Toyota’s entry into stock-car racing has some good ole boys revved up. Will the Japanese automaker take over Daytona like it’s overtaking Detroit?
Keith Naughton - Newsweek - Feb. 2, 2007
UPS on and Dale Jarrett in a 2007 Toyota Camry at Daytona.
Who knew a Toyota Camry could cause such controversy? America’s favorite family car has the NASCAR Nation all revved up in a heady debate over globalization. When the green flag drops on the Daytona 500 on Feb. 18, a radically souped-up version of Toyota’s humble sedan will become the first foreign car to roll into stock-car racing’s marquee circuit since Jaguar gave it a spin in the 1950s. And that doesn’t sit too well with some of the good ole boys who drive Fords, Chevys and Dodges. They see Toyota as a deep-pocketed predator out to overrun an American institution. “They will use their money and their technology to make the rest of us play catch-up,” racing team owner Jack Roush griped recently, adding for good measure: “Americans shouldn’t buy Japanese cars.”
What’s really driving this debate isn’t how Toyota might win at the track on a Sunday, but rather how it’s scoring victories in the showroom every other day of the week. This year, analysts expect Toyota to overtake General Motors as the world’s largest automaker. And last month, Toyota outsold Ford and Chrysler in the United States. Now comes NASCAR, the last refuge of the beleaguered American auto industry and the country’s No. 1 spectator sport, with an estimated 75 million fans. That makes it a perfect target for Toyota, which has been a top seller on the coasts but is now gunning for Middle America with its big new Texas-built Tundra pickup truck. “Go into the parking lot at a NASCAR race and see what they’re driving,” says Jim Press, Toyota’s top U.S. exec. “This is a big opportunity for us, especially on the pick ‘em up truck,” he says, using his best NASCAR-speak.
Learning the lingo is just part of Toyota’s drive to go native in America. It already builds more than 1 million vehicles a year in the United States at 10 plants that employ 33,500. (It also imports nearly 1 million cars a year from Japan, including the hot-selling Prius hybrid.) Toyota actually sells more cars in the U.S. now than it does in Japan—which explains why 60 percent of its profits now come from North America. With its big new pickup truck, Toyota is going after the drivers most devoted to Detroit. To win them over, it’s trying to appear less elite and cerebral and more down-and-dirty. “We’re going from the head to the heart,” says Toyota marketing VP Jim Farley. “We need to make the transition from an import-and-golfing company to a fishing-and-NASCAR company.”
Oddly enough, Toyota’s move to the mainstream has NASCAR engaged in an intellectual debate over globalization. On one side, Roush (who once paid an employee in yen for driving a Toyota truck) argues that Toyota is “stripping our economy of its essence,” operating from a protected, closed market in Japan. On the other, NASCAR officials argue that Toyota is already an American company. “Hundreds of thousands of Americans drive Toyotas,” says NASCAR spokesman Ramsay Posten. “It’s, in a lot of ways, part of the culture already. Bringing them to NASCAR is really a natural step.” Even the definition of what’s an American car is generating heat. GM’s Chevy Monte Carlo is actually assembled in Canada. Dodge, which received a warm welcome when it returned to NASCAR in 2001, is now owned by DaimlerChrysler, a German company. And then there are those Ford Fusions that Roush’s team races. “The Fusion is a Mazda-based product that’s not built in the U.S., [it’s built in Mexico],” says Toyota’s Press. “The Camry is an Ann Arbor-engineered car that’s built in Kentucky. Who’s to say what’s import and what’s domestic?”
Another product of the South has been caught in the cross-fire: all-star driver Dale Jarrett, who jumped to Toyota after driving Fords for the UPS team. He’s received hate mail and has been branded a sellout on the new Web site Fans Against Racing Toyotas (yes, their acronym is FART). But rather than blow back at his detractors, Jarrett has become such an eloquent advocate for the benefits of a global economy you’d think he’s been reading Tom Friedman’s “The World Is Flat.” “We have to be accepting of change,” Jarrett told ABC News. “If we don’t, then, you know, you’d still be watching 12-inch TV screens.”
One allegation against Jarrett really gets to the heart of the matter: the Ford Racing Technology Team claims Jarrett is getting $20 million to drive Toyotas for Michael Waltrip Racing. Not true, says Ty Norris, general manager of Waltrip Racing. “One of the most frustrating things people say is that he only came here for the money,” says Norris, who has complained about the accusations to NASCAR’s president. “Dale is not the highest paid guy in the sport. His money doesn’t come from Toyota. The money that we pay him, which is reasonable, is comparable to other contracts [for other drivers]. It’s nowhere near $20 million.” (Norris declined to say how much Jarrett is being paid). Whatever his salary, Toyota is financing Waltrip Racing, as well as two other teams, Bill Davis Racing and Team Red Bull. That kind of broad financial commitment shows how serious—and seriously rich—Toyota is. This year, Toyota is on track to make a record $13.1 billion. Last year, Ford lost a record $12.7 billion. Which one is more likely to cut the budget for its racing program? This is really what has Roush and the other Detroit-financed teams worried.
And then there’s Toyota's track record to consider. Before NASCAR, Toyota spent 12 years in Indy car racing, winning the Indianapolis 500 in 2003. In 2004, it entered NASCAR’s Craftsman Truck series, racing its Tundra pickup. After a slow start, Toyota quickly gained traction and last year won nearly half the races on the circuit and captured the series championship. That sounds a lot like Toyota’s relentless rise in the America car market. Maybe those good ole boys of stock-car racing ought to be worried.
Postscript: In terms of qualifying positions at this years Daytona 500, the Toyota Camry contingent did not fare well.
Toyota Camry qualifying positions - 2007 Daytona 500
|14||00||David Reutimann||Dommino’s Pizza|
|15||36||Jeremy Mayfield||360 OTC|
|17||23||Mike Skinner||Bill Davis Racing|
|24||55||Michael Waltrip||NAPA Auto Parts|
|38||84||A.J. Allmendinger||Red Bull|
|43||83||Brian Vickers||Red Bull|