It has been yet another proof of Toyota’s fallibility. It had two – count them, two – top five finishes in Nextel Cup racing last year. No wins.
But, Toyota says that this is the year they put a Camry in the winners circle in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup. They’ve sorted out the engine program. They’ve got Gibbs. Their teams have more cars and more guaranteed starting positions. So says the Toyota Motor Sales v-p for motorsport, Jim Aust, is quoted in Toyota’s blog.
The real question, however, is why Toyota is bothering.
And how much longer they will continue to bother, no matter what Mr. Aust says or Mr. Gibbs does.
How serious can Toyota really be about NASCAR?
When Toyota hatched the grand NASCAR scheme – which started with developing a motor and running it in truck competition, then moving up to the Cup series after the drive train had been proven and the learning curve surmounted – there were solid business reasons for participating in NASCAR. At the time, Toyota was trying to make it big in pick-up trucks and SUVs. The new Tundra was in the planning stages. The Prius had yet to be introduced, and gasoline prices were much lower. Trucks were hot and Toyota wanted to be a player in that market. NASCAR must have seemed an obvious way to gain credibility with truck buyers.
But today the hot Toyota is the Prius, not the Tundra. The Tundra is a marketing, engineering, and public relations embarrassment, coming to market just as the market shrunk, undermining Toyota’s reputation for reliability with recall after recall, and seeming to contradict the political and environmental values of the core Prius customer.
The Prius, on the other hand, has become the future of the company, a point Toyota makes very plainly every time it gets the chance to do so. Toyota executives say that hybrids are the future of their product line, at all levels. Rumor has the Prius becoming a stand-alone brand and a new model substantially less expensive than the present Prius being part of that plan. Prius sales keep arcing upward. Toyota wants to be your hybrid car company.
“Race on Sunday, sell on Monday” traditionally has been the justification for auto maker participation in NASCAR. As a theory, it probably still holds true for Ford and Chevrolet, and maybe even Dodge. But it does not hold for Toyota. Even if there were a race series for hybrids, the average Prius buyer would probably be offended by the concept.
Of course, nobody’s making a bigger push on hybrid power trains than General Motors, which sees hybrids as a way of keeping the truck and large car part of the American scene, as well as part of its own bottom line profits. Unlike Toyota, GM did not see the hybrid as part of a small economy car. It initially developed the hybrid powertrain for city buses. From that, it downsized it to trucks and Suburban’s. To GM, the hybrid powertrain is not a fashion statement for environmentalists. It is a way to provide better fuel economy without sacrificing power or size.
In the last analysis, GM may have made the better bet, because the market for large trucks is still larger and more profitable than the market for dinky economy cars. Both American history and American geography are on GM’s side, even if Congress is not. GM may very well be able to sell a hybrid Tahoe to a NASCAR fan, but Toyota will have a much more difficult task selling that fan a Prius. Unfortunately for Toyota, that fan has already made it pretty clear that he or she is utterly uninterested in a Tundra, at any price. (Yes, Tundra sales are up over last year – but that’s comparing the new one to the 7/8th version truck they sold last year.)
When Toyota joined with Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler in opposing the 35 mpg federally mandated fuel mileage standard, the environmentalists did not chastise Ford, GM, or Chrysler. But, they pilloried Toyota. Toyota was deemed a traitor, a backstabber, and worse. Suddenly, the company found itself under the media’s microscope for building large SUVs – apparently all those Prius customers had missed seeing the Sequoia in the showroom – and the attendant publicity was all bad. Worse, it was bad with the very customer base that the company is trying to court: the Prius buyer.
With that buyer, does winning a NASCAR race count for anything?
No. If anything, it detracts from the company’s environmental purity, and constitutes a negative.
In Formula One, Toyota has publicly acknowledged that it has given the race team two years to produce results. Since the team has had five years to do so and Toyota has neither made significant changes in the structure or personnel of the team nor increased its corporate commitment to the team, the conventional wisdom interprets this as Toyota’s way of giving notice that it will be terminating the program.
Though they only date back to late last season, Toyota’s efforts to bolster its NASCAR Sprint Cup efforts may already have been overtaken by a change in ultimate strategy for the corporation. Toyota will certainly fulfill its contractual commitments to its NASCAR teams, such as Gibbs and Waltrip. But, there is a difference between fulfilling the terms of a contract and giving whatever it takes to win. It is clear that Toyota lacks that level of commitment in Formula One. It is hard to see why NASCAR would be different.
Perhaps this will be the year that Toyota makes it to the Sprint Cup winner’s circle, as vice-president Aust says. They do have more cars, more teams, more experience, than they did before. They might even have more luck.
But don’t count Toyota as in for the long haul.
Win or lose, Toyota has every reason to quietly fade away from NASCAR.