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Spot News Non-Daily

Monte Dutton, Southern Sports Journal

Toyota Asked For It, Got It and It’s Difficult

            As hard as it may be to believe, the entry of Toyota into NASCAR’s highest level created widespread concern that the world’s most successful automobile manufacturer might monopolize the competition.

            Those concerns seem, in retrospect, to have been a bit overstated.

            No one doubts that Toyota, which is fielding seven supposedly full-time teams this year in the Nextel Cup Series, will eventually be competitive. So far, though, the alleged Toyota menace has been a bust, not a boom. The freight-train effect has turned into a train wreck.

            After the first eight races of the season, the highest-ranking Toyota driver in the Nextel Cup standings, 1999 Winston Cup champion Dale Jarrett, languished in 36th place. Dave Blaney was 38th and then failed to make the field for the ninth race. David Reutimann was 43rd. Jeremy Mayfield 49th and A.J. Allmendinger 50th.

            Only Jarrett had competed in every race. His car owner, Michael Waltrip, failed to make the field in eight straight races after finishing 30th in the Daytona 500.

            In short, things could scarcely have been worse at TRD, which stands for Toyota Racing Development. It might as well stand for Total Racing Disaster.

            Brian Vickers, who won at Talladega in October 2006 while driving a Chevrolet, had Toyota’s three best finishes: 10th at California, 14th at Texas and 15th at Bristol. Unfortunately, he’d made the field for only one other race.

“Everybody knows we have work to do,” said Vickers. “We have to maintain our goals. Right now our goal has to be making races. We can’t forget that.”

            Not even if they tried.

            The chief reason Jarrett made every race was a result of his being a past champion. Before the season, NASCAR officials changed the rulebook, limiting the use of ex-champion’s provisional spots in starting fields to six per season. Jarrett used up his allotment in the first nine races.

            Waltrip, expected to be the drawing card and chief spokesman of the Toyota fleet, was coping with not one, but two, scandals. Before the Daytona 500, his team was caught cheating and handed one of the stiffer penalties in the sport’s history. Then, on the night before Easter, Waltrip flipped a sport-utility vehicle while driving home and was charged with reckless driving and failing to report an accident. One of the indelible images of the season’s first three months was Waltrip saying “I’m sorry.”

            Performance was a major problem at the outset, but even more damaging was a cheating scandal that left Toyota open to further criticism. During the qualifying process at Daytona, NASCAR officials found an illegal substance in the manifold of Waltrip’s No. 55 Toyota. Three days later, on Feb. 14, NASCAR indefinitely suspended Waltrip’s team manager, Bobby Kennedy, and his crew chief, David Hyder. Hyder was fined $100,000, and 100 points were taken away in both driver and owner standings. The car was confiscated so that NASCAR’s inspectors could scrutinize its construction. Competition vice president Robin Pemberton said NASCAR wanted to “go over that car with a fine-toothed comb.”

            A painfully apologetic Waltrip called the scandal “perhaps the stupidest thing that has ever been attempted” after NASCAR determined that the foreign substance was a fuel additive. The issue remained shrouded in mystery, however, particularly after NASCAR declined to identify the illegal additive and Waltrip said an internal investigation had failed to identify who within his team had caused the scandal. A lack of public knowledge contributed to wild rumors from every side. Some cited the scandal as an example of Toyota deception, while others contended the Waltrip car had been tampered with by outsiders as a means of embarrassing Toyota.

            “This is not the action of an organization, a manufacturer or a sponsor,” said Waltrip. “This was an independent act done without consent or authorization from me or any of my executive management team. As an owner, I realize I am ultimately held responsible for the actions of my employees.

            “I respect NASCAR’s rules, its people and the sport’s integrity, which is why I am so sad and embarrassed. I am dedicated to get to the bottom of this because I will not let the independent act of an individual or individuals tarnish the incredible accomplishment my organization has made to be where we are today.”

            Pemberton strenuously insisted that the penalties, perhaps the stiffest in NASCAR history, were a team, not a manufacturer, issue, but the damage was done. Toyota officials quickly moved to distance themselves from the matter, even as Waltrip attempted to save face.

“We are very disappointed and concerned in the events that have happened over the past few days,” said Aust. “These activities have been a distraction to our main goal this weekend -- which is to compete in our first Daytona 500. Toyota certainly does not condone actions such as these by any of our NASCAR team partners.

“Toyota is committed to following the rules and regulations of NASCAR. We understand the importance of working closely with NASCAR, and following all the guidelines established for manufacturers and competitors. Toyota is a company that was built on integrity, and that remains one of the guiding principles of the company. We want to compete, we want to win races and we want to challenge for championships, all while following the rules.”

