Illingworth and employees almost 300 people.

The company's group vice president and general manager is Lee White who has worked in racing for more than forty years as a driver, engine builder and team manager. He ran Jack Roush's incredibly successful IMSA GTO team for six years in the late eighties and early nineties, winning no fewer than 116 races. White also worked as Newman/Haas's team manager in the CART series for three years from 1995-'97 before taking his current job as the hands-on boss of Toyota's NASCAR program and TRD's expansion into a new chassis engineering shop in North Carolina.

"I'm one of those people who have an intuitive sense for engines," a confident White remarks. "I'm a guy who can close my eyes and I can CFD the ports by visualizing the flow, and we go and do it and put it on the flow bench and take it to the dyno and it works. I've been able to do that for thirty years."

This is White's tenth year with TRD. He joined when Toyota was struggling in CART with underpowered and unreliable engines and was able to turn around Toyota's poor position in Indy car racing in only a few years. Toyota won the CART manufacturers championship in 2002 with Newman/Haas, then moved to the IRL for three years before pulling out of Indy car racing at the end of '05 to focus on NASCAR.

"I went to TRD primarily because of their challenges with their engine in American open-wheel racing," White explained. "I was able to have an almost instant effect with my experience and also able to bring my team experience to bear in evaluating and figuring out what the company needed to get itself out of the doldrums. That was first of all, better engines with more horsepower and more reliable engines, and secondly, teams and driver packages that could get the job done.

"We managed to make the company respectable. It had a lot of respectability in the industry grounded in sports cars and off-road racing. But it had literally squandered all that reputation with its entry into big-time open-wheel racing, and I'm fairly proud of the fact that we were able to get ourselves organized to get that back on track."

But even as Toyota found success in CART and to a lesser degree IRL, White and his bosses at TRD decided their future was in NASCAR not Indy cars. "Unfortunately, the global situation in American open-wheel racing wasn't something we could see prospering in the longterm," White commented. "Just after I got to TRD we sat and watched Nissan Performance in California basically get dismantled and put 250 people on the street because of the political problems at the time in sports car racing. We were flirting with that number of employees and we were very nervous about our being able to take care of our people and stay in business.

"It became apparent to me and to Dave Illingworth, Dave Wilson and Jim Aust that we better find a way that no matter what, we're delivering value per dollar to the company. We're a cost center. We're not a place where Toyota is making money. We're a place where they're hoping to sell a few trucks and cars and enhance their brand and reputation. And in 1999 and 2000 when you looked around at the landscape the only thing that made any sense with full grandstands was NASCAR."

Toyota began its move into NASCAR eight years ago in the now-defunct, small sedan Goody's Dash Series. In 2003, Toyota won the Goody's driver's championship and manufacturer's championship. By then Toyota and its racing division, TRD, were ready to begin seriously tackling NASCAR, starting with the Truck Series. In the summer of 2003, White met with NASCAR officials to explain Toyota's intentions of racing in NASCAR's premier Cup series. "They were very helpful and we were helped by the fact that Dodge had just re-entered NASCAR as a foreign-owned company," White remarked. "That bridged the gap and we kicked-off a joint study which lasted about six months."

At the end of that year Bill France Jr flew to California to meet White and TRD's bosses Dave Illingworth and Jim Aust. "We had a two or three-hour meeting and got acquainted," White recalled. "With these guys it's all about relationships. Don't send them an email. Give them a 'phone call or talk eyeball to eyeball. And at the end of that meeting Bill France looked straight at me across the table and said, 'Y'all are welcome to come. We want you to win, but only by this much,' [measuring a tiny gap between his thumb and forefinger] And it's been flat-out ever since."

Toyota started racing in NASCAR's Truck series in 2004, won the championship with Todd Bodine in '06 and made its Cup series debut last year. The company got mud on its face at the beginning of last year when Michael Waltrip was caught with illegal fuel during qualifying for the season-opening Daytona 500. The rest of the year was equally uphill as the handful of Toyotas struggled to qualify for most races and rarely featured among the leaders. Former Cosworth engineer Pete Spence has been with TRD on and off again for twelve years and re-joined the company last year as vice president and technical director.

"Last year we had some reliability problems," Spence explained. "I would say the first third of the year we worked on reliability problems and the latter part of the year we were learning from our adventures along the way. We modified the torque curve on the engine to be better-suited to the NASCAR environment. If you look at our chassis dyno results from Atlanta in March of 2007 we might have had the peak horsepower by one hp, but our torque curve was terrible. We worked on it throughout the year and used the chassis dyno data as a guide to a point where we knew we could match the #20 and #24 and #48 car. Over the winter we did a minor repackaging of the engine and here we are."

