A Yen For Success

Last weekend’s IRL season opener might give fans of stock car racing some cause for concern. No, it doesn’t appear either open wheel series is going to give NASCAR a run for the money as far as fan base any time soon, but have a look at the results column from that IRL race. This season Toyota and Honda have switched allegiance from CART (now a spec engine Ford-Cosworth series) to the IRL. And you might say the Japanese manufacturers did all right their first time out in the IRL. A Toyota engined entry won the race, claimed second and third place to boot and six drivers finish in the top 10. The other rookie, Honda, took three more of the top 10 finishing spots. Upholding the honor of the Red, White and Blue, Scott Hornish finished 10th, the only Chevrolet (and I use that term loosely) powered driver to finish in the top half of the field. And Hornish is the driver who won the last two IRL Homestead races as well as the series title the last two years. The Chevrolets were said to be giving up 40 horsepower to the Japanese make engines. And that was in the foreigners’ first race. Imagine what those Japanese manufacturers are going to be doing once they get this series figured out. They’ll dominate just as they did in CART and probably subscribe to the same credo; I came, I saw, I conquered, I split.

As an aside it seems in an attempt to win the open wheel pissing match with CART, the IRL has lost sight of its mission statement. Originally the IRL was to feature open wheel racing on oval tracks to give American sprint car drivers a venue to aspire to. It was to be the “low cost” alternative to CART, with low cost being a relative term in auto racing. Here’s a hint. That winning Toyota engine wasn’t pried out from beneath the hood of a wrecked Camry down at the salvage yard by some guy named Sparky. And when you hear the names Helio, Gil, and Dario, you probably don’t guess that’s the name of the guys on the league winning bowling team from the textile mill in Randall. Both chassis manufacturers are British, while an all American IRL chassis venture spearheaded by Michael Kranefuss has yet to sell a single unit. Yep, the IRL is about as American as serving sushi at afternoon high tea.

When it comes to doing business, and racing is a business, this is the Japanese way. They throw incredible amounts of money into the project. (Toyota spends more on Formula Development than the Gross National Product of some emerging nations like Vermont). Any expense is allowable. Failure is not. Even success is not acceptable. Only complete domination and humiliation of ones rivals will do. And the Japanese auto manufacturers have been frighteningly successful at most series they’ve attempted.

If NASCAR is going to earn even fifteen bucks and a couple of free T-shirts off of Toyota entering the series it will inevitably happen, but by and large NASCAR’s fans don’t seem to think much of foreign manufacturers entering our playground. In a recent Winston Cup poll, 85% of respondents were against letting Toyota race. The argument is made in today’s global economy there really is no such thing as an American car anymore. Chrysler is owned and run by Mercedes Benz. Ford and GM assemble a lot of cars outside our borders, buy foreign parts for cars that are assembled in the lower 48 and even rebadge Japanese vehicles and sell them as Chevys. Toyota, Honda, Mercedes and BMW all assemble cars here in the States assembled by American workers. (And that’s been going on for about forever. In the early 20th century Rolls Royce was building cars in Springfield, Massachusetts.) So which vehicle is American, the Camry built here or the Chevy pickup truck built in Canada? As with any business, follow the money. The profits from that Chevy pickup truck wind up here in America. The profits from the Camry are converted to Yen and shipped back across the sea.

During Speed Weeks Toyota unveiled a show truck to announce their entry into the Craftsman truck series starting in 2004. That of course is a stepping stone to Winston Cup, but it’s also important symbolically. There are three types of vehicles where the Japanese have never been able to dent American sales superiority. In the case of performance cars the Japanese have never produced a worthy competitor to the Mustang, Camaro or Corvette, despite some attempts with twin-turbocharged six cylinder engines and rotaries. But there’s never been an affordable rear wheel drive V8 coupe that came from the Land of the Rising Sun. As far as large displacement Cruiser motorcycles Harley Davidson continues to rule the roost despite repeated attempts by Japanese manufacturers to clone the mystique or offer any number of weirdly powered permutations of the Big Cruiser ethos dumped on our shores at a loss. And while Toyota has tried hard, and Nissan is about to enter the fray, the full size pickup truck market remains a battle between Ford, Chevrolet, and Dodge. (Oh, and GMC which are just Chevrolet pickups assembled with lockwashers.) I’m told Toyota makes a very fine pickup truck even if you rarely see them on the highway, at a jobsite or parked outside the Home Depot. That’s all well and good but I’d rather go to a biker bar in a pink Tutu and stiletto heels than be seen in a Toyota truck. It might be reliable but it’s effeminate and wimpy looking and even effeminate wimpy guys prefer to be seen at the wheel of an imposing looking rig while hauling a five pound bag of potting soil home in a three quarter ton truck. Perhaps by going fender to fender, mano on mano, with the F150s, Rams, and Sierras Toyota thinks they can toughen up the image of their line of trucks? They’d get better results creating a Tundra Monster Truck to crush lines of new Toyota Echoes. At least the people in the grandstands would be cheering.

With the cost of racing already out of control, and rapidly escalating, Toytoa’s entry with their “Cost Be Damned” attitude can only be bad for the sport. Since Toyota doesn’t offer a pushrod actuated valve V8 in any model sold domestically they can design their engine starting with a fresh piece of paper and no concerns how the design is going to hold up in a street vehicle that might be operated 50,000 miles between oil changes while towing double its rated capacity. NASCAR will try to keep things in line by mandating minimum bore/stroke ratios and cam heights as well as minimum weights for the reciprocating assembly but Toyota has a deep engineering talent pool. They’ll come up with something.

And therein lays the confusing part. If Toyota begins to dominate the way their corporate culture says they must, NASCAR will immediately shuffle the rules deck to slow them down and allow for some semblance of parity. That’s contrary to the Asian mindset, but will probably be seen as another challenge to overcome in an attempt to drive Ford and GM from the field of battle. And once the American manufacturers are gone, attendance is down because of a loss of interest in the series, and race tracks are declining invitations to stage a second annual event, one can imagine Mike Helton in a Kimono kneeling down before the Toyota overlord begging him not to pull his factory support from the series lest NASCAR go down the drain.

Toyota is coming to NASCAR. I’m resigned to the fact it’s going to happen because the opinion of fans isn’t worth a cup of warm spit to the powers that be anymore. But that doesn’t mean I have to like the idea and I most assuredly don’t.

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2003

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