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The Way It Is/ TRD South comes on-line

by Gordon Kirby
It's impossible to predict what's going to happen to Detroit's Big Three over the next few months and years. Mergers and bailout pitches are the order of the day and nobody dares guess what the American automobile industry will look like next year, let alone five years down the road. Last week General Motors reported a 45 percent decline in October sales compared to last year while the Big Three's bosses trooped to Washington to plead as one for help.

These seismic shifts are bound to have big effects on NASCAR. In fact, they're already being felt as every line in the racing budgets not only of Chevrolet, Ford and Dodge but Toyota, too, are being closely parsed by the bean counters. Even Toyota and Honda are feeling the pinch. Toyota's October sales in the USA were down 23 percent and the company reported a North American operating loss of 34.6 billion yen over the six months from April through September. Toyota's profits in Asia rose substantially, helping offset the American losses, but the situation is bad enough that Honda's CEO last week asked the Japanese government to intervene to help drive down the yen's value.

Meanwhile, Toyota's Sprint Cup championship challenge with Kyle Busch and Joe Gibbs Racing fizzled spectacularly this year. Nevertheless, despite the global economic funk and the Busch/Gibbs/Toyota implosion as this year's Chase for the Cup got underway the company's big push in NASCAR is just beginning. Most of Toyota's effort so far has gone into engine development at Toyota Racing Development in California. TRD currently builds engines for all three of NASCAR's top series as well as USAC's Silver Crown, Sprint car and Midget divisions plus Lexus engines for the Grand-Am sports car series. But Toyota's next step in NASCAR takes place this fall and winter as TRD's new Charlotte chassis development shop comes on-line. TRD's engineers moved into the new shop in August and next year we'll begin to see the fruits of the new facility's labors.

"We call it CEB--chassis engineering building. That's our moniker for it," says TRD's group vice-president and general manager Lee White about the new Charlotte shop. "It's basically our North Carolina home which we've not had. There's forty-five of us based in North Carolina and we've been spread over three or four counties in various team facilities. We had a little facility we rented from the Germain brothers in Mooresville. So this is finally a place we can call our own.

"We had an opportunity to buy a hundred acres and the company is developing it. We've kept forty acres for ourselves and the chassis engineering building is the first piece. It's still open to the imagination what's going to evolve there later on, but we wanted some room to grow."

A series of industrial lots, many of them racing-related, will be built on the sixty acres not occupied by TRD.

"They've subdivided the rest of it into smaller plots and they've already got most of those sold to people in the industry," White said. "There's a graphics provider up in Greensboro, for instance, who everyone has dealt with for years and they needed to be closer to where the teams are located. Another is a potential small team, and a fairly major team is talking to us about building a shop on one of the larger plots. So it will be fun to see how all that evolves and develops."

White and his team of engineers moved into the new shop in the middle of August.

"There's still some construction going on, detail finishing of the building, but for the most part it's rocking and rolling. We're there every day. There's forty-five of us and it's pure engineering. We don't build a product. We don't build engines or cars. It's purely for chassis and team engineering support."

A number of high-tech testing tools will be available to Toyota's teams in Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Truck series.

"There are two or three set-up plates and a couple of pull-down rigs that teams use a lot," White reported. "We have an eight-post rig for chassis dynamics work that's already in place and functional. The full calibration and commissioning of it was done last month.

"All the top teams have seven-post rigs these days. The eight-post rig is just an evolution with an eighth post installed for aerodynamic loading. We've loaned our eight-post rig to the Gibbs guys and the Red Bull guys, and they're getting eight-post additions to their rigs so we'll all be working with the same equipment and our engineering work correlates. In my opinion, in three to five years eight-post rigs will be just like pull-down rigs for NASCAR racing. Everybody will have them."

White believes the new chassis shop and its many modern tools and engineers will be a real boon to Toyota's teams, particularly the smaller operations.

"I think it's going to be great for the Nationwide and Truck teams who don't have this type of equipment. If they want to come in and run the eight-post rig we have a group of our people we call RVE--race vehicle engineering. We have the track support engineers who travel to the races to help them up and down the pitlane. But the RVE group are basically a shop-based group who just work on advancing the science. There are vehicle dynamicists, aerodynamicists, tire simulation guys and girls, and suspension design engineers.

"The beauty of having this facility is when the teams come in to use the eight-poster if they need help from our engineers--guys who specialize in doing that work on a very advanced level--you don't call them on your cell phone and hope they're going to be available. It's just an intercom call and there's plenty of room in the eight-post control room so they can come in and give you an opinion and help you for an hour. I think that's going to really advance those programs. Having that proximity can't hurt."

Another device available to Toyota's teams will record every detail of their cars after a race.

