When Toyota was building its NASCAR program, Wall resisted hiring teams already running trucks.” We didn’t want to mess up the ecosystem of the truck series,” explains Wall, who was named the Toyota truck series program manager after brokering the invitation from NASCAR. By the summer of 2003, teams and drivers were announced in anticipation of Toyota’s debut at 2004 Daytona Speed Week. One of the owners was former Winston Cup champion Darrell Waltrip, who has been seen in many Toyota truck television advertisements and returned to the driver’s seat for a couple of truck races in 2004 (he finished 24th and 28th). He landed rookie sensation David Reutimann as a driver. But brightest hopes for Toyota success came in Travis Kvapil, the truck series champion in 2003, and Mike Skinner, a champion in 1995.
Kvapil took second in the season-opening race at Daytona and Reutimann was ninth. Toyota had four trucks in the top 13 at the next race and finished 2-3-4 at Atlanta in the third race where Reutimann captured the pole. Three Toyota drivers were in the top 10 of the driver’s championship at that point, including Kvapil who was leading, and Toyota was tied for the manufacturer’s championship.
“I attribute our success in the early races to our focus on planning. When other people were racing last year, we were planning for Daytona. Our focus was all about our first race,” says Wall.
Then Toyota hit tracks they had never seen and scored a total of only nine top-10 finishes in the next eight races. Kvapil dropped to eighth and Toyota was last in their respective championship efforts. The skid ended in mid July at Madison, IL, when four Toyota racers finished in the top 10. Two weeks later, Kvapil won Toyota’s first race at Michigan International Raceway with three other Toyota drivers running in the top 10. Five races later, Kvapil again hit the winner’s circle at the New Hampshire track.
As with any racing series, there were personnel changes and new members added to the Toyota lineup during the summer. The most notable came when Florida Toyota dealer Bob Germain and NASCAR team owner Don Arnold teamed up to support veteran driver Todd Bodine. They had applied to Toyota to form a team for 2005, but Toyota gave them the green light for a mid-season debut.
“The great thing about Toyota is they give the opportunity to excel,” says Arnold. “The engineering, the trucks, it’s all first-class equipment.”
In the first race after Kvapil’s New Hampshire victory, Bodine finished second at Las Vegas, then scored consecutive wins in California and Texas. Toyota only made one big headline in the final four races of the season when Reutimann earned Rookie of the Year honors. Otherwise, he was the highest finishing driver with a fourth at Homestead and Toyotas finished in the top 10 just seven times to close out the season. In the overall driver standings, Kvapil was the top Toyota driver with an eighth-place finish followed by Skinner in 11th, Reutimann in 14th and Hank Parker Jr. was 17th. Four other Toyota drivers finished in the top 20: Bill Lester, Robert Huffman, Johnny Benson and Bodine.
“Toyota has done two things,” sums up Arnold. “They’ve come in and done a good job and made everyone else step up to the plate. The truck series has probably doubled in popularity because of what Toyota has done.”
Toyota’s involvement in Craftsman truck racing is the first step in getting a car approved for Nextel Cup racing. Officials are obviously mum on any such plans as they await future NASCAR decisions regarding technology and design. Word continues to spread throughout the industry that NASCAR will develop its own chassis, body and engine and provide equally matched vehicles to each team. Then it’s just a matter of marketing and sponsorship to gain entry to the track. That format may not sit well with Toyota, which prides itself on developing its own technology and using racing to showcase its R&D efforts.
Meanwhile, the Craftsman truck racing program is supposed to build sales by attracting customers to Toyota dealerships where some of the trucks themselves will be picking up a little racing blood.
“When we race we enhance the TRD performance image,” says Wall. “That then can be conveyed to production vehicles. Coming will be a TRD Sport Truck for both Tacoma and Tundra.”
The first Craftsman truck race for the 2005 season will be February 18 at Daytona.