Freshman Year: Toyota Craftsman Truck
By: Mike Magda, Editor Posted: 12-19-04 16:31 ET
© 2004 PickupTruck.com

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Toyota’s respectable showing in its first year racing the Craftsman Truck series comes as no surprise to seasoned observers of either motorsports or Toyota’s culture. Toyota trucks won four races in the 25-race schedule and Tundra drivers recorded 25 top-5 finishes. In the manufacturer’s championship, Toyota placed third ahead of Ford. Dodge won the title for its first time with 162 points followed by Chevy—which has eight of the 10 trophies—at 149, Toyota 123 and Ford—the winner in 2000—with 116.

As the first foreign-based manufacturer to compete in one of NASCAR’s elite series, Toyota had more to overcome than just building a pushrod engine from scratch and setting up its teams. Considerable skepticism and resistance to Toyota’s participation came from fans and within the racing community. The NASCAR rulebook clearly states that its series are reserved for American vehicles. Dissention rose high enough that Nextel Cup driver Jimmy Spencer was quoted as saying, “Those (SOBs) bombed Pearl Harbor, don’t forget. As long as it’s good for the economy, I guess it’s OK. But I hope Ford, Chevrolet and Dodge kick their (butt).”

Longtime car owner Jack Roush echoed the feelings of many stock car fans when he was quoted in USA Today: “I really don’t want to be seen as a guy that has laid himself down on the tracks and said we shouldn’t have Japanese cars in stock-car racing. I don’t want to be that guy. But I do hope that NASCAR and that the fans and everybody that’s involved will take stock of what’s good for our economy in the purchases of consumer goods.”

Racers worried about Toyota’s ability to throw huge amounts of cash at the project and leverage technology learned in other motorsports. Observers noted Toyota was spending hundreds of millions of dollars in the hyper-technology driven Formula 1 and matches Honda on the IRL circuit where Chevy announced it will leave next year following a season in which its engine was barely competitive.

So Toyota had political as well as technical concerns when the company began to develop its NASCAR strategy at the turn of the century. The point man for Toyota was Pat Wall, a motor racing consultant with plenty of experience in marketing, sponsorship development and promotion. He convinced NASCAR that Toyota was indeed an American company with more than 30,000 direct jobs and over 100,000 employed under Toyota umbrella when all dealerships were counted. He stressed that all Toyota pickups are manufactured in the United States, and a third truck plant will be built in
Texas.

In January 2002, NASCAR invited Toyota Motor Sales USA to compete in the Craftsman Truck Series. Design work on the body started in March followed by engine development in May. Toyota Racing Development (TRD) was in charge of both. Toyota took a very structured approach to the development process. All trucks, including frames and bodies, and the engines would be built by TRD and either provided, sold or leased to the teams. The engine program was especially stressful as Toyota had never built a 358-cubic-inch pushrod V8 with a carburetor. Throw in NASCAR’s Byzantine rule book and it’s easy to see why components had to be redesigned on a regular basis to earn approval.

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