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Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off: Toyota’s Here… & There Goes The Neighborhood

Kudzu, a Japanese import, was introduced to the United States in 1876 during the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. The fast growing vine with its massive root structure was said to be a valuable ally in preventing soil erosion, particularly in the Southeast portion of the United States where the climate was perfect for the plant. In fact, the U.S. government spent a lot of money planting Kudzu down South; and in one of the classic cases of the Law of Unintended Consequences, it did, in fact, flourish in the United States. But Kudzu hasn’t exactly done what it’s supposed to; with no natural enemies, the vine took over its habitat, eliminating native plants in many areas and making a perfect, if seemingly undefeatable, enemy for Southern farmers. Millions of dollars have been spent on trying to eradicate Kudzu – but it still flourishes in many areas, even to this day.

OK, I don’t write about botany; and my only real experience with gardening came back during my long ago ill-spent youth, when another non-indigenous weed (said to have been imported to keep railroad ties from rotting in wet climates) was part of daily life.

So, where am I going with this?

It’s to point out an eerie similarity of sorts. Another non-native species has become part of NASCAR’s culture over the past five years, threatening to eradicate all those competing against it – and that’s Toyota. Say what you will about Toyotas produced here in the United States, but they are still a foreign car company nonetheless. The fact some Toyotas are built in the U.S. doesn’t make them an American car company any more than the fact that I can get somewhat serviceable General Tsao’s Chicken here in the sleepy burg of Guthriesville, Pa. The food might be made in an American town… but that still doesn’t make it American cuisine.

Like Kudzu, Toyota has flourished in a non-native environment, and threatens to eliminate domestic competition not only in NASCAR racing, but in the auto market. Perhaps you feel I’m being alarmist. As this is written, Toyota hasn’t won a single points-paying Cup race, its best finish to date just third place – although if you watched the last lap at Daytona, you know they didn’t miss by much.

When you look at history, though, Toyota’s success rate is well in line with how they’ve performed in the past. The manufacturer’s first foray into NASCAR racing came in the Craftsman Truck Series back in 2004. After a surprise second-place finish at Daytona with Travis Kvapil, Toyota struggled through a series of misadventures that saw them facing teething problems, often paired with circumstances that seemed to conspire to keep them from winning races. It wasn’t until August of that year when Kvapil managed to put Toyota into victory lane for the first time at MIS; within a month, Todd Bodine, at the wheel of another Toyota, won back-to-back races at California and Texas. But at the end of the season, it was Dodge’s Bobby Hamilton edging out Chevy’s Dennis Setzer, Ted Musgrave in another Dodge and Ford’s Carl Edwards for the series title. Stasis was maintained at the top; the best finishing Toyota pilot was Kvapil, coming home a distant eighth in the final standings.

Things went a bit better for Toyota in the Truck Series in 2005, particularly in the second half of the season. Tundra drivers won nine of 25 races, including the last three, with Bodine scoring the trifecta. Five total victories allowed Bodine to finish fourth in points; but that was merely a precursor of what was to come. In 2006, the manufacturer took control of the series, scoring 12 wins in 25 races as Bodine took home his first truck title. Behind him, Toyota pilots swept the top-six finishing positions in the standings, a shocking turnaround in just their third season. In contrast, the Dodges – once the powerhouses of the CTS – went without a single win. The following year, Toyotas won 13 of 25 races, but Ron Hornaday upheld the home team’s honor, bringing home the title in a Chevrolet. Still, Toyota drivers took positions two through four in the series; and despite Hornaday’s points trophy, the trucks had in effect transitioned into the Toyota Invitational – for the second straight year, the manufacturers’ championship was theirs.

In their first assault on what was then the Busch Series last year, Toyota managed to score two victories. While Edwards ran away with the title in a Ford, David Reutimann, at the wheel of a Toyota, finished second in the standings. Just one year later, Camrys have already swept the first two races this season, with Tony Stewart dominating both Daytona and California in his JGR Camry.

Toyota also began competing in the Cup Series last year; but over on that side of the fence, even the kindest critic couldn’t label their first-year performance as anything but a debacle. Starting with the Michael Waltrip fuel scandal at Daytona (and his subsequent failure to even qualify for the next 12 races) missteps continued throughout a forgettable season; the best Toyota could manage was a 31st-place finish in the standings with Dave Blaney.

In off-track action towards the end of that year, Toyota made headlines by signing Joe Gibbs’ three Cup teams – once stalwarts of the GM campaign – to compete in Camrys for 2008. The result? An immediate step up from mediocrity to respectability. On the last lap of the Daytona 500, Toyotas were running 1-2, and it took the pairing of Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch to rain on a Toyota parade that threatened to march right through the Great American Race.

In other major news, last year Toyota came up a few thousand vehicles short of taking the title of most prolific car manufacturer from GM. This year, analysts predict that Toyota will take over that top spot at last; and for the first time ever, the leader in the industry won’t be headquartered within the heart of Detroit.

As the transition of power continues, there’s an interesting correlation that’s been made throughout it all. It seems that interest in the Truck Series has declined in proportion to Toyota’s success; and my guess is as Toyota begins winning races in the Nationwide and Cup Series, a lot of longtime fans will head for the exits.

