Pearl Harbor - Part II: Toyota Set To Attack NASCAR

SpeedReading

By DAVE MOODY

Darrell Waltrip may be NASCAR’s resident “Boogity Man,” but the name that’s got Winston Cup insiders spooked these days is Toyota.

Last week, DaimlerChrysler abruptly severed ties with Bill Davis Racing, less than a year after they and driver Ward Burton stood in Victory Lane at the Daytona 500. The reason? Davis’ alleged behind-the-scenes involvement with Toyota, the Japanese automaker that has made no secret of its desire to go NASCAR racing in the very near future.

For Davis, the move means an immediate loss of all factory support for his two-car Winston Cup team. No more engine technology, no more complimentary wind tunnel time, no more information flowing freely from the other Dodge teams. For the rest of the Winston Cup world, it means one more reason to get “hot and bothered” about Toyota’s impending arrival; an arrival that will change NASCAR racing in ways most of us cannot even imagine.

Davis offered “'no comment for the foreseeable future,'” last weekend at Dover, but even a firm denial would not have been enough to put this cat back in the bag. Until last week, Toyota’s immediate NASCAR aspirations were believed to be confined to the Craftsman Truck Series, where they hoped to debut a Toyota Tundra entry as soon as next season. The events of last week, however, have prompted widespread speculation that the Japanese automaker will launch a Winston Cup effort much sooner than expected. When they do - and it’s definitely a question of “when,” not “if” - past history says they will come loaded for bear.

"Toyota is going to come in here and run teams out of the sport,” said one top Winston Cup team owner recently, giving voice to worries that have circulated in the NASCAR garage for months. As they have in off-road, open wheel, and sports car racing, Toyota will gladly outspend the competition 100-to-1. They will bring in the best engineers, equipment, and technology money can buy, and woo away NASCAR’s top talent in the blink of an eye. Behind the scenes, sources say that effort is already underway, with Toyota paying top dollar for clandestine looks at the latest chassis innovations and engine technology.

In addition, the Ford and General Motors camps say they fear that NASCAR will do for Toyota what they did for Dodge three years ago, giving them major rules concessions to ensure a successful transition to NASCAR racing. The Ford and GM brass know they may not be able to match dollars with Toyota. In fact, they may not even try.

When Toyota launches its full-time Craftsman Truck Series effort next season, our sources say that GM and Ford may elect to withdraw from the series; conceding the battlefield to Toyota and Dodge without even firing a shot. And while they will obviously have to stand and fight in the Winston Cup ranks - at least for awhile -- GM, Ford, and Dodge may already be behind the eight ball.

Two prominent Dodge team owners -- Chip Ganassi and Roger Penske - have long-established ties with Toyota from their years in Indy Car racing. They were late arrivals to the Dodge dance, after DaimlerChrysler hand-picked Ray Evernham, Davis, and Petty Enterprises to headline their new Winston Cup effort. Most NASCAR insiders consider Ganassi and Penske sure bets to bolt to the Japanese camp when the time comes, and the recent revelation that Davis may also be in bed with Toyota leaves Dodge “on the outs” with arguably its three strongest teams. With Evernham and Petty still struggling in the middle of the Winston Cup pack, 2004 could be a difficult season for the Dodge Boys.

If the known facts of Toyota’s impending arrival on the NASCAR scene weren’t enough to cause a wave of pit road panic, a flurry of unconfirmed rumors has thrown an additional log or two on the fire.

The best of the bunch came last week, when defending Winston Cup champion Tony Stewart said he had been told that the car NASCAR officials confiscated from his team at Texas has now made its way into the hands of Toyota engineers. Greg Zipadelli, Stewart's crewchief, said NASCAR has also delivered a confiscated Robert Yates' engine to Toyota for scrutiny, in an attempt to give the Japanese automaker a better idea what they’re up against. NASCAR strongly denied those reports, with Vice President of Corporate Communication Jim Hunter saying “NASCAR would never give a competitor a confiscated part.”

That denial -- and others like it -- has done little to stem the hysteria, however. Clearly, Toyota is coming. And sooner than we thought.

The next few months should be very interesting.

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It’s tough enough running inches apart at 160-miles per hour. In mid-November, the drivers of NASCAR’s Winston Cup, Busch and Craftsman Truck Series’ will attempt to do it blindfolded.

Officials of the Daytona Beach sanctioning body announced last week that teams will likely receive no opportunity to test on the reconfigured Homestead-Miami Speedway before their season finales November 14-16, despite the fact that the track will be radically reconfigured with a new, variable-degree banking system before the 2003 curtain closers.

Widely criticized in the past for single-file, freight-train racing, the 1.5-mile Florida track will be reworked in coming weeks, with banking that increases from bottom to top. The goal is to make Homestead competitive for the first time, but International Speedway Corporation - owners of the speedway - delayed pulling the trigger on the $10-million project until last week, leaving little time for the asphalt to cure before the race cars arrive.

All three major NASCAR Series are scheduled to compete at Homestead that weekend, putting the tender, uncured asphalt to a major test. Last year, New Hampshire International Speedway President Bob Bahre repaved the corners at his Loudon oval six weeks before a schedule Winston Cup race, only to watch the asphalt disintegrate under the weight of speeding race cars. With construction at Homestead slated to end in mid- to late October, the Miami track could have as little as four weeks to cure.

In addition, with no testing to fall back on, Goodyear tire engineers may be forced to take a wild shot in the dark when selecting tire compounds for the weekend.

And you wonder why a NASCAR crewchief gets the big bucks?

