- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 26, 2006

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It was not a little jarring several years ago when NASCAR fans began arriving at racetracks in Toyota Tundra trucks and other vehicles built by foreign manufacturers.

Now, Japanese automaker Toyota is preparing to leave the parking lot and drive into that bastion of American auto racing and culture — NASCAR’s Nextel Cup series.

Not since the mid-1950s, when British-made Jaguars ran a handful of races in NASCAR’s top series, has a foreign make competed in the Cup.

From that time until 2000, when NASCAR allowed a Toyota-powered car in the now-defunct Goody’s Dash Series, even the suggestion that a car or engine built by the Japanese, the Germans or any other non-Americans could eventually race in NASCAR kindled everything from heated debate to physical confrontation among the parochial and rabid fans of stock-car racing.

Once Toyota ratcheted up to the Craftsman Truck Series in 2004, though, it became clear the next step was stock cars.

It was announced earlier this week that a NASCAR edition of the Camry, the best-selling car in the United States in seven of the past eight years, will begin racing in 2007 in both of NASCAR’s top stock-car series, the Cup and Busch.

“Like it or not, Toyota is a very important part of our economy today,” said team owner Jack Roush, who fields five Fords in the Nextel Cup series and won the 2004 championship. “We’ve got a lot of dealer investment dollars out there, and we’ve got a lot of our population that works in Toyota plants around the country. So they have every right to be here.

“I knew that it was inevitable, and I know that they’ll be very tough competitors. … I welcome their being involved because I think they’ll be good for the sport. I think they’ll be great for the fans and the enthusiasm, I think, will sell more tickets to our racetracks.”

Jim Aust, vice president of Toyota Motorsports and president and chief executive officer of Toyota Racing Development USA, said he isn’t surprised that the response so far has been generally unemotional.

He points out that Toyota will be celebrating its 50th year doing business in the United States in 2007.

“We’re part of American business. The production Camrys are built in Georgetown, Kentucky, at one of our eight plants in the U.S.,” Mr. Aust added. “And the company employs more than 140,000 Americans.”

Toyota will start with three teams and six cars — the established two-car team owned by Bill Davis; the team owned by two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip, which is moving up from Busch; and the all-new Team Red Bull.

For Waltrip, there was no hesitation about joining forces with Toyota.

“I think most people will accept it and be OK with it, and I think it will also springboard the sport forward,” Waltrip said. “You know, you’ve got another manufacturer that’s going to come in, buy more ads on TV, supply more vehicles for cats to race on the track.

“It will be one of those bumps in the sport, just like the TV package, just like Dodge’s venture into the sport was. It will just add more interest, more competition and more intrigue. True fans will say, ‘This is cool. These guys are going to make more cars and we’re really not going to know who is going to win now.’”

Mr. Aust acknowledged that there were fears among the Toyota hierarchy of a backlash when the company moved into the truck series. It didn’t happen.

“We sold 2.2 [million] units in the U.S. in 2005. I think the numbers are a big part of the acceptance, as far as NASCAR is concerned,” he said. “We don’t really anticipate there is going to be a great surprise. Certainly, there are going to be people that have their own opinions here and there, but overall we’re very happy with the reaction so far.”

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