Gordon Kirby – The US Scene

Toyota: the cars in front

Kyle Busch has emerged this year as the man to beat in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup series. The 23-year-old won five of the season’s first 16 NASCAR races and has taken a strong lead in the championship, more than 200 points clear of his closest rivals. In his fourth year in NASCAR’s premier division and his first with Joe Gibbs’ Toyota team, Busch has been a contender to win most races, easily leading more laps than any other driver and getting away with wild moment after moment as he has shown he can drive a tail-happy car more aggressively than anyone else in the sport today.

Busch and older brother Kurt grew up in Las Vegas, racing Legends cars on local short tracks. The Busch brothers arrived rapidly and controversially in NASCAR, characterised by aggressive driving and confident talk. Kurt won the title in 2004 with Jack Roush’s Ford team before switching to Roger Penske’s squad where he has been conspicuously unsuccessful.

Kyle broke into the Cup series at the end of ’04 with Rick Hendrick’s four-car Chevrolet team and was a regular frontrunner over the next three years, finishing fifth in last year’s championship. But he lost his seat in Hendrick’s all-powerful team to Dale Earnhardt Jr, NASCAR’s most popular driver, who brought with him massive sponsorship and notoriety to the outfit.

Young Busch was quickly snapped up by Joe Gibbs Racing, a top Chevrolet team with three NASCAR championships in the past eight years, one with Bobby Labonte (2000) and two (2002 and ’05) with Tony Stewart. Last winter, Gibbs’ operation became the first major team to switch to Toyota and this year all three cars, driven by Stewart, Busch and Denny Hamlin, have been frontrunners in many races. Busch produced the partnership’s first Cup win at Atlanta in March, while Hamlin followed that up two weeks later with a second Gibbs/Toyota victory at Martinsville.

In April and May, Busch went on a tear, winning at Talladega, Darlington and Dover, and making his name as the man NASCAR fans love to hate. Busch is reckoned by many fans to be a wild-driving, spoiled brat who never admits to a mistake and, after a collision with Earnhardt at Charlotte in May, Busch has regularly been greeted with the noisiest round of boos you can imagine, in sharp contrast to the unending cheers for Earnhardt.

Amid Busch’s unpopular dominance, NASCAR fans are faced with the sobering truth that it’s taken Toyota only one year to get to the front of the Sprint Cup series – much quicker than expected. Toyota has raced successfully in the United States for more than 25 years, winning titles in off-road racing, IMSA GT and GTP, in CART with Newman/Haas in 2002 and the Indy 500 with Penske Racing in ’03. A key component in its American efforts is Toyota Racing Development (TRD), the company’s racing division in Costa Mesa, California. TRD employs almost 300 people.

Toyota started racing in NASCAR’s Truck series in 2004, won the championship with Todd Bodine in ’06 and made its Cup series debut last year. The company got mud on its face at the start of ’07 when Michael Waltrip was caught with illegal fuel during qualifying for the season-opening Daytona 500. The rest of the year was equally uphill as the handful of Toyotas struggled to qualify for most races and rarely featured among the leaders. Former Cosworth Formula 1 and CART engineer Pete Spence has been with TRD on and off for 12 years. He rejoined the company last year as vice-president and technical director.

“Last year we had some reliability problems,” he explains. “I would say the first third of the year we worked on reliability and in the latter part we were learning from our adventures along the way. We modified the torque curve on the engine to be better suited to the NASCAR environment. If you look at our chassis dyno results from Atlanta in March we might have had the peak horsepower by one hp, but our torque curve was terrible.

“We worked on it through the year and used the chassis dyno data as a guide. Over the winter we did a minor repackaging of the engine and here we are.”

Spence says he doesn’t expect any big technical breakthroughs. “It’s incremental evolution of the product to suit the environment. I think we learn with every race and test. We’ve definitely learned from our association with Joe Gibbs, as we did with Bill Davis Racing. We’ve very much enjoyed working with those guys. Let’s face it, they’ve tried more things on a NASCAR engine than we’ve had hot dinners. That’s been an education.”

