The Frontstretch: Toyota Struggles No Reason to Get Cocky by Mike Neff -- Monday April 9, 2007

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Toyota Struggles No Reason to Get Cocky

Full Throttle · Mike Neff · Monday April 9, 2007


Toyota has come out of the box like a car with three wheels this season. The highest standing Toyota is Dale Jarrett in 37th place in the points, which is primarily because he was able to use Past Champion's provisionals to make most of the first six races of the season. This is hardly the onslaught that most people were predicting when Toyota and their huge budget announced they were invading the sport. However, don't let these struggles mislead, these are new teams, and they are going to have problems just like any new team does entering the sport for the first time. People who know better are not gloating over the struggles of the new manufacturer, they are still fretting about what will happen once they get their cars running well and start competing with everyone else.

Jack Roush mentioned in an interview this week that he is not gloating over Toyota's struggles early this season. He feels, like any new team, there are going to be difficulties early on in getting a handle on the setups, getting the right chemistry among the members of the crews and working out the bugs in new equipment. His concern isn't 2007, it is the future, 2008 and beyond, when the teams begin to run better and more and more talented people in the sport are tempted to jump ship and chase the big money that Toyota is throwing around.

Some of the most talented people in the sport have balked at going over to Toyota this year because of the fact that they knew there would be struggles early on. However, once the Toyota teams begin to show some strength and start competing near the front of the pack, it is going to be harder and harder for the people who are the most successful in the sport to turn their back on the kind of money that Toyota is going to offer them. That is the thing that is going to make the people who run the teams for the other manufacturers nervous and ultimately is going to threaten the stability and financial future of the sport.

Toyota has a bigger budget than the other manufacturers do for their racing efforts, and that reality is not lost on the powers-that-be running the teams in NASCAR today. Jack Roush went out and found a financial partner in the folks who run the Boston Red Sox to help him going forward. Ray Evernham announced that he is also considering finding another financial partner so that he can continue on into the future with the uncertainty that is being brought on by the nearly unlimited capital that Toyota is looking to pour into NASCAR. The ramifications of these moves could be very far reaching and have enormous impacts going forward in the sport.

The question at this point is looking like, how long will it be before Toyota begins to run more competitively and is it going to be in time to lure some of the best talent in the garage over to their side in the off-season? As mentioned before, there are no Toyota teams in the top 35 in owner's points at this point in time. Once a team figures it all out, and starts getting solid Top 20 and Top 15 finishes, and the knowledge begins to circulate through the Toyota camp, more and more teams will begin to run better. At that point in time, when Toyota teams are ensured of making races and are starting to look like they can compete for wins, there are going to be some top notch crew chiefs, crew members, and shop personnel that are going to follow the cash and switch over to Toyota. Once that happens, there will be Toyota teams that will compete for the Championship, and there is a distinct possibility, with the resources that Toyota brings to the table, that it could happen before 2010.

As Toyota gets close to a Championship, it will be up to the other manufacturers to step up and compete, or the series will begin to look like the Truck series does at this point in time. Toyota is now the dominant manufacturer in the Trucks, the other manufacturers are not stepping up to be competitive, and the result is a series that is completely top heavy with Toyotas right now. While the Truck series offers the best competition in the three big NASCAR series, it isn't going to grow its fan base because there isn't a competition between the manufacturers and the potential winners on a given weekend are extremely limited.

So while Toyota is struggling to put cars into races at this point in time, do not think that these struggles are going to last. The amount of money that is being pumped into their teams and the technical resources that they have are certainly going to overcome these early struggles. Ultimately, there is a good possibility that the Toyota teams will be running up front and potentially dominating the entire series. So American manufacturer fans, don't get cocky, because the cream rises to the top, and in auto racing, the cream comes from money.

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Travis Rassat
04/10/2007 09:30 AM

Great article – I really am glad I found, because you seem to have the most level-headed, objective view of racing I’ve seen in a while. That a lot more than I can say for most of the media. Keep up the good work!

One thing I would like to add is that Toyota is also very good about being efficient with how they are spending their money – they are sharing resources and information across teams, thus preventing duplicate and triplicate work. There’s a lot to be gained by utilizing their team cooperation model. They do a lot to promote and encourage information sharing between the teams, and it benefits everyone involved.

That’s where guys like Jack Roush will have a hard time letting go of their existing model in order to keep up. From his perspective, he would be helping his competitors, but from Ford’s perspective he’d be helping the Ford teams. I’ll be curious if Ford, Chevy and Dodge have done anything like that or will start doing it. Unless they do, guys like Roush will just have to throw more money at it.

04/10/2007 03:45 PM

Okay…. Let’s everybody take a step back from the edge of the building and take a deep breath. The big, bad monster, otherwise known as Toyota, is not – repeat NOT – going to doom NASCAR. What is wrong with the racing fans that absolutely freak out whenever something new comes along? Someone much smarter than me once said “The only thing that is constant is change.”

