Toyota's entry into Cup making many nervous

In a High Point, N.C. garage, red-hot sparks are flying, drills are whirring, hammers are banging and wrenches are clacking, as the best-paid minds in auto racing are preparing Toyota to burst onto the high-stakes racing scene.

As the room continues to buzz with the building of engines, construction of chassis and testing of parts, the workers' focused actions reflect off the shiny chrome of a model Toyota Camry that is on display in the center of the room. The Camry is painted a vibrant, devilish red, a hue that symbolizes the evil ascribed to Toyota by many NASCAR followers.

"Yes, we've heard we are the devil," said Jim Aust, the President of Toyota Racing Development (TRD). "But no, we don't feel like that."

Since the January announcement that Toyota would join the Nextel Cup and Busch series in 2007, concerns that the Japanese car manufacturer would upset the exclusivity of NASCAR and the dominance of the Big Three have quickly mounted.

"We are not the bad people that people think we are," said Aust.

Aust, sporting a collared shirt with a TRD logo on the chest, acknowledged that Toyota's entry into NASCAR's Nextel Cup and Busch series has been met with opposition.

"Certainly there is a polarization, there is no question about it. The people are pro-Toyota coming in, and there is another group that is not so pro-Toyota coming in," Aust said.

It can be difficult to find the pro-Toyota group.

"You can go to Beirut to buy a Whopper, why can't you come from Tokyo and race in America?"
-- Michael Waltrip

"In the garage area, Toyota has become the boogeyman," said Charlotte Observer reporter David Poole.

Toyota will be the first Japanese brand to compete in the Cup Series since its inception in 1948. Many fear that allowing the foreign car manufacturer to contend for the title will cause the American automobile manufacturers, the cars on which the circuit was built, to slowly fade away, allowing an influx of foreign automakers to take over the American-built sport.

"I don't like the fact that they are coming. It should be just the Big Three," said Shane Will, a NASCAR fan who works for Ford. Will's tinted sunglasses and Dale Earnhardt Jr. hat hid his features, but he aggressively shared his feelings. "That's what it was built on, that's what it started from, and that's the way it should be."

Some of the resistance to Toyota's participation stems from American auto workers who associate lost jobs and plant closings with the influx of Japanese cars in the United States. At one point, the popular sentiment was that imports were destroying the American auto industry, causing protesters to go so far as to burn a Japanese flag in Linden, N.J. in 1992. Even in this age of global trade, there is still some lingering resentment against foreign auto makers, according to NASCAR fans outside of the Michigan International Speedway, only a short distance from the heart of the American auto industry.

"They took too many jobs from over there and Toyota and NASCAR just doesn't seem right," said Catherine Hilaski, a NASCAR fan who is flanked by her roommate, Deborah Knight.

"Besides that I'm a Detroit girl, I was born in Detroit and the automotive industry is here in Michigan," Knight added. "We need to keep Ford and Chevy and Dodge right here at NASCAR."

"Toyota should not be in Nextel. No! This is our sport," said Jody Foster, a United Auto Workers member and NASCAR fan.

There are also concerns within NASCAR circles that Toyota's entry will raise the price of competing for the title, forcing Ford, Chevrolet and Dodge to ante up or bow out.

"It introduces another manufacturer and all the other manufacturers that are involved have to make sure that they work as hard as they can to provide pieces that are better than the new kid on the block," said Mark Martin, driver of the No. 6 Ford and a NASCAR veteran with 35 Cup Series wins on his résumé.

Toyota has a history of throwing money at top drivers and pouring millions of dollars into research and development when it enters a new auto racing series. In 2002, Toyota entered Formula One racing, reportedly investing $400 million a year into the sport, which rivals said drove up the price of competition. Now, owners and drivers anxiously await Toyota's entry into Nextel Cup and Busch series racing.

"They're trying to hire away a lot of talent from a lot of different people by paying a tremendous amount of money," said driver Jeff Burton, a 14-year veteran of the Cup Series. "That's the feeling right now about Toyota, that they're coming in and they're going to buy their way in."

Driver Jimmie Johnson, who has spent six years on the Nextel Cup circuit said, "The money that's coming in is changing our sport and is putting a lot of pressure back on the car owners."