            Preparing to enter stock-car racing at NASCAR’s highest level, Toyota executed a three-year refresher course in the Craftsman Truck Series that couldn’t have been more successful.

            In truck racing, Toyota’s entry greatly enhanced the quality of competition. The three other manufacturers – Chevrolet, Dodge and Ford – all raised their own factory support in the Truck Series, yet Toyota won in its first year, did even better in its second and dominated the series in its third. The victory total expanded from four in 2004 to nine in 2005 and 12 in 2006.

            Curiously, Toyota largely ignored its best performers in the Truck Series when making the move to Cup. Five different Toyota drivers won races in 2006. Not one of them, including series champion Todd Bodine, rated a promotion to a full-time Cup ride. The only driver graduating to Cup from trucks, David Reutimann, finished third in the truck standings but failed to win any races in ‘06.

            Only one of Toyota’s three Cup teams, Bill Davis Racing, was part of the manufacturer’s Truck Series program. BDR fields Camrys for Blaney and Jeremy Mayfield. Team Red Bull hired Vickers and Allmendinger. Waltrip, Jarrett and Reutimann represent Michael Waltrip Racing.

            Vickers is the only Toyota driver who won a Cup race last year. Jarrett, who was Winston Cup champion in 1999, and Mayfield last won in 2005. Waltrip hasn’t won since 2003.

            One of the oft-asked questions in the weeks leading up to the Daytona 500 concerned the possibility of a Toyota driving winning it. In retrospect, the question seems absurd. Only four Toyota drivers even made the race. The highest finisher, Jarrett, crossed the line in 22nd place. Two races into the season, Toyota had managed to lock itself into an almost inescapable position of inferiority. Only Blaney, Jarrett and, surprisingly, Reutimann, even managed to qualify for the first two races. Mayfield and Allmendinger failed at both Daytona and California.

            Thirty-five spots in Nextel Cup fields are reserved for drivers representing teams based on owner standings. After five races, the current year’s standings determine those 35 spots. By failing to qualify on speed for the early races, an alarming number of the Toyota teams effectively locked themselves out of those automatic spots for the remainder of the season. It’s a hole that gets progressively harder to escape.

            Crew chief Doug Richert finished second in the Cup standings two years ago with driver Greg Biffle. Now he calls the shots for Vickers, and he’s been around long enough – he worked with Dale Earnhardt during his first championship season 27 years ago – to understand fully the difficulty of the task in front of Toyota.

            “We knew coming in that we were going to be behind the eight-ball because of points,” said Richert. “The first thing we did wrong was we didn’t go fast enough on a single-car (i.e., qualifying) run at Daytona. That left us only one real small window to get in. We had a good enough car to make the race, but we just didn’t follow through and ended up blowing the right-rear tire (during a qualifying race), and that cost us any chance of making the field. If we could’ve gotten through Daytona, we’d have been fine, but we didn’t.”

“Success in this sport is all about team,” said Jeff Gordon, analyzing the Toyota prospects, “and it’s going to take some time for their teams to come together.”

Before the season started, Toyota officials, particularly TRD vice president Lee White, spent most of their time defending themselves against the notion that they were buying their way into victory lane.

            “We’ve done extensive research, and I don’t believe the level of expenditure is any higher than the existing manufacturers,” said White. “This is a convenient way for a lot of existing teams to manipulate their own manufacturers and attempt to increase their own level of funding.

            “We provide technology. We don’t own these teams. We don’t fund these teams. What we are trying to do is use our expertise with what I call ‘tribal knowledge,’ or the traditional method of producing racing engines.”

            The most persistent critic was Ford team owner Jack Roush, who alleged that Toyota money had raised the level of expenditures necessary to field a competitive team. Roush vowed not to yield to the threat, however. He brought in a partner, Boston Red Sox principal owner John Henry, renamed his team Roush Fenway Racing, and said he needed vast amounts of capital to meet the Toyota challenge. Ford Racing Technology head Dan Davis was also outspoken in his criticism of Toyota.

            Responding to a question about his “fear of Toyota,” Roush fired back, “Did I say I was scared? I don’t back away from a good fight.”

The disappointing early performances left White with an even stickier problem: defending the wisdom of how Toyota’s Cup program had been conceived. The criticisms had shifted from how much money there was to how the money was being spent.

Waltrip fielded a single Dodge in a shakedown season designed to get ready for heading up Toyota’s flagship, three-car team. He fared poorly, finishing 37th in the 2006 point standings and failing to pick up a single top-10 finish. The popular view was that Toyota valued Waltrip, 43, and Jarrett, 50, more for their public-relations skills than their viability as winning drivers.

Jarrett had languished in his final season with Robert Yates Racing, finishing 23rd in the 2006 standings and finishing in the top five in only one race.

