This weekend, Toyota will muscle in on American car manufacturers' final stronghold: NASCAR. The Camry, the first Japanese automobile to compete in stock-car racing, will make its debut at the Daytona 500.
At first glance, a Japanese company in the red-white-and-blue NASCAR world seems to make as much sense as booking the Dixie Chicks for a Bush rally. Or adding Donald Trump to the cast of "The View." As a recent posting on Autospies.com, a site dedicated to car news, puts it: "Japanese Automaker + NASCAR = angry rednecks."
That might be overstating things a tad. Observers say the rebel-flag crowd at stock-car races waned long ago, as have the antiquated "buy American or buy nothing" views on cars. Along the pit road, however, one can expect trash talk and glares from teams backed by US automakers. Last month, Jack Roush, one of the most powerful team owners in NASCAR, lashed out at Toyota's splashy arrival by promising "to go to war with them." Mr. Roush's teams and drivers race in cars supplied by Ford.
In a sport that openly embraces, and exploits, the relationship between commerce and competition, the introduction of the Camry into the Nextel Cup Series injects a fresh twist into the team rivalries. Since the Japanese company's foray into NASCAR is part of a larger branding strategy to woo middle America, winning the racetrack contest will be more than just a point of pride for US manufacturers.
"A lot of people don't like it," says Sterling Marlin, a two-time Daytona 500 winner who will race in a Chevy this season. "To me, Toyota is just another manufacturer coming into the sport. We'll see how it all shakes out."
Experts doubt that Toyota will win many races for the next several seasons, but the Camry's performance may mirror that of Toyota's vehicles in NASCAR's lower-tier truck circuit, which it entered three years ago. In 2006, the automaker backed seven of the top 10 drivers in NASCAR's truck series, including season champion Todd Bodine.
Toyota has moved to hedge its bets in the stock-car circuit by enlisting popular veteran drivers Dale Jarrett, a former season champion, and Michael Waltrip, a two-time Daytona 500 winner. (Some of the luster may have waned this week when NASCAR slapped Mr. Waltrip's race team with some of the harshest penalties in recent memory over rules violations related to the race car's setup.) Mr. Jarrett and Waltrip are well past their primes – neither driver won a race last season. But that doesn't matter as much to Toyota as their pedigree and penchant for serving as smooth corporate pitchmen.
Fans of NASCAR drivers are often loyal customers to corporate sponsors because they know the companies fuel the drivers and teams with the money to build and run the cars. Each of the major manufacturers pumps millions of dollars into the race teams by supplying equipment and other assistance.
It long ago became a cliché for drivers to rattle off the names of as many sponsors as possible during TV interviews in an attempt to gain more publicity for the corporations who, in turn, keep the engines running by keeping teams flush with cash.
Toyota hopes the culture of fan loyalty will spur more favorable views among racing's mostly middle-of-the-road audience.
NASCAR runs popular races in Chicago; Detroit; Indianapolis; and Kansas City, Mo., influential population centers where Toyota wants to make inroads. Even as Camrys take to the track, Toyota wants to convince NASCAR fans to buy its Tundra line of trucks. Toyota has a slim 5 percent share of US truck sales – and, if you hadn't noticed, a lot of NASCAR fans drive pickups.
"It's about spreading the news about Toyota," says Jim Aust, president of Toyota Racing Development. "We've been doing business in the US for 50 years and we have new plants opening up. We need to educate America, and NASCAR can help us do that."
The Japanese company has 10 US plants and employs 150,000 American workers. As Mr. Aust and others aligned with the company's NASCAR efforts are all too happy to note, the Toyota Camry is manufactured at a plant in Georgetown, Ky., while the competing NASCAR makes – Chevy's Monte Carlo (Canada), Ford's Fusion (Mexico) and the Dodge Charger (Mexico) – are not.
Still, members of the media invariably start interview sessions and discussions of Toyota's racing debut with questions about whether a foreign manufacturer should compete in what has been a traditionally American sport. (Often ignored is the fact that Dodge is now owned by Germany's DaimlerChrysler. Despite that established foreign link, fans still tend to regard Dodge, which returned to the stock car series in 2001 after a lengthy hiatus, as an American companybecause of its long history here.)
Factor in the depressed state of American auto companies – thousands of lost jobs, billions in red ink, and lots filled with unsold inventory – and it becomes a bit easier to see why some are wary of Toyota's move into NASCAR.
Racing fans, too, have debated the merits of Toyota's arrival in online forums, with accusations of a NASCAR sellout to countercharges of jingoism.
"There may be some [fans] out there that are a little bit peeved," says H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, a veteran race promoter and president of Speedway Motorsports Inc., which owns six NASCAR tracks. "They will probably be a lot more peeved if Toyota starts winning on the track."
The stock-car world anticipates that Toyota will spend big money to lure top teams and drivers. Some believe that its staggering profits (the company is poised to become the world's top manufacturer) will give its teams an unfair advantage.
"They're going to do what it takes," says Jarrett, the veteran driver who left Ford for Toyota despite his ownership stake in a North Carolina Ford dealership. "They plan on being here for a long time."
Whatever happens, experts say, NASCAR and its teams can't lose.
"Toyota will spend a gazillion dollars in NASCAR promoting and racing and so on," says Zak Brown, CEO at Just Marketing, an Indianapolis agency that advises sponsors in motor sports. "For NASCAR to have Toyota makes it look more like America looks. This is the world we all live in."
Toyota isn't the only foreign import that has NASCAR's marketing machine in overdrive this season. Taking a cue from Will Ferrell's 2006 parody, "Talladega Nights," the stock-car set has attracted a Formula 1 driver to a circuit reared on moonshine, not Monte Carlo.
In this case, the driver isn't played by Sacha Baron Cohen and he isn't likely to peruse the works of Albert Camus while racing like that character. Instead, the very real Juan Pablo Montoya brings a double shot of star power: a former Formula 1 racer who also happens to be a dashing Colombian with a sizable international fan base. Montoya signed on with Chip Ganassi Racing last year and drove in a handful of races, gearing up for his first full NASCAR campaign in 2007.
Ganassi formerly employed Montoya during an earlier open-wheel racing career that included a win in the 2000 Indianapolis 500. Ganassi's NASCAR team includes Cuban immigrant Felix Sabates as a major investor, another boost for pushing Montoya and NASCAR toward the nation's booming Hispanic population.
"NASCAR has always been seen as a North American sport," says Ann Barker, manager of motorsports and licensing at Texaco/Havoline, Montoya's lead NASCAR sponsor. "Now all of the sudden we're looking at running [promotional] programs in Latin America, Russia, all over."
Montoya, a brash 31-year-old with a winning smile, is confident in his ability to bring NASCAR to a new audience – and win races along the way.
"People around the world need to understand what NASCAR is about," he says. "If they do, they'll love it. You're going to see a lot of people start to watch NASCAR for the first time."
Marketing is one thing, but driving against Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and other NASCAR stars is another. "Is it going to be easy?" Montoya asks. "No. Is it going to take time? Yes. But I'm 100 percent committed to this and I think people appreciate that."
Provided, of course, he keeps Camus away from the carburetors.