"We have a GPS-based, laser scanning booth so we can measure not only surface finish, but also document or finger-print chassis exactly," White explained. "We take the top three or four vehicles from every team and they bring them to our shop on Monday morning and we finger-print them. So we know exactly what they ended up with for grip, ride height, tire pressures, shock and spring settings, suspension compliance, and so on. We are able to keep growing our information base based on track performance in the real world under real competition terms. We have all the good basic tools at everyone's fingers, which I see as a real plus."

Another modern simulation tool will come on-line next spring.

"A year and a half ago we asked ourselves, what's the next step?" White remarked. "We said we don't want to have just the standard stuff. So we worked very closely with our F1 group in Cologne, Germany, and with TMS, and came up with a piece of equipment we call AVCS for advanced vehicle corner simulator. It puts cornering loads into the four corners and that unit will be delivered in February and probably will be commissioned by May. We should be pretty much ready to run with that next spring. That will be a lot of fun. We're looking forward to getting that and doing a lot with it."

NASCAR's vice-president of competition Robin Pemberton says the sanctioning body has a solid grip on its technical relationship with Toyota.

"Toyota has done a great job but they were the first ones that came in that had to bring new parts and pieces," Pemberton said. "Everybody else's stuff was already in existence. When Toyota came in everything they brought to the table was brand new technology, brand new everything. That's just the nature of a new manufacturer coming in.

"Dodge had that advantage when they came in a number of years ago because they didn't have the big cast-iron V-8s and cylinder heads and manifolds that it took in their performance racing catalogue, so to speak. So Dodge had to bring all new stuff when they came in and now with Toyota, obviously, all their stuff had to be brand new.

"But in the same time-frame all the manufacturers have brought new engine parts and pieces to us and asked for approval before introducing them into the garage. Chevrolet has introduced their new engine, the R07, and Dodge brought their new engine to us over a year ago. Dodge has run their new engine in competition and Ford has brought their new engine that they'll start running some time next year. So that will bring everyone back on the same page."

Pemberton acknowledges the benefits that should result from TRD's new chassis shop. He agrees with White that the smaller teams should enjoy these plusses the most.

"It depends what level you're at," Pemberton observed. "A lot of times in the Cup series the teams want to be in control and have more control of their own destiny. It's not about going out and buying store-bought parts and pieces. Even when you look at teams from the top to the bottom, wherever they might be, they have some things that Toyota helps them with and some things they engineer on their own. That's the nature of the competition level in the Cup series.

"Now, as it gets down to the Nationwide Series the economics with a factory that's building chassis and helping them with the aero development and hanging bodies and all the geometries and suspension and things it takes to go fast, I think they are more open to more of a factory influence."

Adds Toyota's White: "The difference between us and a guy like Jack Roush is they own the race team. So they have a more direct impact on what's actually delivered to the racetrack. We're a manufacturer and we make recommendations and try to help. But we don't own or control race teams."

Before leaving White to allow him to continue TRD's relentless effort in NASCAR, I asked his opinion about IndyCar's 2011 rules debate.

"Rod Campbell called me and they wanted me to come," White related. "We had a board meeting in California when they scheduled their first meeting, so I couldn't go. Then they decided they just wanted anybody wearing a Toyota shirt. So to me, at that point in time, hopefully without being too critical, this wasn't about really having a discussion. It was about demonstrating that they had interest from the manufacturers."

White says that if TRD tried to sell Toyota Motor Sales on entering NASCAR in today's economic climate it would be a difficult if not impossible sale to make. He says that means Indy car racing is completely off Toyota's map.

"To be honest, we have serious challenges budget-wise," White said. "The concept of going back to Indy, or to open-wheel racing, given those challenges and the fact that we haven't got ourselves to the level we want in NASCAR yet, I'd be a fool to even propose it to the company. So I wasn't going to go and sit and listen to yet another meeting because I do enough of that, and I wasn't about to send somebody else just to take notes. So we did not go.

"I asked (former Ford Racing boss) Dan Davis before he retired if he was going and he said, 'Heck, no!' And I stopped somebody from Chevrolet and asked if they were going and they said, 'No. Why would we do that?'."

White says he took the opportunity to suggest his own solution to Indy car racing's debate about its 2011 formula.

"I did give Rod my opinion. I told him to go get a 1994 Lola or Reynard and put a Cosworth engine in it and go racing. Then you would have something that sounds great, runs great, looks great and puts on a great show, and everybody who loved them will jump at the chance to come and watch because there's still a lot of people out there who remember how great those cars were. Use that as a kind of retro starting point and build it from there. But I don't think they listened."

In America, at least, Toyota's racing future is all about NASCAR and to a lesser degree USAC which Toyota regards as a feeder or ladder system to NASCAR. Over the next few years as Detroit's car builders consolidate or fail, the folks from TRD may end up being bigger players than any of us imagined, not only in NASCAR but across the entire grass roots sweep of American oval track racing.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2008 ~ All Rights Reserved

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