NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thompson in Turn 5: Toyota Banking On Some Old-Fashioned American Ingenuity… From Joe Gibbs

Today’s expected announcement that Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) will end a 15-year relationship with General Motors (Chevrolet and Pontiac) in favor of forging a new alliance with the behemoth Japanese auto manufacturer Toyota indicates just how far from the “moonshine” days of NASCAR’s infancy its race teams have come. All indications are, that if anyone was knocking on doors, it was Toyota selling themselves to the highly successful JGR organization. In other words… Toyota needed Gibbs more than Gibbs needed Toyota.

Though generally considered second to Hendrick Motorsports in status within the GM hierarchy of race teams, Gibbs is a coveted member of the manufacturer’s racing effort that has resulted in capturing five of the last six manufacturer championships, and the organization is seemingly on track to contend for bragging rights again for the 2007 race season. Conversely, Toyota, in their inaugural year in Cup racing, is a distant fourth in the standings among auto manufacturers, and though showing some improvement in Nextel Cup performance, is woefully lagging in its development to its competitors… most notably GM.

As a “buy American” advocate and one that would take the bus rather than purchase a “foreign” automobile, even I no longer can argue the appropriateness of NASCAR allowing overseas auto builders to compete against the traditional American makes. Try as I might, I cannot stave off the economic globalization that has seen the once proud and prosperous American auto manufacturers of General Motors and Ford take a steady and sad fall, now operating in the red and fighting for their financial survival. Nor can I even determine at this point whether the Dodge/Chrysler brand is again an American brand or not. Judging from the huge international list of foreign investors that make up the investment firm (Cerberus) that now owns the company… your guess is as good as mine. One can hardly blame NASCAR, Bill Davis Racing, Michael Waltrip Racing or apparently JGR for throwing in with a car builder who possesses a strong balance sheet and with it the likelihood of being in existence in another decade. But that the world’s #1 seller of vehicles has found the going difficult in competing against the NASCAR talent, generally considered among the “sophisticated” motorsports enthusiasts worldwide as a low-tech version to some of the international racing series, is at least a small victory for good old American ingenuity.

Through a concerted effort on the part of the Japanese company to control their “end” race product, Toyota has, in every series it has competed in, kept its technology and development in-house. This is a business formula that has served them well during their years of participation in numerous auto-racing endeavors, including in the United States; CART, IMSA, various off-road racing series and the former Goody’s Dash Series. Toyota Research and Development (TRD) is the division of the manufacturer charged with assuring that Toyota gains dominance on the track… and historically they have been up to the task. Even within the NASCAR ranks they have become the dominant manufacturer in the Craftsman Truck Series the last two years after somewhat of an inauspicious beginning. But their courting of JGR is widely believed to be a cry for help for some technological help that they recognize they need to be successful in the series.

That Toyota is going to have a stellar line-up of drivers in two-time Cup champion Tony Stewart, 2006 Rookie of the Year Denny Hamlin and the very promising Kyle Busch campaigning Camrys next season is just the frosting on the JGR cake. Perhaps of equal and greater interest to Toyota is Mark Cronquist, JGR’s engine builder. Cronquist, a protege of the late Hendrick Motorsports master engine guru Randy Dorton, has the knowledge and abilities that Toyota desperately needs to bring their engine package up to a competitive level with its competitors in short order.

Cronquist has been instrumental in the development of Chevrolet’s new powerplant, dubbed the R07, primarily in cooperation with the engine department heads at Childress, DEI and Hendrick. And that JGR, with Cronquist in tow, is taking Chevrolet’s latest technology to Toyota is not sitting well with the other top GM teams. It is now rumored that the other main GM Cup organizations are conflicted as to whether JGR should be allowed to participate in their monthly meetings. Said Richie Gilmore, who heads up the competition side of Dale Earnhardt Inc. and is a highly respected engine builder in his own right, “We just developed a new engine, and all that technology is gone to another competitor.”

Busch, signed to drive for Gibbs next season, inadvertently announced the manufacturer switch after being baited by reporters (he’ll know better next time!) when he discussed the engine dilemma that Toyota finds themselves in and what Cronquist will be able to provide for Toyota. “I’ve met with him a few times in our meetings and our discussions,” Busch said. “He’s a really cool guy. Actually, when we were talking about Toyota, they brought him in because I had a bunch of questions about the motor.

“They’ve got a lot of questions in that area… they’ve got the… top-end power but don’t have bottom-end. They’ve had not too many reliability issues, but a couple still… Mark [said] to me they feel like their package that they’ve had in the Chevrolets, especially with the new R07, that they can translate that into the Toyota and hopefully have a pretty good piece come January.”

Not to say that Joe Gibbs Racing will not benefit considerably for its defection from GM to Toyota. That the newest manufaturuer entrant into Nextel Cup Racing came with very deep pockets is not a secret to anyone. However, it is safe to bet that whatever the actual cost of the Gibbs/Toyota alliance to the manufacturer, it was deemed worth the premium they are paying to “fast track” their race effort to competitiveness. An effort, if kept within the confines of Toyota Research and Development would have taken years to come to fruition at its present pace.

I’m chalking this one up as a win for the “Good ‘ole Boys.”

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