Lee White is TRD’s group vice-president and general manager. He is proud of TRD’s design, development and manufacturing capabilities. White has worked in racing for more than 40 years as a driver, engine builder and team manager. He ran Jack Roush’s incredibly successful IMSA GTO team for six years in the late ’80s and early ’90s. He also worked as Newman/Haas’s team manager in CART for three years from 1995-97, before taking his current job as the hands-on boss of TRD, first in CART and the IRL, and then in NASCAR. This summer White has overseen TRD’s expansion into a new chassis engineering shop in North Carolina.

“We have eight or nine full-time race engine designers who have been with us all the way back to the CART days,” White explains. “We don’t borrow guys out of the engineering pool at the factory headquarters like the competition does. We do our own development. We have centralised planning and purchasing. I think the only thing close in the USA is HPD [Honda Performance Development, also in southern California], which is trying to be like us. Nobody else has anything like TRD.”

In late summer, 40 people moved into TRD’s new chassis development operation on 100 acres in North Carolina. “Our new engineering facility will focus totally on chassis,” White says. “Getting into the chassis engineering business is a whole new endeavour for us and the reality is that’s where it’s at in NASCAR. That’s where you win races. That’s the fertile ground for us.”

Toyota has arrived in NASCAR with a long-term plan and, as White says, TRD has hired an impressive fleet of engineers from F1, CART, Champ Car and the IRL. Never has NASCAR seen such an investment in engineering and technology and it will be interesting to see what impact Toyota has over the next few years on NASCAR as a whole and its all-American competition.

In the past decade, Toyota has steadily caught and overhauled the cash-strapped Detroit car builders in America’s passenger car and truck markets, and it’s hard to imagine the company not doing the same in NASCAR. If Toyota’s money, organisation and engineering prevail, will NASCAR be capable of ‘levelling the playing field’ to help its seriously beleaguered domestic manufacturers?

NASCAR trying for full house

NASCAR’s popularity and profitability peaked a couple of years ago. TV ratings bounced back this summer after two years of decline but the real measure is the declining ticket sales at most tracks in recent years. Empty seats have become a common sight at many tracks and sell-outs increasingly are a relic of NASCAR’s recent, glorious past. Because all but two Sprint Cup tracks are owned by ISC and SMI – a pair of competing, publicly-traded companies – the lack of growth in ticket sales could become a serious problem.

At the same time Toyota’s arrival has offended many vocal, long-time NASCAR fans who threaten to turn their backs on the sport. But Lee White hopes Toyota will be recognised as a positive contributor to the American economy and job market. White also hopes the decline in attendance figures will begin to turn around.

“Hopefully, the business will stay strong,” he says. “If we continue to be competitive this year and all four manufacturers are able to win their share of races, hopefully by the time we get to Atlanta in the fall we’re going to see every seat full instead of turn four empty like it was last year.”

Dale Jr aims for chevy Chase

Dale Earnhardt Jr delighted his many fans by scoring his first Sprint Cup win in 76 races, as well as his first victory with Rick Hendrick’s team, in a fuel-starved race at the high-banked Michigan Speedway in June.

Earnhardt won on his debut driving one of Hendrick’s Chevrolets at Daytona in February in a non-championship season-opening event for the previous year’s race and pole winners, but over the next four months he was neither quick nor lucky enough to succeed until long-time crew chief Tony Eury Jr helped guide him to a tactical victory at Michigan. It was Dale Jr’s first Sprint Cup win in two years and helped consolidate his position at mid-season in the top three in the points.

Last year, Earnhardt finished the first 26 races outside the top 12 and therefore failed to qualify for the ‘Chase for the Cup’ championship play-off held over the season’s final 10 races. This year, he looks a sure bet to make the Chase and that’s a good thing for NASCAR, particularly in these difficult economic times.