Let’s take a quick look at some of the other recent changes to our sport, reflect on how a lot of folks screamed just like Chicken Little that the sky would soon begin to fall, and then look at the facts and how our beloved pastime evolved for the better.

First up – restrictor plates. Holy Cow! How can NASCAR call it “racing” when they mandate changes be made that actually slow the cars down? This must be the beginning of the end. But wait! The racing got more exciting!!! Now, I agree that the argument can be made that having 43 cars traveling in a pack at 190 miles per hour is more dangerous than duck hunting with Dick Cheney and therefore may ultimately be bad for the sport, but that is a totally different discussion. A lot of fans screamed that slowing the cars down “just ain’t right” and they predicted the immediate demise of stock car racing. In reading some of the books that discuss the history of NASCAR, there were times when the winner would reach the checkered flag two or three LAPS ahead of the 2nd place car. Call me crazy, but winning by over 5 miles is not excitement, that’s most of Major League Baseball’s American League pennant races (Yankees Win!).

Second – The Chase. How dare they? You mean instead of racing hard for 38 races a year NASCAR is going to have everyone race for 28 races and then narrow the field to ten, or now twelve, drivers for the final 10 races? Okay…. THIS must be the beginning of the end. But wait! The championship got more exciting!!! Don’t think so? Just look at the Busch series last year. Kevin Harvick had clenched the Busch championship with two races remaining. He could actually have spent the last two Saturdays of the season helping Delana get fitted for her new Shell-emblazoned racing suits instead of whipping all the other Busch teams and he still would have been crowned the Busch series champ. Color me silly, but by my calculations, the old championship format employed by the Busch series actually shortened the series by two whole weeks while the Nextel Cup Chase was not finalized until the closing laps at Homestead. As a side note, NASCAR has addressed some of the major complaints of the Chase format, including the situation that almost occurred last year when the driver who won the most races in the regular season, Kasey Kahne, almost did not qualify for the Chase. I don’t care if you think Brian France and Mike Helton are both the devil incarnate, you have got to give them their props for fixing a glaring error in the Chase format. By the way, the Chase was such a good idea that the PGA tour followed NASCAR’s lead and mimicked the Chase format for their new FedEx Cup. NASCAR and the PGA? Wow… Sports do make strange bedfellows…

Third – The Car of Tomorrow. I know this is still very much an open issue, but you have to admit that the ghosts of drivers past did not rise out of their graves in a spiritual protest on Sunday, March 24th – the day the Car of Tomorrow (or Today, or whatever it is) took to the banked concrete of Bristol Motor Speedway. The sun did not disappear, nor did the earth cease to exist. No. A new, albeit much uglier, car took to the oval. And guess what? The racing was pretty darn good. It was even better when they took the COTs to Martinsville. Do they have on-going issues? As they say in Fargo, “You Betcha!” Not the least of which is the fact the new foam burns easier than Jeff Gordon when someone does not scurry out of his way on a white flag lap. But again, NASCAR is moving swiftly to find out what is causing this problem and fix it. This is the evolution of the sport. The cars are safer and teams will need to build fewer of them in order to compete. Both of these results, if achieved, bode extremely well for our sport.

So now we turn our attention to the newest threat to NASCAR: Toyota. Everyone, including Jack Roush, has painted a very bleak picture of the sport after Toyota establishes itself in Nextel Cup. Toyota, with all of their Yen, is going to enter the sport and begin tossing money around like Parris Hilton on a 3 day Vegas bender. They are going to start with offering Dale Jr.’s tire carrier $1 million to tote tires for a Toyota team. Then they are going to start paying the top drivers billions (that’s right, billions!) to pilot their Camerys. I have a hard time believing that the regular NASCAR fan is that worried that drivers, crew chiefs and top notch engineers may soon see their pay increase. Is there going to be a bidding war for our sport’s top notch personnel? Probably, but you can’t blame that all on Toyota. If any new manufacturer was going to try its luck in NASCAR, they would have to employ the same strategy. To get the top talent, you have to give them enough of a reason to leave their established team and crossover to an unproven team. And as they say: “Money talks”. That, my friends, is the American way.

And that brings us to another reason Toyota strikes fear in the hearts of many NASCAR fans. Its not that a new manufacturer is going throw the entire NASCAR pay scale out of whack. It boils down to the simple fact that a manufacturer from a foreign country is trying to make inroads to one of bastions of Americana and it scares people, plain and simple. This argument just does not hold water. All Camrys are manufactured in Georgetown, KY. All Ford F-150’s, Ikon’s, and Fusion’s are all made in Mexico. Remind me again – who is the foreign manufacturer?

So I say to all the NASCAR masses out there who are worried that Toyota will take over NASCAR, take it easy. Change is not necessarily bad. The entry of Toyota into NASCAR is simply another step in the evolution of our sport. Toyota entered the Craftsman Truck Series and many say that is the best racing of all the series. So again, everyone take a deep breath and relax. Toyota may have deep pockets, but they are not Godzilla.


Contact Mike Neff

Recent articles from Mike Neff:

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