NASCAR & Auto Racing

Toyota winning few fans at the track

JOLIET, Ill. - Moments after eking out a dramatic, come-from-behind victory at a Nascar race here earlier this month, Kyle Busch climbed out the window of his No. 18 Toyota and took a bow.

The crowd's reaction? A chorus of boos.

The slim, 23-year-old Nevada native acknowledges that many hard-core Nascar fans regard him as "cocky" and "arrogant." But, among the many race-goers who are fiercely proud of Nascar's American roots, his Japanese car is another strike against him.

"There are a lot of fans who don't necessarily like Toyota," Mr. Busch said in an interview.

Two years ago, Toyota Motor Corp. joined the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing's top circuit, the Sprint Cup, hoping to win over the millions of Americans across the country who flock to racetracks or tune in to Nascar broadcasts.

Since then, its performance has attracted lots of notice. Mr. Busch's victory here at the Chicagoland Speedway was his seventh this season, and he tops the Sprint Cup driver standings. Newcomer Toyota also leads Ford Motor Co.'s Ford brand, General Motors Corp.'s Chevrolet and Chrysler LLC's Dodge in the manufacturer standings.

Toyota's success on the track comes at an awkward time, however. Detroit's Big Three auto makers, preferred by many Nascar fans, are on their knees amid a brutal industry slump. And Toyota threatens to surpass GM as the top seller of autos in the U.S.

GM, Ford and Chrysler, meanwhile, are closing factories and laying off thousands of workers in the face of the worst market in decades. As part of cost-cutting moves announced last week, GM notified Bristol Motor Speedway that it won't renew its sponsorship of the Tennessee track.

Against that backdrop, Toyota's success seems to be attracting more suspicion than loyalty. Jay Shank, a 34-year-old construction worker from Chicago's South Side who camped out in the infield of the Chicagoland track, said he wonders if Toyota is breaking the rules to make its cars faster — something Nascar teams of all makes have been accused of over the years. He pointed to Mr. Busch's victories, grumbling that Mr. Busch "wasn't that good last year" when he was driving a Chevy. "Now he's driving a Toyota like he's God."

Taking a sip of beer, Mr. Shank added that he would rather buy a "cr- Chevy than a good Toyota."

On Wednesday, Nascar said it ordered Toyota to modify the engines the auto maker uses on a separate racing circuit, the Nationwide Series, to reduce their horsepower. A Toyota spokesman said the company will comply with the order, but he attributed the auto maker's success on that circuit, where it also tops the standings, to hard work, not horsepower.

In the past two decades, Toyota and other Japanese auto makers have worn down much of the antiforeign sentiment they once faced in the U.S., in part by expanding their American operations. Toyota currently operates five U.S. assembly plants and employs 36,600 workers in eight states.

Now, it is counting on its Nascar credentials to bind it tighter to American culture. Nascar "puts you in the mainstream," said Lee White, president of Toyota Racing Development. Toyota can "gain acceptance with millions more fans than we could've ever reached."

But Toyota's success doesn't sit well with some of those fans. Josh Bodenchak, a 30-year-old electrician from New Lenox, Ill., likes Mr. Busch's aggressive driving style. But when Mr. Busch stopped driving Chevrolets and switched to Toyota this year, Mr. Bodenchak says he felt betrayed.

Though about 60 percent of the Toyotas sold in the U.S. are made in America by American workers, "the bottom dollar is not getting sent to America," Mr. Bodenchak said. "The profits don't stay here."

Research commissioned by Nascar last September found only half of its fans think Toyota is good for the sport; 6 percent believe Toyota hurts it.

Most fans' "preference would be Ford, Chevrolet or Dodge," says Les Unger, national motorsports manager at Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc. "That speaks to one of our objectives in trying to get involved in the sport."

From its roots in the South, Nascar vaulted into national prominence in the 1990s and now holds 36 Sprint Cup races a year from New Hampshire to California. Its fan base is estimated to be as large as 90 million, and it draws billions of dollars in television and sponsorship revenue. In recent years, its sponsors have gone beyond cigarette and beer makers to include insurers, phone companies and others.

Mr. Busch's Toyota is painted with giant M&Ms to identify its sponsor, the M&M unit of Mars Inc. Other cars include a green Nicorette Chevrolet and a red Office Depot Ford.

Toyota's foray into Nascar started in the 1980s, when it began racing its cars on smaller tracks. In the 1990s, it advanced to the Championship Auto Racing Teams series, and won its first victory there in 2000.

With the help of auto-racing legend Roger Penske, the company gained entry into the Nascar Craftsman pickup-truck series in 2004, with the promise of getting into the more-popular stock-car races. Three years later, after moderate success in the truck races, Nascar allowed Toyota to join its elite Nationwide Series and Sprint Cup circuits.

Its rookie year on those circuits got off to a rocky start. By midseason, Toyota's three teams were below 35th in the overall standings. Jim Aust, then president of Toyota Racing Development, held a meeting with Nascar's top brass. In the session with Nascar President Michael Helton, Competition Director Robin Pemberton and Cup Series Director John Darby, Mr. Aust asked what Toyota could do better to help its teams and sponsors, according to a person at the meeting. The Nascar executives told them to stay the course, this person said.

This year, Toyota got a break. It was able to lure the Joe Gibbs Racing team away from a 15-year partnership with GM. That helped to vault Toyota to the top tier of Nascar with drivers like Tony Stewart, as well as the controversial Mr. Busch.

Joe Gibbs, the team owner, declined to say how much Toyota's sponsorship was worth, but he said it was on par with what GM paid his team. Toyota declined to comment on its motor-sports budget.

Other auto makers and teams say Toyota is throwing money at the sport and buying titles, creating an uneven playing field at a time when U.S. auto makers are looking to cut their marketing budgets.

Mr. Busch, who recently faced a shower of beer cans after a victory in Daytona, Fla., has developed his own philosophy about Nascar, which may have some resonance for Toyota.

"The problem with this sport," he said, " is people don't really like to give you the benefit of the doubt."