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Speed Reading: Toyota paranoia
The phrase "paranoia will destroy ya" is a plain and simple fact. Don't believe me? Just ask Richard Nixon or my old college girlfriend.
Or, better yet, ask Lee White, senior vice president and general manager of Toyota Racing Development. When Mr. White decided to show up at the Lowe's Motor Speedway garage last weekend, he was received with all the warmth one might expect for a visit from Kim Jong Il. As he passed by the teams of Ford, Chevy and Dodge, they wondered aloud why he was there. They shook their heads and complained about Toyota running up costs, throwing around sacks of cash and ruining the sport.
White did an outstanding job of handling the cool breezes and harsh stares sent his way, brushing off the chatter just as he has since Toyota announced their intentions to go Nextel Cup racing in 2007.
The official reason for his Charlotte visit was to show support for Red Bull Racing's first Cup qualifying attempt (they DNQ'd). But the real purpose of his southern swing was revealed the moment he was handed a microphone in the infield media center.
He was here to squash the paranoia like a june bug.
On the rumors of Toyota opening its coffers to flood its teams with money: "We can tell people until we're blue in the face, and it just won't matter. The reality of it is that sponsors like Caterpillar, NAPA, Burger King, UPS, Dominos and Red Bull are all making huge investments that make ours pale by comparison from the actual cash spent on the team level."
On the motivation behind those rumors: "We've done extensive research, and I don't believe the level of expenditure is any higher than the existing manufacturer... This is a convenient way for a lot of existing teams to manipulate their own manufacturers and attempt to increase their own level of funding."
His words were cool, calculated and in control, which is exactly what burns the backsides of the NASCAR establishment. For some reason, despite the fact that many in the garage worked with White during his days with Ford Motor Company, no one believes him. Statements such as "It's not just about writing people big checks. We could write these people the biggest checks in the world, but if they can't get chassis and build cars, it wouldn't make a bit of difference" are somehow interpreted as "We write big checks and hire people away, and we will use that to achieve complete and total global domination."
"It really is something else," White says with a chuckle. "We are already in trouble for things that we haven't done. Most of the stuff that people are mad about are things that NASCAR won't let us do anyway."
Like build a tricked-out engine. The rules for Toyota's power plants are the same as they are for any other manufacturer. No titanium, no fuel injectors, no turbo chargers, nothing that Toyota might be able to bring over from open wheel racing.
Or centralized engine manufacturing for all factory-backed teams, one big building cranking out motors for all. "NASCAR told us they weren't very keen on the idea, not even with teams that are doing similar things right now." It was a thinly-veiled reference to the Yates-Roush Engines marriage of 2004, a move that most saw as a pre-emptive strike against the oncoming Toyota entries.
"We provide technology," White says adamantly. "We don't own these teams. We don't fund these teams. What we are trying to do is use our expertise with what I call 'tribal knowledge' or the traditional method of producing racing engines."
And it is within that sentence that the rub surrounding Toyota lives and breathes. 'Tribal knowledge' is a term never before heard in the sport of stock car racing. To the incumbent teams, such new entries to the glossary are scary. Not to mention the use of the word 'tribal' implies old, antiquated and something in need of modernization.
When Ray Evernham became crew chief at Hendrick Motorsports, he brought with him a football frame of mind. He designated certain members of the team to be his offensive and defensive coordinators. He hired Andy Papathanasiou, a former Stanford offensive lineman with a master's degree in organizational behavior, to make his pit crew faster using gridiron-style workout programs and tape study. Throughout the garage, people laughed at it all. Then Evernham's team started whipping their butts. Before long, the same tactics that everyone had made fun became NASCAR's modus operandi.
We fear what we do not understand... until we realize that it might win us a few races. And no one understands that quite like Mr. White.
"Sure, of course there's resentment and everything else, but you just get over it and get on with it. We're going to work as hard as we can work and our teams are going to work as hard as they can work, and quite honestly, the actions on the race track are going to be what really counts."
Ryan McGee is the managing editor at NASCAR Images.