Toyota Motor Corp., the Japanese automaker, employs more than 32,000 Americans who work in several United States assembly plants and at the company’s U.S. headquarters in Torrance. Its dealers employ another 110,000 Americans.
The U.S. is Toyota’s biggest market; Americans bought 2.3 million of its cars and trucks last year, and its 13.6% share of the market in turn makes Toyota the largest foreign auto company in the nation. In California, Toyota’s share is a whopping 27%.
Now, Toyota is taking another big step to expand its economic presence in America, but this time it’s also striking a collective nerve across the country: It’s joining the big leagues of American stock car racing, NASCAR.
Toyota, which has previously gone open-wheel racing in Formula One, the Champ Car World Series and the Indy Racing League, next year plans to field several teams driving its popular Camry in NASCAR’s Nextel Cup and Busch series. Yet, despite being a household name, in racing and among American consumers, Toyota’s reception has been less than resounding.
Simply put, a slice of NASCAR Nation, long accustomed to seeing mostly Fords and Chevies, is uncomfortable with a Japanese carmaker entering its ranks.
Toyota, NASCAR and top drivers such as Dale Jarrett, who is switching to a Toyota team next year, acknowledge a backlash among some fans.
Officials at Ford Motor Co., one of the two NASCAR manufacturing icons, along with General Motors Corp., have said that they fear Toyota will outspend them, giving Toyota teams an advantage.
NASCAR has grown from its Southern roots to become one of the most popular and fastest-growing sports organizations in America. And during NASCAR’s 58-year-history, the cars have been mostly the province of the two biggest U.S. carmakers: GM and Ford. A third competitor, Dodge, is owned by the Chrysler division of the German company Daimler Chrysler.
But starting next year, at least three teams will race at least seven Toyotas in the Cup series, and the number could be higher.
A new team formed by Cup driver Michael Waltrip will have three cars, including one driven by Jarrett, who recently announced plans to leave Robert Yates Racing, a Ford team, after this year. Jarrett’s main sponsor, UPS, plans to go with him.
Bill Davis Racing plans to have two cars, driven by Jeremy Mayfield and Dave Blaney, as does a new team formed by Red Bull Racing, which so far has signed Brian Vickers to drive. Vickers currently drives a Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports.
Germain Racing, which already runs Toyota Tundras in NASCAR’s Craftsman Truck Series, and Wyler Racing also are expected to enter Toyotas in the Cup series next year.
Bringing the Toyota nameplate to the series is a “unique opportunity for us to connect with a very sizable audience,” said Les Unger, Toyota’s national motor sports manager.
Toyota hopes that, eventually, “it would help us in terms of strengthening our sales in the United States,” not just of the Camry but of all of Toyota’s vehicles, he said.
That also means dealing with the critics, especially when a popular driver such as Jarrett signs with Toyota.
“There are a lot of people that certainly understand and are sticking with me as the driver, but then you have the die-hard Ford fans that think I’ve totally fallen off my rocker,” Jarrett said.
“People are going to have their opinions but, for the most part, I think we’ve heard a lot of very positive things about the move.”
Ford officials aren’t so sanguine. They’re concerned that Toyota, which is prospering as Ford and GM are dealing with severe financial problems, will quickly buy its way into the winner’s circle and disrupt the parity among automakers that NASCAR seeks.
“Toyota has a chance of breaking that parity and we’ll just have to see what happens,” Jack Roush, head of Roush Racing, a five-car Ford team, said earlier this year.
Dan Davis, director of Ford Racing Technology, said, “I can tell you I just lost an engineer to a Toyota team and he was given a 200-300% [pay] increase.”
Veteran Jeff Burton, who drives a Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing, said recently, “Toyota, regardless of what they are saying, is throwing a lot of money at a lot of people.
“It’s free enterprise. I am not saying they are wrong for doing it, but they are going to raise the cost of motor sports because of what they are doing with drivers and employees and everything else.”
Unger declined to say exactly how much Toyota would be spending on the Cup series, except to say, “It will be substantial.”
But he said Toyota would not simply buy all the cars and equipment, and hire all the employees, for the new teams.
Bill Davis Racing, for example, builds its own cars and engines, so Toyota will provide only engine parts and technical aid, Unger said. Toyota will provide only engines to Michael Waltrip’s team.
Because the Red Bull team is new, it will get virtually completed cars from Toyota, but that’s likely to end “once they’re up and running,” Unger said.
Unger and others also noted that Toyota’s entry had NASCAR’s blessing.
NASCAR President Mike Helton says that regardless of how much Toyota spends, the sanctioning body will maintain “the balance of competition in the garage area” -- that is, close racing -- through its rules governing car design and performance.
Those rules are so limited that they’ll prevent Toyota from gaining an unfair advantage, said Jimmie Johnson, the points leader who drives the No. 48 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports.
Toyota is “going to be right on the mark and be competitive, but it’s not going to be a runaway situation, like some people fear,” Johnson said.
As for Toyota’s naysayers, Helton says it reflects the general nature of NASCAR’s fans.
“They love to root for [a brand] and they love to root against, that’s the nature of our sport,” he said. “There are people who love Chevrolet and who love not to love Chevrolet. Same thing with Toyota.
“We believe strongly that [Toyota’s entry] is good for all the components of our sport,” Helton added. Toyota “will promote the sport, will expose the sport, will do things to raise the awareness of the sport.”
Waltrip, who also will drive one of the Toyotas for his new team, said, “Any time you change something, people are going to freak out.”
But fans who oppose Toyota’s arrival will eventually come to support the added competition, he predicted.
“I know they will,” he said. “Because it will grow the sport. The sport will be more entertaining.
“It will get Jack Roush more sponsorship money because more people are going to watch, and more people are going to want to know what it’s like when Toyota is competing on the NASCAR circuit.”