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How Toyota's On-Track NASCAR Performance Boosts Technology and Sales

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author photo by Mark Elias June 2018

There used to be a mantra in the automotive business that proclaimed, "Win on Sunday, sell on Monday." Although the almost-unlimited amount of manufacturer's money that was available back in the 60s, 70s and 80s era of NASCAR stock-car racing is no longer the norm, there is still a surprising degree of factory support in place offering money, engines and technological know-how to the teams that race their cars.

It's NASCAR's All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Charlotte, North Carolina. A yearly extravaganza of everything NASCAR, it is a homecoming weekend of sorts for most of the teams competing in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series (MENCS). But that's not all. In addition to the teams, and all the peripheral companies supporting the motorsports industry, there are also factory engineering support facilities. To hear some describe it, it's almost impossible to walk into a local Starbucks without running into a member of a competing team or someone else who is involved in the motorsports industry.

TRD's engineering center is located in Salisbury, North Carolina. Opened in 2008, this TRD Racing division supplies tools and technology to the teams. "The teams can come and use them here and take what they learn back to their facilities," said TRD President David Wilson. Tools like an 8-post "shaker" rig, an Advanced Vehicle Cornering Simulator (AVCS) and two race simulators, along with other technology-driven equipment, help the eleven TRD race cars currently running in the MENCS to maintain a competitive edge. It also supplies a lot of software tools to the teams, since the sport has become so techno-centric.

The teams depend on software and simulation. Using computational fluid dynamics, it includes race-car development through the use of a full-scale wind tunnel; every time a TRD-supported team is in the wind tunnel, it is with TRD's aerodynamicists supporting them. TRD is a bicoastal affair: "We build all of our racing engines in Costa Mesa, California," Wilson continued. "From there, the engines are shipped via Fed Ex to all the Toyota-backed teams, including the successful championship team of former Washington Redskins football coach Joe Gibbs. Teams can only install the engines directly into the cars. They are restricted from tuning them."

But is there a trickle down of technology, we ask?

"That's the first question we get as an automaker. First, NASCAR is not a technology play; instead, it's a marketing play," said Wilson. "Direct impact to [our production] product comes from the tools we develop. We brought the dynamic vehicle simulator technology into the sport back in 2011. We were the first to bring it to NASCAR. Formula 1 had been using it for a while. We did a global benchmarking exercise to really understand that technology, not just in motorsports but how the manufacturers use that to help them build cars," said Wilson. Continuing like a proud father, he describes just how far they have come: "The company has unbelievable simulators in use around the world. Cutting to today, with our global partners, we've designed our own tools and software for the simulators. We are so advanced now, that we are building the company their next simulator. We have surpassed our parent company on the capabilities of that tool. To me, that makes me very proud."

The simulator is based around the Camry chassis. Wilson describes how their facilities help the parent company. "By our participation in NASCAR, we are helping our parent company to build better automobiles." The firm's Technical Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan routinely sends us vehicles like the Sienna and Avalon to run on TRD's test equipment for noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) calibration studies.

TRD is directly partnered with the Japanese giant's CALTY Design Center in California. "The Camry we race today was directly designed by our partners there. They have been involved in everything from our NHRA Camry Funny Cars to our NASCAR Camry and Tundra vehicles, which lets their stylists flex their muscles, ultimately influencing them on how to design cars for the street. It's the intersection of motorsports and production vehicles," explains Wilson.

Autotrader asked Wilson how this partnership began. "We literally knocked on their door asking if they would like to help us design our next (2018) race car. Our engineers sat with their designers and came up with these results. We wanted a fast race car, but we also wanted input from the production car styling team. They loved doing it and took a tremendous amount of pride in it. When we won that championship, it was celebrated across the company, in the factories and in dealer showrooms. Nothing has captured the emotion of our team involvement like NASCAR has. It's very powerful," said Wilson. "I had no idea how impactful it would be and how much pride would be shown throughout the company over the success we have achieved.

"I believe the best thing NASCAR has done since we have been in the sport is to build a relevancy between what we race and what we sell. Frankly, in the previous generation of race cars, there wasn't a lot of differentiation between the cars. That was all done with decals. But the OEMs (TRD, Chevrolet and Ford) and NASCAR got together and we said, 'We want to sell [our cars].' We want to be able to race cars that resemble the cars that we sell. Collectively, we decided which features had to be common throughout the competitors, and then were presented a 'box' from which we could design the rest of the car.

"It wasn't like the brand, which had previously dabbled in Formula 1 and sports-car racing, was going to cruise down easy street just by showing up. When they first appeared on the NASCAR scene in 2008, they needed approval from the mothership in Japan." Wilson continued: "Former TMS Chairman Yuki Funo had come to sign off on our participation. He came up with this whole 'Rocky' analogy: 'We need to struggle. We need to show the fans this is hard,' said the chairman. The first few years, we got our butts kicked," Wilson continued. "Mr. Funo said [figuratively], 'We will be here for 100 years.' He looked at this as a social responsibility that we had to participate in the powerful culture that NASCAR is."

We asked if it was a hard sell for company chairman, and racing enthusiast, Akio Toyoda. "Not at all, because of the connection to the public," replied Ed Laukes, ToyotaMotor North America group VP for marketing. "In Formula 1, we spent all that money and had just one podium, and the teams didn't have the connection with the fans. He [Toyoda] wants the brand to be grounded and be part of the people."

Sure, part of the people is a lofty goal, but in this case, one that has borne fruit. "From the time, we entered the consideration of a NASCAR fan to purchase one of our cars or trucks was somewhere around 30 percent. Today it's on par with Ford and Chevrolet at about 60 percent. That's just amazing," said Wilson. "That's why our marketing colleagues say it's a no-brainer to be involved here. There are 70 million NASCAR fans in America."

To gain access to this information, Autotrader attended an event sponsored by the vehicle's manufacturer.

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How Toyota's On-Track NASCAR Performance Boosts Technology and Sales - Autotrader