Car owner Jack Roush criticized NASCAR's decision to allow Toyota to compete in stock-car racing immediately after the announcement was made. Roush quickly was quoted in numerous newspaper articles saying that Toyota's lavish spending and technological onslaught would hurt the sport.

"If Toyota is allowed to bring in money that Ford and General Motors and Chrysler can't match, then NASCAR has got a real problem, not just the teams, but NASCAR," Roush said in an interview with The Virginian-Pilot in May.

Roush, a 19-year veteran of the Cup Series, claims that Toyota's investments will serve an overseas interest rather than an American one.

"I've enjoyed the fact that NASCAR has been a place where the red-white-and-blue Americans could show preference over the products produced by their peers," Roush said. "Even though these Japanese companies, Toyota in particular, may have factories in the United States that use American workers, it's Japanese capital."

Roush cited Toyota's history in entering different racing series as evidence of his predictions that the foreign manufacturer will seize control of the garage.

"Toyota has not been a good citizen," Roush was quoted as saying in The Virginian-Pilot. "They have not played by any existing rules of fair play over a period of time with other manufacturers and with competitive teams in any series they've ever been in."

Aust firmly stands by his company saying, "To the best of my knowledge I don't have any information that would lead him [Jack Roush] to believe that we have not competed at the level of participation that everybody else is participating at, from a standpoint of playing by the rules and playing within what the sanctioning body is asking for."

And Aust has his supporters as well.

"It all started with Jack Roush saying how Toyota was going to screw up NASCAR when they come racing, and spend all this money," Michael Waltrip said. "Nothing could be further from the truth."

Waltrip, along with Bill Davis and Red Bull Racing, is one of three Toyota team owners. With companies conducting business all over the world in today's global economy, Waltrip sees no reason for auto racing to be any different.

"You can go to Beirut to buy a Whopper, why can't you come from Tokyo and race in America?" Waltrip asked from his team's garage in Cornelius, N.C.

Waltrip hired Dale Jarrett, the 1999 Cup Series Champion, to race for Toyota in 2007. Jarrett had been with Robert Yates Racing for 12 seasons before he signed with Waltrip's team. Many believe that Jarrett was paid an outrageous sum to switch teams, money that Waltrip couldn't afford, leading NASCAR insiders to conclude that Toyota was behind the deal.

"The fact is you don't sign drivers to very large contracts and you don't make commitments to run them in a race series without having funding," said Geoff Smith, the president of Roush Racing. "So, obviously, Michael took a checkbook to the dance, and somebody put money in that bank account."

It was reported that Jarrett was offered a salary of $20 million for two years, but Dan Davis, the director of Ford Racing Technology, said he heard a bigger number.

"We're pretty familiar with what was offered and looking at what was offered there is no way that Michael Waltrip could offer those things, so it came from somewhere else," Davis said.

Ford was unable to compete with the Toyota-Waltrip combination despite 14 seasons of history with Jarrett.

Said Davis: "To me, the whole idea of loyalty versus greed came out and money seems to talk and loyalty walks."

Waltrip responded: "There was nothing that was out of whack about what we paid Dale."

Toyota's NASCAR history is brief, beginning in 2004 with the Craftsman Truck Series. However, with 23 truck victories through this October, it is apparent that Toyota's unique approach has given birth to instant success, which could easily transfer over to the Nextel Cup Series. Unlike the Big Three, Toyota Racing Development builds motors, constructs chassis and provides extensive factory-based engineering data, all things individual teams usually do themselves.

"It's got everybody doing more homework and revving on their race cars because we know what we are up against when we get here," said 10-year Truck Series veteran Rick Crawford.

Truck driver Brendan Gaughan agreed.

"It brought a lot of new money, a lot more money," Gaughan said. "It made all the manufacturers have to really battle for position and for spots."

Felix Sabates, co-owner of Chip Ganassi Racing, laughed when asked if Toyota will outspend everybody else.

"If you spend $150 million in NASCAR you're going to be running up front. And you know what? You'll be able to pick any driver you wanted. You're gonna see a lot of people out there say 'Oooh chihuahua' because they're going to put the money on," Sabates said.

The accusations that Toyota will outspend its competitors and raid the garage have left the Japanese firm defending itself.

"We don't consider ourselves predators," Aust insisted. "All we want to do is we want to be able to come into the series, we want to be able to compete and we want to be able to win some races."