Why? Simple; in a sport founded on the slogan “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday,” it is impossible to separate Toyota the car manufacturer from Toyota the NASCAR Cup entrant. Toyota (and Honda) have the American Big Three on the ropes, and a lot of good-paying blue-collar jobs in the auto industry and in satellite industries to the auto industry are gone, perhaps for good. Trying to decide why is launching into a thorny thicket; I’ll leave that to others for the most part. But even as a fan of the “home teams,” I won’t deny that executive arrogance and union greed have helped land us in this unholy mess, to the point wherein GM wants to buy out all its hourly employees. As the Big Three continue to hemorrhage red ink, it is impossible not to consider a future where one or even all of them cut NASCAR racing programs from their marketing budgets. Right now, the party line is that when the chips are down, there’s a need to market and promote the brand; and as far as bang for the buck, NASCAR is the big arena. But that trend will continue only as long as their cars keep winning; to continue to spend millions – only to have a foreign rival start kicking their butts in a very public forum – isn’t going to sit well with even the most liberal shareholders of Ford, Chevrolet and Dodge.

I realize some of you reading this are thinking the free market economy is one of the things that makes America great. If Toyota can provide a better product at a comparable price, you say, there’s no reason they shouldn’t take over the market. But my faction might liken this life or death struggle to the stick-and-ball sports. Being from the Philadelphia market, I am all too used to our teams providing a substandard product. But even during the worst seasons (and there have been lots of them) if the Eagles can just beat those despised Dallas Cowboys twice, then 14 other losses are acceptable. I’m not sure what makes so many Eagles diehards despise the Cowboys, unless it’s the fact the Boys were once the all-dominating team in the NFL East – just as Toyota is now a dominant player in the auto marketplace. And just like Eagles fans can endure countless losing seasons without a title as long as the Eagles beat the Cowboys, GM, Ford and Chrysler fans can accept the new reality in the marketplace – just as long as Blue Ovals, Bowties and Rams continue to dominate in NASCAR racing.

So, with the very real chance (I’d say near certainty) that Toyota drivers will win races this season and compete for titles, it behooves NASCAR to address the situation head on. After all, they say they are trying to win back and maintain longtime fans, many of whom have an attitude of “Better a sister in a whorehouse than a brother in a Toyota.” While the France family has taken millions of yen to allow Toyota to get a foot in the door, there is also a way to ease them back out of the picture. As I’ve stated before, I think the quickest way to revitalize the series is have Ford Mustangs, Chevy Camaros, and Dodge Challengers as the mounts of choice in Cup racing. All three nameplates have a solid performance history, and legions of rabidly loyal fans. The Mustang in particular is a performance icon, having endured while the Camaro and Challenger went on hiatus. Back in the ’80s, I owned a succession of 5.0 Mustangs, and in that era, at the wheel of a Mustang you owned the streets. There was no need to fear an IROC or a Corvette, much less a 944 Turbo or Supra. Yes, there were still 911 Turbos and ZR1s out there; but by and large, the buyers of such ludicrously expensive machines tended to be older and less prone to show up at the street drags in south Philly to run.

But what about Toyota? They don’t have a pony car, and even if they were to start producing one next year, it would take a generation to make it an icon. There would be no Hemi Challengers, Shelby Mustangs or Yenko Camaros to back up the nameplate; and by risking introducing a V8-powered, gas hungry wild into the streets, Toyota would risk alienating the Prius-owning, fuel-sipping sustainable transportation crowd that have become their champions. That’s thin ice my gut tells me that company would be too smart to tread out on.

And for all their seemingly inexhaustible financial resources, technical expertise, and determination, Toyota is not unconquerable. After a few good seasons in open-wheel racing, when the Hondas began dominating the series, Toyota took their ball and went home, saying they chose to marshal their resources to compete in the worldwide arena of Formula 1. Their success rate since doing so? Not much to speak of; to date, their best efforts have hardly produced a ripple in the pond.

Call me a xenophobe, but I cannot stand the idea of a foreign auto manufacturer winning a Cup title; and I know there’s a lot of others like me out there, too, despite the fact some of them might have a Camry or Tundra parked in the driveway. I’d like to think the spiritual descendants of those captains of industry in Detroit from the early 1940s – who marshaled their efforts to win World War II, can once again rally to defeat foreign invaders – but I am no longer certain, just hopeful. In the meantime, until Detroit, our home teams, get their acts back together, at least let fans in this country have our sweet little victories on Sunday afternoons.

Author’s Note: Because of deeply held religious beliefs, I don’t want the above article to be construed as implying that I don’t like folks of Asian descent. Over the years, I have had many Asian friends who have made my life that much richer. At car shows and flea markets, I regularly deal with Asian buyers and enthusiasts who love the same cars and motorcycles that I do. Because of our common interests, we can form a bond even when language is a barrier. Late last fall, when I was riding my Harley through Amish country up 322, I happened across a group of Japanese tourists clearly enamored of my Nightster. One of them shyly asked if he could have a friend take a picture of him sitting astride my bike. Naturally, I agreed, and everyone left our encounter grinning after much shaking of hands and good-natured, if not entirely successful, attempts at conversation. I have no problems with Asians or any other ethnic group; I just don’t care much for the Japanese companies’ methods of doing business.

Drivers to Watch at Las Vegas

Jimmie Johnson: Johnson has won the last three Vegas Cup races and the sport’s betting odds at Vegas are for him to make it four in a row. It’s hard to win betting against the House.

Matt Kenseth: Prior to Johnson’s three wins, Kenseth won two Cup events in a row at Vegas. This track has traditionally been a strong venue for the Roush Fords, too.

Kyle Busch: As hot as he’s running right now, the next win could occur anytime, anywhere.

Mark Martin: Martin won the first Cup race run at Vegas, and has won here twice in the Busch Series. The sentimentalist’s pick.