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Toyota enters NASCAR fray



Toyota Camrys at Daytona International Speedway are inspiring anticipation and angst as NASCAR's Nextel Cup season approaches.

New contender inspires angst and anticipation
Viv Bernstein / New York Times
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla . -- After years of expanding its presence in the United States and beyond, Japan's Toyota Motor Corp. recently issued a 2007 forecast that would make it first in global sales, ahead of General Motors Corp.

And now, Toyota is about to begin competing with its American counterparts on yet another level: NASCAR's premier circuit, the Nextel Cup.

Toyota teams have been testing their Camrys here this month at Daytona International Speedway, where they are inspiring anticipation and angst as the Nextel Cup season approaches. Toyota will be the first foreign brand to compete in stock-car racing's top series since Jaguar in the 1950s.

Engineers at Toyota Racing Development, a competition division that builds engines and provides engineering support, have been working for more than a year for this moment. Their mere presence here, however, is making some uneasy. While Toyota scrambles to prepare its Camrys and build its race shops for the Nextel Cup circuit, competitors are accusing the company of raiding teams for talent and raising the costs of operation by offering dramatically higher salaries.

It is a departure from the universal welcome bestowed upon Dodge when it announced it was re-entering the Cup series in 2001 after a 16-year absence. Its parent company is Germany's DaimlerChrysler AG, but Dodge was viewed as American-born.

"People always fear the unknown," said Ty Norris, general manager at Michael Waltrip Racing, a new three-car team that will race Toyotas with the drivers Michael Waltrip, Dale Jarrett and David Reutimann. "It's a new thing to be concerned about."

Earlier this month, a half-dozen Camrys rolled onto the pavement at Daytona International Speedway to take their first laps as full-fledged Nextel Cup competitors. The speeds soared and dipped during the annual preseason tests representing the unofficial beginning of the 2007 season. The Daytona 500 is scheduled to be run here Feb. 18.

Toyota entered NASCAR competition through the Craftsman Truck Series in 2004. Since announcing a year ago that it would join the Nextel Cup competition, the company has seen a debate escalate in this insular sport over what is considered American-made in today's global economy. As Toyota drivers are quick to point out, Camrys are built in the United States, the Ford Fusion is produced in Mexico and Chevy's Monte Carlo comes from Canada.

"If you're going to argue with me about not being American," Jarrett told reporters this month, "check and see that TV you're watching was made in the United States that you're watching our great races on."

One fear is that Toyota will spend its way to domination in the sport, raising costs for everybody and perhaps eventually running off an ailing domestic manufacturer. Officials at Ford Motor Co., which has struggled financially while sales of Toyota's have gained greater share in the United States, have been most vocal in their criticism.

Dan Davis, director of Ford Racing Technology, said his manufacturer's NASCAR operation is financially sound. But he said Toyota's spending spree in acquiring crew chiefs, drivers, engineers, tire changers and other support personnel has affected his teams. That includes Robert Yates Racing, which lost Jarrett and his UPS sponsorship.

"They have been predators, and people would say that might be extremely negative," Davis said. "I would say that in the business world, people are predators. That's how you get things done. When anything new comes in with a lot of resources, then those entities are going to try to acquire the best people, the best equipment, the best that they can get."

Davis said he voiced his concerns privately with NASCAR. So far, NASCAR officials say they see this as business as usual in a sport in which teams openly raid competitors. Earlier this month, for instance, Roush Racing hired the crew chief Larry Carter away from Michael Waltrip Racing.

"We hear just like everybody else," Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president for competition, said in a telephone interview. "We don't get into the book work of anybody. We don't know what people are paying. It runs in cycles. When you have new teams coming into the series, you're going to have to do something to ramp up."

Still, Toyota has yet to compete in its first points race, and it is already on the defensive.

"We're not in the business of writing checks," Lee White, the senior vice president and general manager for Toyota Racing Development, said last month in an office in High Point, N.C. White added: "I would appreciate if Dan and some of those guys would get their facts straight. We don't expect everyone to endorse us or be a big fan. We'll earn our stripes on the racetrack."

LINK:
http://www.detnews.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20070122/AUTO01/701220302/1148
 
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