- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 5, 2006

Toyota’s dream machine sits at the NASCAR Research and Development Center in an out-of-the-way corner of Concord, N.C., enduring a long battery of tests that will be followed by even more tests.

The car has been poked and prodded, stripped down, rebuilt, measured and X-rayed. It will be raced on a track in Concord and tested in a wind tunnel in Georgia, all to see if the machine meets the sport’s exacting standards.

And this is the easy part. The real challenge arrives when the car begins competing.

The huge Japanese car and truck manufacturer and NASCAR — the Godzilla of all-American stock-car racing — announced in January that Toyota would join both the Nextel Cup and Busch circuits in 2007.

Though expected, the announcement still set off shockwaves in an industry that thrives on rumor.

It since has been reported — and strenuously denied — that one of the three manufacturers in NASCAR would drop out; that Toyota’s entries would force certain unnamed, high-profile teams to fold or greatly reduce their involvement; that Toyota was going to financially back six to nine teams; and that any number of star drivers, crew chiefs and engine builders were being lured from other teams by mega signing bonuses and seven-figure salaries.

Maybe, maybe not. But several things are certain:

• Competition, already fierce, will get even tougher. Of the 43 spots in the weekly field, 35 are reserved for the leaders in owner points. (Others make the field based on time except for past champions, who get a free pass.)

• The same fierce competition rules the life-or-death struggle to obtain and retain sponsors in a sport where nothing is cheap. In some cases it takes more than one major sponsor to support a team.

• Some existing teams will lose drivers or key shop personnel not under contract and the pay scale in the industry likely will increase.

• With Nextel Cup already facing a shortage of top-notch drivers, the quality of racing likely will suffer when expansion comes.

• Toyota will get off to a faster start than did Dodge six years ago when it rejoined racing because it already is involved in two NASCAR circuits, as well as open-wheel racing.

That, however, is not to say that Toyota can expect to win right away.

“They don’t stand a chance,” said Greg Biffle, who drives a Ford as one of five Nextel teams owned by Jack Roush Racing — the largest of the NASCAR stables. “The Toyota teams are going to be the [bad] guys. But I’ll tell you what, this sport is so hard, so tough, there isn’t anyone that can come in and be competitive right off.”

One reason for the anxiety about Toyota joining the field is the success the company has had in the Craftsman Truck Series. Toyota entered its Tundra pickups in that circuit in 2004. It came within 73 points of winning the championship last season. This season Toyota has won six of the 12 races and has the top four drivers in the standings.

Toyota has no plans to be a wallflower at the Nextel level.

There is some red, white and blue resentment about a foreign car joining the good ol’ boys club, but the fear seems to be more about presumed impact rather than location of home base. The individual NASCAR teams, even the mega-teams, view Toyota’s entry the same way small retailers view a Wal-Mart coming to the neighborhood.

Toyota has had its sights set on the highest NASCAR level for a number of years. It has raced in North America for a quarter-century in off-road and open-wheel competition and entered NASCAR in 2000 in the low-level Dash Series, winning its first race the following season and the championship in 2003.

When it entered the truck series, Toyota became the first new manufacturer to run in one of NASCAR’s top circuits in 50 years. Toyota used engine-building experience gained from the Dash series to produce more competitive truck engines in less time. Now it’s using the knowledge gained with trucks to build engines for the Camry it will run in the Busch and Nextel Cup series.

“It’s similar, but we are having to make some changes,” Jim Aust, vice president of Toyota motor sports in the United States, said of the two engines. The changes are “not insignificant, but at the same time it’s not a major modification. It’s some things that NASCAR obviously felt needed to be done. We’re here to be a competitor the way that NASCAR wants us to be, and changes are the name of the game when you’re in NASCAR.”

One positive thing Toyota has going is the complete cooperation among its truck teams — something not present among teams running Fords or Chevrolets at any level.

“We hope that it works well [in Nextel], too,” Aust said. “Right now, the attitude is for everybody to work together as we move forward. With all the things we’ve got going on, it’s really probably the only way that we can hopefully come out and make the grid at the Daytona 500 next year.”

Toyota plans to run three two-car teams next season — two with Michael Waltrip Racing, two with Team Red Bull and two with Bill Davis Racing. Waltrip will team with former Cup champion Dale Jarrett. Former Busch Series champion Brian Vickers last month left Hendrick Motorsports and signed with Red Bull. No other drivers for the three teams have been announced.

Toyota already is guaranteed a presence in the Great American Race in February. Jarrett, as a former champion, gets a spot in the field.

Toyota also has another two-car entry that will drive only the 16 events that use the Car of Tomorrow, a bigger model that focuses less on aerodynamics and more on safety than current cars. NASCAR plans to slowly mix the cars into the schedule over the next three seasons, beginning in 2007.

That has forced Toyota to develop two cars, the Car of Today and the Car of Tomorrow, simultaneously.

“This was the worst timing ever for us,” Lee White, senior vice president of Toyota Racing Development, told the Associated Press. “If there had just been a Car of Tomorrow, we would have been smiling, because it’s a great leveler for the playing field and it’s only going to be used in a third of the races next year.

“Instead, we’re learning about what we call the Car of Today and the Car of Tomorrow, as well. It’s added a lot of work for everyone — all of the teams, all of the manufacturers. But, because of our unique circumstances, it’s been tough.”

Toyota’s entry could further push up costs at a time when fees potential sponsors are willing to pay are dropping — a prospect that makes the industry nervous. Some owners, without going on the record, are hinting that Toyota-backed teams are offering sponsors “radical discounts” to switch sides.

That, established teams claim, will reduce income even as expenses continue to escalate, forcing some teams riding the bubble out of business.

Toyota says the three teams that will run its cars are all privately owned and have no more of a corporate connection than Roush, for instance, does with Ford.

But this being NASCAR, nothing Toyota says will stem the flow of rumors. And it may be months before it is known if any of the tall tales will come true.

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