Toyota and NASCAR – Oh What a Feeling!

The 2007 Toyota in race trim

When the green flag dropped this weekend on The Great American Race in Daytona, NASCAR’s Nextel Cup Series had what, at first blush, must have seemed like a distinctly foreign new flavor. The 2007 Daytona 500 served as the Nextel Cup Series debut of Toyota as some of NASCAR’s established stars such as Michael Waltrip, Dale Jarett, Jeremy Mayfield, and Brian Vickers were be among those driving their Camrys into battle.

NASCAR long since gave up their stated goal of racing full-size, two-door American muscle cars when the full-size, two-door American muscle car went the way of the carburetor (which ironically finds its last great refuge in NASCAR), but America’s 5th major sport stalwartly held to it’s assertion that American cars would form the centerpiece of stock car racing.

When it was announced that the Camry would enter the Nextel Cup and Busch Series in January of 2006, the howls of the purists were long, loud and plaintive. But I wonder how many of the purists know that the Camry was the only nameplate in the starting grid in Daytona that is actually built in the United States. Chevy’s Monte Carlo, a longtime staple of the series, is built in Canada, as is the Dodge Charger, which joined the series in 2005. Dodge of course is now owned by a German company but still carries the perception of an American brand. Ford’s entry, the Fusion, is made in Mexico, a long way from Toyota’s manufacturing facilities in the Blue Hills of Kentucky.

And while the Daytona 500 was Toyota’s coming out party in Nextel Cup, the race marked the third anniversary of the Japanese manufacturer’s participation in NASCAR’s higher profile racing series. Toyota joined NASCAR’s pickup truck schedule, the Craftsman Truck Series, in February of 2004 and won their first race in July of that same year. In 2006 Tundras found their way to Victory Lane in 12 of 25 races and Todd Bodine won the series Championship for Toyota, their second in a NASCAR series following a 2003 win NASCAR’s relatively unknown Dash Series.

Of course once you breakdown the cars in the Nextel Cup series you find out that their 2007 version of the “stock car” is far from stock. Any resemblance between Michael Waltrip’s NAPA Auto Parts Camry at Daytona and the Camry in your neighborhood showroom is purely coincidental and less than skin deep. The printed graphics that depict the Camry’s headlights are pretty much where the similarities end.

Underneath the basically generic sheet metal of a typical Nextel Cup car, a rolled steel-tube chassis provides a fortress of a roll cage that protects the driver from all angles. In the case of the Toyotas on race day that chassis will also carry the Camry Racing V8, a power plant fed 112-octane Sunoco fuel by an 830-cfm carburetor.

The 358-cubic-inch cast iron engine with aluminum heads will generate 850 hp while turning 9,000 rpm for the better part of three and a half hours each Sunday. Its 12:1 compression ratio will help provide 550 lb-ft of torque at 7,500 rpm.

Toyota continues to battle for acceptance in the garage amid criticism that they are attempting to buy dominance in the series by out-spending their struggling American competitors and raiding their team talent. But at least the owner of one of NASCAR’s biggest stable of race teams, Jack Roush of Roush Racing, believes that this only the beginning of the march of foreign manufacturers into America’s premier racing series.

“Nissan, Honda, Toyota will all be here,” he said. “I just hope when we’re done with it, we still have Ford, Chevrolet and Chrysler.”

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