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Motor Sports


by Larry Roberts

June 20, 1997

First off, I should point out that I'm a Toyota fan. I own a couple of them and have always admired the company's no-nonsense approach to selling vehicles and service in this country and its dedication to quality.

That's why it pains me so much to see its efforts to get into big-time racing fail so miserably.

A couple of years ago Toyota watched as Honda reaped millions of dollars worth of publicity as Honda-powered Indy cars swept the CART Manufacturer's Championship, powering the Ganassi team's Reynard and Jimmy Vasser to the Driver's championship as well. It stood to reason that whatever Honda could do, Toyota could do too. What Toyota had forgotten was that Honda had many years of experience both in international motorcycle racing as well as Formula One.

Toyota wasn't a total novice in motorsports when it began its hectic entrance into CART racing. The Kool/Toyota Atlantic Series has featured factory-prepared Toyota engines in single seaters for a decade and was a stepping-stone to bigger things - like CART racing and Formula One - for many of today's greats. But its a far cry from developing a reliable, non-turbocharged "spec" engine to building a narrow-angle turbocharged 2.65 V8 engine that's capable of meeting the 700+ horsepower challenge of Mercedes, Honda and Ford, all of whom had been in the CART racing business for many seasons.

Dan Gurney and his All-American Racing organization has had a working relationship with Toyota for a long time and it fell to Gurney to develop competitive cars. The chassis chosen was the same Reynard that Vassar had used and the Toyota RV8A engine had all the technical attributes as the competition with one noticeable except: it seemed to be a couple of hundred horsepower down form the others.

To be fair, I have to admit that the Gods of Racing were not kind to the Toyota effort. The company was starting from scratch and had very little time to get into the game. There were also major engine development problems in Japan that culminated with the total destruction by fire of Toyota's major engine component supplier.

Track time for on-site development has been restricted too, so much so that CART officials have offered Toyota additional track time for development, technically a violation of its own rules. But since Toyota has been a staunch supporter of CART racing (it's the corporate sponsor of six major-league CART races), it was felt that the company should get a break.

There are two teams that utilize Toyota power. Gurney's All American Racers fields two cars driven by P.J Jones (son of his old friend Parnelli) and Juan Manual Fangio II. Both are capable spear carriers but not able to make up in driving skill what they lack in horsepower.

The other team is made up of Hiro Matsushita, a lack-luster driver whose claim to fame is that he brings lots of patriotic Japanese sponsorship money with him to the Arciero-Wells organization. Matsushita is slow and in over 100 CART starts has yet to finish higher than sixth.

The other Arciero-Wells driver is the spectacular Max Papis, an ex-Formula One driver who burst on the IMSA scene a few years ago and won almost every race he entered in Gianpiero Moretti's Ferraris. So far, the best that Papis could do with the Arciero-Wells Toyota was to qualify 17th on the grid at the Laguna Seca CART finale last year.

In a lot of ways, the Toyota CART effort reminds me of the IRL efforts of Nissan and its IRL Indy car effort: too little, too late and too unlucky. In retrospect, Toyota might have done better to join Nissan and Oldsmobile and get in on the ground floor of the newly-formed IRL Indycar formula with a production-based 4.0 liter V8. There, Toyota would have had a better chance of success since both of the others have had more bad luck in the IRL series than Toyota has had with CART.

In the IRL, Toyota would have looked good.