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TOYOTA TRANS AM RACING REVIVAL

by Larry Roberts

December 05, 1997

The racing trials and tribulations of Toyota may soon take a turn for the better if the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) Pro Racing Trans Am program takes off as well as racing buffs hope. Trans Am seems headed toward opening up the competition to imports that carry mid-sized, multi-valve engines and electronic (as in fuel injection) engine management. Until recently, the Trans Am has been restricted to domestic pony-cars and the imports were ruled out. Toyota is "...looking into Trans Am participation.." according to recent reports.

At one time not so many years ago, Toyota was a name to be reckoned with in American racing. Driving the Dan Gurney-built Eagle MkIII sports racers, drivers Parnelli Jones (an American) and Juan Manual Fangio (from Argentina) were tough to beat in the IMSA Camel GT series in the early '90s - but times have been tough for Toyota since those halcyon days. Incidentally Jones and Fangio bear the same names as internationally famous family members who were Indy car and Formula One champs.

When that GT series (along with IMSA itself) started to change and deteriorate, Toyota began to develop an interest in getting into the big-time single seater competitions of the Championship Auto Racing Teams, better know simply as CART. At the time, CART was the sanctioning body of the world-famous Indy 500 and a good place to showcase Toyota technology and its competitive spirit. Arch-rival Honda had done it, so Toyota put considerable time, effort and money into developing a competitive turbocharged special-purpose 2.6 liter, narrow-angle V8 engine. Again, Dan Gurney and his Eagle crew did the chassis development as well as put a team together logistically. The same two drivers were signed up and although Jones and Fangio aren't in the same league with the front-running CART drivers, they are good. In addition, Italian Max Papus was brought on to pilot a third Toyota-powered Eagle as well as Hiro Matsushita, a driver obviously contracted to satisfy ardent Japanese race fans.

Unfortunately, this time the Gurney magic didn't work and neither did the Toyota CART engine. If the cars and drivers finished at all, they were so far down on the finishing order that you had to look closely to find their names among the also-rans. The disastrous season may have hastened Fangio's recently announced early retirement from racing.

Although the proposed Toyota entrance into the Trans Am is a long way from the prestige of CART racing and won't supplant Toyota's participation in that series, it's an opportunity for the company to remove a bit of the tarnish that has appeared on its corporate shield.

Prior to its interest in Trans Am, Toyota had given the go-ahead to Rod Millen to put together a team for the CART-sanctioned Super Touring season. Super Touring was designed around race-prepared, two-liter four-door sedans and while Toyota cars were racing in the American compact-car events in '97, they were year-old "privateer" machines brought over from similar venues in Europe and given a second chance for success. Spectator interest in Super Touring never developed here and the organization along with its '98 schedule has disappeared.

But Millen is still in Toyota's racing budget and it seems that he, rather than Gurney, will be the choice to put together a Toyota Trans Am project. It's a natural for the New Zealander since he has put specially-prepared Toyota sedans into the winner's circle at the annual Pikes Peak Hillclimb for many years.

I sincerely wish Millen and his Toyota Trans Am team lots of luck and much success. If he produces a winner, maybe the racing "buff" magazines will stop kicking Toyota around quite so hard.