            “I just felt that a change like this was something that was exciting to me,” he said, “to think about the opportunity that I have to help a good friend, Michael Waltrip, start up his race team.
“To help him and then to help Toyota come into the sport was a challenge I felt would give me that energy and that fire inside of me again to really want to help and make this something special. If I can look back after everything is finished and say I had a big part of helping Toyota enter the Cup Series and be successful, then that will be pretty rewarding. …. We can get to victory lane, I think. … I would like to be the driver who takes Toyota there first.”

            The closest thing to a high point for Toyota would’ve earlier been considered no more than an afterthought. In the Busch Series, Dave Blaney finished second in the first race and won the pole for the second.

            It isn’t unfair for an American fan to hope American manufacturers do well. What could be deemed unfair in a global marketplace (i.e., the Ford Fusion production car is manufactured in Mexico) would be for competition to be limited only to American manufacturers, even though it was an official NASCAR policy for decades.

“Mostly, it has been positive,” said Jim Aust, motorsports vice president for Toyota Motor Sales USA. “Of course, there are those who prefer the status quo, and we understand that, especially given all the other changes NASCAR has been going through. But we've been working closely with NASCAR to make the  sport even better. We've helped two new teams join the series in Michael Waltrip Racing and Team Red Bull (BDR had been in Cup since 1993). And we'll continue to work closely with NASCAR and abide by their rules and guidelines established for all manufacturers.”

            Still, many longtime NASCAR fans clearly resent Toyota’s presence.

“You know, as far as Toyota, sure, the parent company is foreign,” said Jarrett, a three-time Daytona 500 winner. “We could go through all that stuff and see who is right and who is wrong, but there are a lot of Toyotas that are built in the United States. They employ a lot of people. They are a great car company… but you're not going to get that across to some people, and I'm not going to try to and that's not my job or my plight to come out here and try to convince everybody that this is the right thing to do for Toyota to be involved.

            “But we have to be accepting of change. If we don't, then you would still be watching 12‑inch TV screens, and that's not a lot of fun whenever you've got everything else that's out there. So I know there are people that are just not going to change and are not going to accept it, and that's fine. Everybody can have that opinion. You just have to understand that the United States government allowed Toyota to come into our country and build and sell Toyota vehicles, and there's a lot of people out there that drive them. … You know, check and see if that TV you're watching was made in the United States that you're watching our great races on. … Understand that we all have to make decisions at times based on what is best for me and my situation, and that Toyota is a big part of the United States economy. … Toyota is going to be very good for the sport. They are going to put a lot of dollars in promoting our sport, and that's going to be good for our sport as a whole.”

Allmendinger, by far the least experienced stock-car racer in the Toyota fold, strained to remain upbeat.

“I know the effort that they put into it and that Toyota puts into their programs and how successful they want to be,” said Allmendinger. “I just knew for me that this was the right chance for me to take and it would be crazy for me to turn it down. I think it really comes down to that in NASCAR, whether it's in Nextel Cup, or through the Busch ranks, or the Truck ranks, or even ARCA ... there’s just a lot more opportunity for drivers to get into a seat, make a living and get their name recognized. In open-wheel racing, there are only 17 to 18 cars in each series, and that is tough to get in there and get your name recognized and get a ride.

“It feels like, at times, my head has been spinning. … It's been something I would never have imagined. … I knew this was going to be difficult. I never thought we were going to dominate or that we are going to go in and win races right away. I have confidence in my ability, definitely confidence in the team's ability and in the manufacturer's ability. … I just want to keep improving through each quarter of the year and by the end of the year, if we can say we are a lot better from where we started, then for me as a driver and us as a team, then we can say it was a great year. It is just about improving from the first of the year until the end of the year.”

“A.J.’s got a big learning curve in front of him,” said Richert. “The only way someone in his position can learn is ‘to do.’ He needs seat time and laps in these kinds of cars because it’s all new to him. That’s all we can do. We can’t get him any more seat time right now than what he’s getting. He’ll get it. He’s very talented. I’ve watched him test at short tracks, he’s very smooth in the throttle. We’ve just to get him through this transition. We’ve got to get him some points and get him up there where he’s got some security.”

Toyota may be learning hard lessons, but the teams aren’t going away. Paradoxically, they are in part responsible for their own problems since, by essentially adding entirely new teams to the sport, they have aggravated the difficulty of making the starting fields. The new manufacturer brings long-term commitment and ample resources to the table.

“At Team Red Bull, we’ve got the combination of the driver and the crew and the resources,” said Richert. “We’ve the tools we need and the support from Toyota to get the job done. It’s a tough time to start with a new team. With the rules the way they are, man, it’s very tough.”