Toyota Takes Stock in NASCAR

To help sell its new Tundra truck, Toyota is entering NASCAR, but many fans may regard the car company as an interloper

Toyota Racing's countdown clock is only a few days away from a momentous moment for America's homegrown automotive pastime, NASCAR Nextel Cup racing. This Sunday afternoon, around 2 p.m., following a color guard presenting the flag, an invocation, and the singing of the National Anthem by a country-Western singer, a squadron of military jets will do a fly-over and then the moment thousands in the stands and millions of TV viewers have been waiting for: A celebrity intones the famous phrase, "Gentlemen…start your engines!"

With those words, 43 drivers' fingers will flip the switches that start the powerful engines of the vivid multicolor NASCAR racecars, adorned with sponsors' names and decals. The engines will cough and splutter, then spring to life, first with a low rumble that increases in intensity and volume until it becomes a raging, rumbling, deafening roar of power. And for the first time, Toyota's (TM) Camry will add to that roar.

A Parallel Path

The Camry, the best-selling car in the U.S. for the past seven years, will be in the stock-car-racing equivalent of the World Series, Super Bowl, and Final Four rolled into one: the 49th Daytona 500. But despite the car's huge popularity off the racetrack, on the track the Camry has fostered more than a bit of controversy—and a little irony, too.

Odd as it may seem, there is an historical parallel—albeit coincidental—between NASCAR, the U.S. auto-racing sport phenomenon, and the phenomenal growth of Toyota, the Japanese car manufacturer in the U.S.

Fifty or so years ago, both began in an uncalculated manner—NASCAR in the hills, dales, curves, and ruts of semipaved roads in the backwoods of the South where fearless young men in souped-up production stock cars—Chevys, Fords (F), and Dodges—loaded with illegal moonshine whiskey (the story goes) tried to out run government "revenuers."

A Narrow View

Almost simultaneously in a nondescript suburb of Los Angeles with little more than a storefront to call a dealership, Toyota Manufacturing of Japan, showing just three odd-looking vehicles, entered the U.S. marketplace. In a half a century much has changed.

NASCAR claims it has built a base of 75 million fervent fans. It has morphed into a powerhouse brand, fostered an industry generating billions of dollars of sales, and in the process has become an American icon. Toyota has grown from an obscure Japanese automotive curiosity to a competitive contender that is now the corporate challenger to General Motors (GM) for the title of the world's largest car company. It has billions invested in U.S. plants, offices, and technology centers; employs thousands of Americans; and incidentally, has sold millions of cars.

Toyota and NASCAR have done more than just join forces: Together they are changing the appeal and dynamics of the U.S.'s second-biggest spectator sport. Stock-car racing, with its roots deep in the South, has had some fan resentment posted on blogs—nothing from the tracks, yet—about a "Japanese" brand invading its favorite sport.

Who's American?

There have been some vitriolic comments at media events about Toyota, and a couple of outspoken NASCAR team owners. Bordering on the xenophobic, the tone was so vituperative and offensive, one blogger suggested that the most vocal, Ford team owner, Jack Roush, who runs five Ford teams, "Just shut up! Let the drivers decide who is best."

Yes, NASCAR is a true American sport, but put in the "made in America" spin machine, some facts are clear. Chevrolet's Monte Carlo, on which the racer is fashioned, is built in Canada; the Ford Fusion in Mexico. Dodge's entry is owned by a German company, DaimlerChrysler ( 2 Next Page

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