Ford Racing's Davis has a different view.

"If you look at the engineers I've lost, they're a predator as far as I'm concerned," Davis said as he shrugged his shoulders. "I don't know how you can come in and do a good job and be competitive and try to do your very best right away and not be a predator. I don't think it's possible."

Davis said Ford lost its top engineer to Toyota, whom he estimates received a 200 to 300 percent pay increase from the Japanese manufacturer.

Toyota maintains that squashing the competition is contrary to the company's philosophy. It said its main objective in entering NASCAR's Nextel Cup Series is to gain exposure and sell cars, especially in the heartland of America.

"The last thing they would want to do is be seen as unfair in NASCAR or seen as putting people out of work or seen as dominating the sport, spending a lot of money and driving others out of business," said Jeffrey Liker, a University of Michigan engineering professor who has been studying Toyota for over 20 years.

According to Liker, Toyota hopes to use the Cup Series as a marketing platform and aims to become a more prominent fixture in American culture.

"They build cars in America. They intentionally build new plants and employ a lot of suppliers and American workers. They have been working to be viewed as an American company for decades," Liker said. "American companies participate in NASCAR."

"It is natural to feel some sense of suspicion, but NASCAR has been doing something for 60 years and Toyota cannot, in just a year or two, turn that upside down," said Hideo Fukuyama, a former Cup Series driver and current racing analyst for Japanese television. Through an interpreter, Fukuyama said Toyota will work in harmony with the Series and its competitors, then laughed and wagged his finger back and forth while noting the difficulty of disrupting the parity of the Series: "NASCAR has its NASCAR rules, so even if they wanted to, that wouldn't happen."

NASCAR has built a reputation of keeping the competition balanced, holding pre-race inspections and post-race tests for the top five finishers, the pole sitter and randomly selected cars as well. The 95-page rulebook provides stringent guidelines and acceptable parameters for the construction of each car. To maintain equality among manufacturers and prevent any one manufacturer from having a competitive edge, NASCAR has even changed the rules midseason if the races seem uneven.

"If Toyota comes in and dominates NASCAR it won't be Toyota's fault, it'll be NASCAR's," said Poole.

"We've been doing this for 50-plus years, so we've seen manufacturers come and sometimes go. And we've seen manufacturers have a dominant run. It's our job to make sure the rules packages are even and balanced," said NASCAR Chairman and CEO, Brian France.

France recognizes that allowing Toyota into the sport has its risks, but feels it would be a bigger risk to ignore a company that has thrived worldwide and could potentially help cultivate the sport across the globe.

"NASCAR is not going to stay in the past, when the world is moving forward," France said. "We're open to finding or having a path where companies can come and compete in NASCAR and feel like they'll have an even playing field, and it's not just about American-made products. They come in, they fit in, they compete, and they do well and they do it the right way. … It'll benefit Jack Roush, it'll benefit all the other participants by having Toyota come into NASCAR.

"We're in a competitive world. We're in a global economy. They're a big part of this country today and they're going to do an outstanding job of being a part of NASCAR."

However, the continuous expansion of NASCAR could diminish the role of the Big Three in racing. In recent months, the American auto industry has been suffering, with Ford and GM facing major restructuring, including plant closings and job cuts. The result may force American automakers to invest elsewhere if the stakes get too high.

"At some point, if that money gets so high that we decide we can spend it on something else and sell more cars and trucks, we're going to do something else," Davis said.

Ironically, there will be only one Nextel Cup car on the track next year whose showroom version is actually manufactured on U.S. soil. The Ford Fusion is assembled in Mexico, while the Chevrolet Monte Carlo and the Dodge Charger are built in Canada. In fact, Dodge is owned and operated by foreign manufacturer Daimler-Chrysler, a German company. The Camry, the model Toyota will race in 2007, is made in Kentucky, by American hands in factories run on U.S. soil. Despite being based in Japan, Toyota has found a way to tear down cultural barriers and define itself within the American psyche, blurring the line between domestic and foreign cars.

"We feel that we have earned our way here, if you will," Aust said. "Toyota has been selling cars in the United States for over 50 years. We feel we are a part of the overall scene here in the United States. … We are a part of America."

Mike Massaro is a reporter, Greg Amante and Lindsay Rovegno are producers for Outside the Lines.