RICHMOND, Va. -- David Wilson isn’t your typical auto racing industry executive. Not by a long shot.
In his capacity as president and general manager of TRD, U.S.A., Wilson oversees Toyota’s vast racing operations in the United States, which includes NASCAR, the NHRA,USAC, off-road racing and sports-car racing, among others.
A degreed mechanical engineer from Virginia Tech — he wears his VT hat faithfully and proudly at Richmond and Bristol — Wilson is also a decorated Army officer who served in the 101st Airborne Division, earning the Meritorious Service Medal and the Air Assault Badge, among other honors.
Under Wilson’s leadership, Toyota driver Kyle Busch won the driver championship in what is now the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series in 2015. Last year, Toyota took its first-ever NASCAR Manufacturers’ Championship in the Cup Series. So Wilson knows what he’s talking about.
More than that, though, when Wilson speaks, he shoots straight. He doesn’t brag about Toyota’s successes or make excuses about their stumbles. Ask him a direct question and you’ll get a direct answer.
Saturday at Richmond International Raceway, Wilson sat down with FOXSports.com for an exclusive conversation to talk about the 2017 NASCAR season from Toyota’s perspective and today’s Toyota Owners 400 at RIR (FOX, 1:30 p.m. ET). Excerpts follow.
So far, it’s been an up-and-down season for Toyota, as Martin Truex Jr. and Furniture Row Racing won at Las Vegas. Joe Gibbs Racing, on thee other hand, not won yet. “What’s most important to me is we’re winning practices, we’re leading laps, we’re just not getting finishes,” said Wilson. “…. Very confident in our short-track performance. Our intermediate-track performance isn’t good enough as a whole.”
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Furniture Row’s performance so far
In its second year with Toyota and its first as a two-car team, Furniture Row Racing has been rock solid so far in 2017. “Martin (Truex Jr.) and the Furniture Row guys, I think, are running where they left off last year,” said Wilson. “As a team, we’re very happy with their performance.”
The JGR Toyotas have flashed speed at times, but have lacked the hoped-for results. “In the Gibbs camp, Kyle (Busch) is running better than anyone else,” said Wilson. “Believe me, we’re doing a little head scratching because of that. (Rookie Daniel Suarez) is on a steep learning curve. We’re being very patient and supportive of him. But the 11 (Denny Hamlin) and 20 (Matt Kenseth) aren’t running nearly as well as they should be. So we’re collectively trying to figure that out and continuing to push as hard as we can.”
, LAT Images www.latphoto.co.ukMatthew T. Thacker
Suarez, the 2016 NASCAR XFINITY Series champion, was thrust into a Cup car when Carl Edwards suddenly announced he wouldn’t race in 2017. “He wasn’t supposed to be here, right?” said Wilson. “In late December, he found out he was going to be a Cup driver. And it was about a year earlier than originally planned. That happened. The good news is, it wasn’t a stretch to put him in that car. We are going to be patient with Daniel. We are going to continue to help him. And he’s in a terrific environment with other team members who have been very unselfish.”
The rookie driver in the new second Furniture Row Racing Toyota is an impressive 12th in points after eight races. “Erik Jones? Oh, my God,” said Wilson. “We knew this kid was special. But he has exceeded all of our expectations. … Before the season has ended, his name will be in the same sentence with Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott. I think he’s kind of flown under the radar and that’s, OK, but I’m going to call it: He’s going to win this year.”
This weekend, Toyota is the title sponsor for both the XFINITY and Cup Series races at Richmond International Raceway. “We love short-track racing,” said Wilson. “Richmond always puts on a great show. … This is a great NASCAR market. We’re extremely proud to have the presence here at Richmond. As to why we sponsor races, it’s a terrific tool to engage the fans and really talk about our brand.
One of, if not the, most important marketing points for Toyota is how strong the company’s U.S. presence is. “Toyota in America is an American company,” said Wilson. “We employ over 35,000 members directly, well over 100,000 indirectly, if you include dealers and such. NASCAR gives us a tremendous platform to talk to race fans and educate them. We’ve seen, since our entry into NASCAR, how much that’s moved the needle.”
With the loss of Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and soon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., the sport is in a period of profound transition. And Toyota has a tremendous talent pool of young drivers in lower NASCAR series. “The neat thing for Team Toyota — and we’ve been talking a lot about our driver development program — when seats open up, then there’s a real opportunity for these younger drivers to get a shot.”
In NASCAR, no one stays on top indefinitely — the sanctioning body wants parity and does everything it can to maintain it. “Sometimes, the hardest thing is when you’re out front, because you know you’ve got the wolves at your heels and people are chasing what you’ve learned,” said Wilson. “To maintain that level of drive — ‘We’ve got to be better, better, better!’ — it’s hard. It’s hard.”
Wilson said he’s confident of Toyota’s capabilities at short tracks and restrictor-plate tracks. But improving at the 1.5-mile tracks will be key. “We are on it,” Wilson said. “Not discouraged. Excited for the next few races. When we get to Kansas (a 1.5-mile track) that will be another very important data point for us because it’s another intermediate track. Texas, we sucked. We sucked. Just unacceptable. So we need to be better and we will be better.”