Nascar Puts Toyota on Fast Track to Heartland

Automaker Gets Into Car Races to Sell Trucks and Be Seen as Part of 'Fabric of America'

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The squeals of protest sounded across Nascar.com's message board like a car burning rubber: Joe Gibbs Racing was dumping General Motors Corp.'s Chevrolet after 16 years and switching to Toyota Camry.
Tony Stewart
Denny Hamlin
Photos: Jason Moore

Fan favorites: Tony Stewart (top) and Denny Hamlin will drive Camrys.



Nearly 500 comments from Nascar fans swamped the board within an hour of last week's announcement. Many were disappointed or angry, posting messages such as "money talks" and "Nascar has sold out," punctuated by comments about Toyota not being an American car company. Still others pledged loyalty to their favorite Gibbs drivers, Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin, who will drive Toyota Camrys next year. Some praised Toyota's move and scolded critics for their jingoistic, isolationist remarks.

Whether fans like it or not, Toyota has become entrenched in Nascar as "part of [its] calculated desire to become an American car company," said Peter DeLorenzo, founder of industry blog AutoExtremist.com and author of the coming book "The United States of Toyota." "Toyota wants Jack and Jill America to think Toyota is part of the fabric of America."

Outspending rivals
It's a smart -- but expensive -- strategy. Mr. DeLorenzo estimated Toyota is spending nearly $200 million this year for its Nascar participation, more than individual outlays by its three big U.S. rivals: GM, Ford and Chrysler.

So far, it looks to be paying off. Toyota has scored big since signing on in 2004 to Nascar's lower-tier Craftsman Truck Series, winning the 2006 manufacturer's championship; this season one of its nine Tundra pickup drivers is ranked second in overall points.

It's got more laps to go on the car side, where it crashed Detroit's once-exclusive domain and is in its freshman year in the high-profile Nextel Cup Series. The best of Toyota's seven Camry drivers is No. 33 in points in a field of 66 drivers. The Gibbs deal gives it first-tier status.

"It's probably a steeper climb than what everyone expected," said Rick Penn, VP-business development of Michael Waltrip Racing, one of three team owners Toyota supplies with engines for the Camry racers. "Toyota is very humbled, and they want to earn their way into the sport."

Well-invested
Les Unger, Toyota's national motorsports manager, declined to reveal spending, saying Toyota is merely an engine supplier, not a team sponsor. But it's clearly well-invested in the sport. The automaker announced earlier this year it would buy 89 acres outside Charlotte, N.C., to build a Nascar support facility that would employ between 40 and 50 people.

Nascar fans' loyalties are highest with drivers, then driver sponsors, followed by manufacturers powering the cars, Mr. Unger said.

Toyota constantly monitors fan acceptance in Nascar racing, which has been trending positively since the automaker announced in early 2006 it would supply engines for the Nextel and Busch car series, said Kim McCullough, corporate manager-marketing communications, Toyota Division.

The automaker's Nascar strategy is twofold: to build sales for the Tundra pickup and to portray Toyota as part of the American scene, she said. Mr. Unger said Toyota displays its trucks at Nascar races "because we know a lot of attendees drive full-size pickups."

Success ... finally
The redone Tundra pickup, launched early this year during the Super Bowl, is Toyota's most competitive ever in a segment controlled by Detroit. After a sluggish sales start and in the midst of a $100 million-plus launch, Toyota added incentives to the 2007 model in late March. It started to see results this summer, and the marketer should meet its goal to sell 200,000 Tundras this year.

And Toyota is nothing if not patient. Mr. Unger said there will always be a percentage of people against its participation in Nascar, but it's a far lower percentage than when Toyota first entered the sport. "Let the results speak for themselves," he said. "Over time, the longer we are in the sport, more enthusiasts will accept us."

Ms. McCullough called the Joe Gibbs deal "a very exciting opportunity for us. We always hope to improve every season."

What else could be expected from a company whose global mantra is kaizen, or continuous improvement?

Winning over the fans

Toyota Motor Sales USA is reaching out to Nascar fans with a humorous campaign breaking this month online and on national TV during races.

The big idea, created by Saatchi & Saatchi Los Angeles, Torrance, Calif., is Toyota's fictional "Department of Fan Operations," touted in a trailer that just went live at toyota.com/pitpass. The department's mission is to enhance the fan experience, sometimes with absurd solutions.
Teaser video: 'Fan-Dangler'
Teaser video: 'Fan-Dangler'

The first of 10 one-minute webisodes breaks Sept. 16, the same day as a trio of national 30-second commercials. Saatchi snagged improv actors to ad-lib the ways Toyota helps Nascar fans get closer to the action. One 15-second teaser video dubbed "Fan-Dangler" shows a man flying over the track in an amusement-park-type ride.

Kim McCullough, corporate manager-marketing communications, Toyota Division, said fans will be able to vote or comment on their favorite webisodes and suggest ways the fictional fan department can bring them closer to the action. "We want to make sure we keep the dialogue going."

The campaign works in tandem with Toyota's activities at race tracks. Les Unger, national motorsports manager, said Toyota's PitPass allows fans to see race cars up close and experience action on big screens. At bigger races, Toyota features live concerts, prize giveaways and driver appearances. A Tundra full-size pickup drives around the track during breaks to hand out free cold water and ice at about half the races.

Mr. Unger said the event marketing "gives us a chance to interact with fans and get our point across that we are happy to be part of Nascar."
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