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Foreign objection

Toyota hasn't found it easy to break into NASCAR, where bias against foreign automakers runs deep with some fans and drivers

February 18, 2007|Chris Jenkins | The Associated Press

DAYTONA BEACH, FLA. — Amid the flag-waving, domestic beer-drinking atmosphere at Daytona International Speedway, Toyota has taken to the track.

Will hard-core fans accept them or simply welcome a new villain?

Three-time NASCAR champion Darrell Waltrip, who started a Toyota Motor Corp. team when the automaker first entered the minor league-level Craftsman Truck series in 2004, said the make of the car takes a back seat to the personality of the driver for many fans.

"I think that rivalry of Ford versus Chevrolet and all that, I think that's kind of an old-school thing of the past," said Waltrip, also a Fox Sports analyst. "So I think it's a great time for a Toyota, or anybody else as far as that goes, to come into our sport."

Toyota is the first Japanese automaker to compete in NASCAR's top series. But as it revs up its Nextel Cup series racing program, officials and drivers have not-so-subtly noted that while the passenger-car version of the Toyota Camry is made in the United States, the streetgoing version of the model Ford races, the Fusion, is made in Mexico. The Chevrolet Monte Carlo and the Dodge Charger are made in Canada.

That doesn't seem to make a difference to old-timers and hard-core fans in the grandstands who still aren't comfortable with Toyota in NASCAR.

"I think they shouldn't be in here," said fan Brian Ragusa, 17, from Jacksonville, Fla. "It's an American sport."

Ragusa, wearing a camouflage jacket as he checked out Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s souvenir trailer, said he doesn't approve of former Earnhardt teammate Michael Waltrip, Darrell Waltrip's younger brother, move from Chevrolet to Toyota this year.

"What was he thinking?" Ragusa said.

It hasn't helped Waltrip's cause -- or Toyota's -- that Michael Waltrip Racing has been at the center of a major cheating scandal. Waltrip's team was caught tampering with its fuel, leading to crewmember ejections, large fines and a 100-point deduction.

"You can't be skeptical of Toyota," Waltrip said. "You just have to look straight at me."

But he isn't the only Toyota driver who has faced a fan backlash. When Dale Jarrett announced last season that he was switching from Ford to Toyota, some fans were outraged.

"There was a lot of stuff in the papers, 'I was a Dale Jarrett fan and a Ford fan, I loved Dale Jarrett, but I'm not going to pull for him any more because he's doing this,' " said two-time champion Tony Stewart, a Chevy driver. "And everybody has a right to do that. But I don't know that it's been that big. You pull for your guys, and if you were really a Dale Jarrett fan, you're still a Dale Jarrett fan."

There aren't too many overt signs of anti-Toyota sentiment at Daytona -- no domestic pickups with anti-Toyota decals on their back windows. Actually, a Tundra pickup or two has popped up on the infield.

You might start to see more.

In the parking lot of a Mexican restaurant outside the track, Toyota has set up an interactive fan experience. It's not a hard sell, just a chance to check out an alternative to Ford, Chevy and Dodge.

"All we're saying is, if you haven't considered us previously, maybe now's the time," said Greg Gollands, Toyota's national NASCAR marketing manager.

The flavor at the fan zone is distinctly American. Loud music pulses, freebies are flying and fans even can climb into a real race car to do a tire-smoking "burnout."

Gollands said the display doesn't hammer home the idea that Toyotas are made in America because they "don't want to give them a headache."

"We've still got a ways to go in terms of that constant education, but I would say it's more subtle," Gollands said.

But even some longtime drivers don't buy Toyota's made-in-America argument.

"I don't know," Sterling Marlin said. "They make a lot of them over here now, but they're still a foreign company. And you never would have thought 15, 10 or even five years ago that they'd be in this sport."

In an argument similar to U.S. automakers' complaints about unfair trade practices by Japanese car companies in the 1980s, rival NASCAR teams today are complaining about what they see as Toyota's effort to outspend everybody. Ford team owner Jack Roush has used combative rhetoric, saying recently he expects "to hand Toyota their head."

Marlin said Toyota also is cherry-picking top crew members.

"From what I hear they go in and try to hire all the best guys and good teams and give them $20,000-$30,000 more to build their team," Marlin said. "That's wrong."

But Toyota Racing Development president Jim Aust said that although Toyota provides extensive engineering support to its teams, sponsors still foot the bills.

"As far as the financial support for the teams, that money is coming from the primary sponsors, the names of which you see on the side of the cars," Aust said.

In time, Toyota will build credibility with fans and competitors, Darrell Waltrip said, and the issue will go away.

"It's a big deal right now, but I think eventually a Camry will be just another race car," Waltrip said. "Once the teams are established, it'll be more about the drivers and the teams and a lot less about where Toyotas are made."

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