Indeed, the pair of Joe Gibbs Toyotas driven by Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart led the most laps in this year's Daytona 500 season-opener only to be thwarted on the final lap by the Penske Dodges of Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch. Meanwhile, Toyotas swept the first four places in the Truck race at Daytona and Stewart won Daytona's 300-mile, second-division Nationwide series race for Toyota. The 22-year old Busch has been a frontrunner in most races and he finally scored Toyota's first Cup victory three weeks later on the high-banked Atlanta Motor Speeday.

Everyone at Toyota is very aware of the all-American tradition of NASCAR and the criticism levelled at the company by some longtime stock car fans who don't believe a Japanese company should be racing in NASCAR. "We've been growing the relationship with NASCAR, trying to make sure we don't offend the fans," White acknowledged. "And I think we've done a reasonably good job of getting ourselves situated with the right people. If we can win some races and hopefully have a shot at the championship in the next year or so, it'll be okay. And frankly, it'll be good for NASCAR."

Pete Spence says he doesn't expect any big technical breakthroughs. "It's incremental evolution of the product to suit the environment," Spence said. "I think we learn with every race and every test. We've definitely learned from our association with Joe Gibbs as we learned from our association with Bill Davis Racing. We've very much enjoyed working with those guys. Let's face it, they've tried more things on a NASCAR engine than we've had hot dinners. That's been an education and it's been an interesting growth in learning that the nature of our business is changing."

TRD is looking at its practice of building its engines exclusively in California and probably will start to encourage its teams to build their own engines like the Chevrolet, Ford and Dodge teams. "We have a manufacturing operation and machine all the major components of the engine ourselves so we're able to effect quick fixes and quick changes and be very nimble," White commented. "We still build engines and support them at the racetrack but I'm not sure how long that's going to last. We're evaluating that process as we move forward because it's cumbersome coming from California."

Added Pete Spence: "We know we'll always build some engines in-house because it's necessary to feel the development direction and to feel the pressure of supporting at the track and know what it is the teams need to make them go quicker and be more competitive. But we've also recognized that part of what we have to do for the future is develop engineering projects to help advance the technology so our partners and teams can build their own engines in a similar way to GM, Ford and Dodge. That's part of what the manufacturer does in the NASCAR environment."

White is very proud of TRD's design, development and manufacturing capabilities. "We have eight or nine, full-time race engine designers who have been with us all the way back into the CART days," White observed. "We don't borrow guys out of the engineering pool at the factory headquarters like the competition does. We're a professional racing company. I think the only thing close in this country is HPD (Honda Performance Development, also in southern California), which is trying to be like us. Nobody else has anything like TRD.

"We do our own development," White added. "We have centralized planning and purchasing which is a process we developed and perfected in the open-wheel days and we've carried forward into this program which is really a boon because this is supply-chain engineering at its most challenging because there are so many races and so many cars. It is a supply chain challenge like you'll never see."

Forty people will move in August or September into TRD's new North Carolina chassis development facility. Among the equipment at TRD's Carolina operation will be an eight-post shaker rig, a chassis dynamics corner loading rig, and a scanning booth to guarantee the perfectibility of body construction.

"We're building a new engineering facility on a hundred acres in North Carolina and that activity will focus totally on chassis," White noted. "Getting into the chassis engineering business is a whole new endeavor for us and the reality is that's where it's at in NASCAR. That's where you win races. That's the fertile ground for us.

"We have a wonderful mix of guys from our Indy car past and guys like Andy Graves who basically runs that activity with a lot of practical crew chiefs. We have a lot of open-wheel guys who have approached us. Some very good people from Newman/Haas have joined us. There are a lot of people falling out of open-wheel racing now, unfortunately. It's fortunate for us and the other teams in NASCAR that are looking for talent, but unfortunate for open-wheel racing that these guys are putting themselves out on the market."

White hopes this will be a particularly competitive year in NASCAR with Toyota showing it can compete against America's big three manufacturers. He also hopes NASCAR's recent decline in TV ratings and attendance figures will turn around over the course of this year.

"Hopefully the business will stay strong," White said. "Frankly, I think if we're able to be competitive and run this year like I anticipate we will and Chevrolet isn't able to win twenty-three races and Hendrick isn't able to win half the races, hopefully by the time we get to Atlanta in the fall we're going to see every seat full instead of turn four empty like it was last year."

Toyota has arrived in NASCAR with a longterm plan and it will be very interesting to see what impact the company has on NASCAR as a whole and on its all-American competition. In the past ten years, Toyota has steadily caught and overhauled the Detroit car builders in America's passenger car and truck markets. It's hard to imagine them not doing the same in NASCAR over the next few years.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2008 ~ All Rights Reserved

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