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Racing is nothing without controversy, and in the early weeks of the season, the prevailing topic of local discussion is the new “twin features” format for the Thunder Road Flying Tiger Sportsman division. After experiencing a mass graduation of former Street Stock racers during the off-season, the Tigers turned out 41 strong on opening day, with 38 cars attempting to qualify last time out on May 25.

In an effort to give everyone a chance to race, Thunder Road’s Tom Curley elected to split the field, running twin features for identical purses and points; a move that has met with mixed reviews. Those in favor cite an accelerated learning curve for all those new Tiger drivers, and more events for the fans to enjoy. Detractors point out that the new system splits the pool of championship contenders in half, turning one spectacular feature into two (arguably) mediocre ones.

Both sides have a point.

While sending 20 or 25 drivers home with only a heat race and a consi under their collective belt is never a good thing, fans deserve to see Joe Steffen, Reno Gervais, Doug Murphy, and the rest of the Tiger frontrunners slug it out against the toughest competition possible. Curley admits that his new system is a work in progress, and said he is open for suggestions on how to produce better, fairer racing for everyone.

We suggest a return to the days of the old “A” and “B” features, where each heat race was handicapped to include low, middle, and high handicap drivers, with the top finishers advancing to the “A” main. Those less fortunate went to the B-feature, where they competed for the same prize money, but fewer points. That way, everyone gets to run a feature, and the “hot dogs” get to race against each other. In addition, the qualifying races become especially intense, with top drivers charging out of the back of the pack in an effort to make the big show.

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Short (Track) Subjects…

…Former NASCAR Busch North Series champion Mike Olsen returns to his racing roots tonight, steering Ron Bevins’ Subway-sponsored LMS mount in the Thursday night opener at Thunder Road. The 2001 Busch North king will run as many Thunder Road events as his schedule allows, and said he’s looking forward to a little recreational racing on his old stomping grounds.

“We’re set to go,” said Olsen this week. “Hopefully, we’ll have a little better luck in the ACT car than we’ve been having in Busch North this season.”

The North Haverhill, NH, driver finished tenth in the 2003 season opener at Lee USA Speedway, before crashing early en route to a 27th place showing at Stafford last month. A ninth-place finish two weeks ago at Lake Erie Speedway ranks as his high-water mark so far, a trend he’ll try to change tonight.

…After two successive rainouts, Airborne Raceway’s revised schedule is now offering free admission to Scouts and Little Leaguers in uniform on WOKO Radio Night, Saturday, June 28. Last week’s Tuner’s Speed & Sound race card, including the "Run What-U-Brung" spectator drags, has been reset for Saturday, July 19.

…After a disappointing, fourth-lap crash last month at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, Jamie Aube will take another crack at the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series tomorrow at Texas Motor Speedway. The North Ferrisberg native will wheel one of three Chevrolet Silverados out of the Phil Bonifield “Team Racing” stable, along with Bonifield and Wayne Edwards. Aube’s #23 entry will carry sponsorship from Red Line Synthetic Oil.

…Thunder Road opens its summer racing schedule tonight with “Hannaford Market Night,” offering free admission for kids 12-and-under, plus racecar rides for the youngsters beginning at 4:00 p.m. The ACT Late Models, Flying Tiger Sportsmen and Street Stocks will all be in action, along with the debut of Thunder Road’s new, yet-to-be-named novice division. The winning entry in the "Name Our New Division" contest will be announced tonight, with the contest winner awarded two season’s passes to either Thunder Road or Airborne Raceway. Post time at The Road is set for 7:00 p.m.

Tomorrow night on the Canaan (NH) Fair Speedway dirt track, there will be a full card of weekly racing, plus the return of the Granite State Mini Sprints, and a V-8 Enduro.

Saturday, the ACT New England Dodge Tour travels to White Mountain Motorsports Park in North Woodstock, NH, for the “Country Pools, Spas and Billiards 100.” The White Mountain Late Models, Super Streets, Strictly Streets, Strictly Minis and Mini-Cup Cars are also set for action, with a special, 5 p.m. twilight start. The Busch North Series returns to the track Saturday night with the “Beech Ridge 150 presented by Forest City Chevrolet” at Beech Ridge Motor Speedway in Scarborough, Maine. At Airborne Raceway in Plattsburgh, NY, the “Race Against Drugs” program includes the NAPA Tiger Sportsman, Late Models, Street Stocks, Renegades and the new, novice four-cylinder division. Post time is 6:30.

The Senior Tour of Auto Racers (STAR) join the weekly program on the Canaan (NH) Fair Speedway asphalt track Saturday, along with the Pro Stocks, Late Models, Super Streets, Mini Stocks, and 4-cylinders. Racing begins at 6 p.m. It’s “Carroll Concrete/Guildhall Sand and Gravel Night” at Groveton, New Hampshire’s Riverside Speedway, with twin features on tap for the Sportsmen and Cyclones, plus Coca-Cola Triple Crown Race #1 for the Flying Tiger/Sportsmen, the North Country Dwarf Cars, Legend Cars, an eight-cylinder Enduro, and Spectator Drags. And at Bear Ridge Speedway in Bradford, it is “Bradford Oil-Pratt’s Propane Night,” with a full card of racing for all their weekly divisions, headlined by a Twin State Coupe Series event, and four- and eight-cylinder Enduros.

Sunday, Devil's Bowl Speedway in West Haven makes a second run at their annual “Judith L. Richards Memorial,“ a daylong a benefit for the Rutland Area Visiting Nurses Association and Hospice.