TOYOTA MOTORSPORTS IS ECLECTIC
by Larry Roberts
June 26, 1998
Recently, Toyota held a press extravaganza at the New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc. (NUMMI) plant in Fremont, California. The NUMMI plant is located on the site of a former Ford plant and is a joint venture between General Motors and Toyota. Currently riding down its assembly lines are Chevrolet Prizms, Toyota Corollas, and Toyota Tacoma pickups.
But this time the party wasn't to tout the carrying capacity of a new truck or the sweeping lines of a redesigned compact econobox. This event was to show off the various facets of the Toyota motorsports program, to showcase the vehicles that it sponsors and to introduce some of its "stars" to the press.
The Gods of Racing haven't been kind to the Toyota efforts in the world-class racing venues of the Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) since it entered the fray a couple of years ago. Nonetheless, Toyota rolled out three of its four CART Champ Car contenders.
"Mad" Max Papis (a name he garnered by virtue of his last-minute "banzi" charges in IMSA sports car racing) is driving a Toyota-powered Reynard for the Frank Arciero/Cal Wells team. Although the engine carries the Toyota logo and legend on its cam covers, the small- displacement, turbocharged V8 bears no resemblance to any Toyota production car engine. Most experts feel it was pressed into CART service before it was ready, but it's undergoing on-the-job development and Papis has gone from numerous DNF's to consistent (albeit low) finishes. He recently finished 11th at the Portland CART race, a lap down from his childhood buddy, winner Alex Zanardi whose Reynard was Honda-powered.
Newcomer Alex Barron is the reigning KOOL/Toyota Atlantic (third- level) series champion and recently was tagged to drive a Toyota- powered Reynard for Dan Gurney's All American Racers team. He replaced Juan Manual Fangio, (nephew of the world champion Grand Prix driver from the '50s who bore the same name) who retired from the CART fields of battle when he felt the future held no hope for Toyota CART teams or himself. Hopefully, his decision was premature.
The third Toyota CART driver on site was Robby Gordon who also drives a Toyota/Reynard for Arciero-Wells. Gordon is a versatile driver who won the Mickey Thompson Entertainment Group stadium off-road races in '89 and won in IMSA sports car racing as well as in SCORE desert races. He recently returned to NASCAR Winston Cup racing for a few gigs too.
Ivan "Iron Man" Stewart has been more successful in flying the Toyotas banner in wheel-to-wheel competition than his CART compatriots and has won the bone-grinding Baja 500 in Toyota-powered specially- prepared racing pickup 10 times. He's won more than 80 times in stadium and off-road races in his 28 years of racing, the last 16 being at the wheel of a Toyota.
Rod Millen's Toyota hasn't exactly raced wheel-to-wheel although the event he excels in may be a bit more nerve-wracking since a misstep can put vehicle and drive over a cliff. For the past four years Millen has won the world-famous Pikes Peak Hill Climb (a competition first started in 1912) for the past four years at the wheel of his turbocharged Toyota Celica race car. This year he has built a new racer that wears a fiberglass replica of the new Toyota Tacoma pickup and he is looking to surpass the magical and heretofore unbreakable under-10 minute mark. And that will be an anomaly: a pickup truck being the fastest vehicle ever to go up Pikes Peak.
Motorsports is the fastest growing spectator sport in the U.S. (and, indeed, the world) and Toyota is hip enough to get in on as much of it as possible. Time will tell if the plan works.