Toyota's Unique Approach


Engine specialists work on a development engine at Toyota Racing Development's California facility. (Photo: Courtesy of Toyota Racing)


COSTA MESA, Calif. - The structure blends in with the neighborhood of chiropractictor offices and buildings that hold everything from billing services to a local insurance agent. The sign in front shows that there’s something different on this 5.5-acre plot of land, but to the casual observer, it’s just a landmark on the way to somewhere else.

Inside this building, though, beyond locked doors, is where Toyota Racing Development designs and builds NASCAR engines. Sunday’s win by Kyle Busch at Auto Club Speedway was even more special for this group since the track is about 50 miles from the shop.

Admittedly, this is kind of an oddball approach. Toyota’s teams are in the Charlotte, N.C., region and the engines come from California. Toyota does have an engineering facility in Salisbury, N.C., which provides chassis support for its teams.

TRDTRD’s engine shop has been at 335 Baker Street East since 1995 and maybe some day it will be feasible to relocate from California to North Carolina, but, for now, it works even with shipping engines to Joe Gibbs Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing for about $1,000 each when sending overnight. Ford and Chevrolet engines, meanwhile, are built in the Charlotte, N.C., region.

This building once housed Toyota’s open-wheel engine shop. After a season such as 2003 when Toyota won the Indianapolis 500, a majority of the races and the championship, TRD officials still had to “sell to our management to stay in the sport,’’ said David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development.

With IndyCar’s lackluster TV ratings and attendance, Toyota left that series after the 2005 season, shifting its focus to NASCAR. Toyota debuted in the Sprint Cup Series in 2007 with Michael Waltrip Racing, Bill Davis Racing and Red Bull Racing.

Those early days were challenging for Toyota with cars failing to qualify and performance lacking. Wilson recalls a Toyota executive likening the company’s foray into Cup to Rocky Balboa’s plight in a fight and “how he got his lights punched out in the first 10 rounds but then came back,’’ Wilson said.

Toyota also bounced back. The manufacturer’s first Cup win came in the 2008 season with Busch in Gibbs’ first year with the manufacturer. Toyota has won at least one Cup race at every current track except Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Inside this building, past the generation of race engines built here, the wall listing each track a Toyota has won a race and through the locked doors are where engines come to life. Nearly 180 people work here. Some design engine parts, some ensure that the vendor can provide what is needed in time. Others program computers to build specific engine parts or build the engines or check them after they return.

TRDToyota’s facility has five engine dynos, which test and measure an engine’s performance. Each engine is run on a dyno before being shipped. While the dynos can mimic race conditions, Wilson admits the track is still the best proving ground because so many things can happen there that are hard to duplicate in a lab setting.

Any engine not within half a percent - about five horsepower - of every other engine there is not shipped. Toyota pledges to have engines to teams two Fridays before the race weekend they’ll be used.

After the engines run, they are shipped back to TRD. They often arrive on Tuesdays and the engines are taken apart. It typically takes about 15 hours to do so. Every engine part has a particular engineer, so if there’s a problem, the person taking the engine apart can go to the engineer of that part and discuss the issue they see.

Parts that can be used again are placed on a 5-foot high cart and labeled with a number that includes the number of rebuilds on the engine. One engine on a recent tour indicated it had been rebuilt 28 times. That didn’t mean any part had been used 28 times, except the serial plate. Each part has an RPM and mileage expiration date.               

There’s also a section of the building set aside for engine development. There, TRD technicians build engines that will never leave the premises. Instead those engines are tested in a dyno. TRD already is working on an engine spec to be used at Homestead-Miami Speedway in the season finale in November. With that race determining the champion, title-contending teams are focused on Homestead.

“Well before the beginning of the year we try to project a development plan,’’ Wilson said. “For the Chase, generally speaking, we’ll develop a spec and we’re going to want to get it to a racetrack well before the Chase starts because we want to make sure we don’t have any issues.’’

Wilson said that those engines often are used at Indianapolis in late July or Michigan in August. Those tracks test engines and if there’s an issue, there remains time to fix it before the Chase begins in mid-September.

One thing that helps TRD this season is Michael Waltrip Racing running a third car part of the time with Jeff Burton. That can provide a chance to test in race conditions. Wilson said that the engine Burton ran at Las Vegas was used in Thursday’s test session and remained in the car - while others changed their engines after the test - that weekend. It is a spec of an engine the Waltrip and Gibbs cars will use next week at Texas. Burton finished 17th with that engine at Las Vegas.

The effort is all about trying to score a Cup title, something that has eluded Toyota so far. Toyota came close last year with 14 wins and two drivers in the top four in points. That shows Toyota that it’s still possible to have a shop in California even with teams in North Carolina.

“If you think of it in an evolutionary sense, you would almost say at some point it will happen, at some point,’’ Wilson said of moving the engine shop to North Carolina. “Right now, part of the responsibility I have to our board of directors is to consider what that will mean.

“We look at what it would cost, we look at the human tool. Right now, the recommendation I give our board and management is it doesn’t make sense (to move). In the end, here’s the acid test: If we can’t deliver a product to our team partners that is as good or better than the product we could build in North Carolina, then we have to move. Right now we believe we have the process in places and the people in place (to stay).’’ 

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