Editor’s Note: PRI recently sat down with David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, to discuss several topics for our March 2017 Industry Insights column. What follows is previously unpublished content from that interview, conducted by PRI columnist Dave Argabright. For the complete Industry Insights column in PRI Magazine’s March 2017 issue, please click here.
PRI: The concept of an Asian automotive company in NASCAR was the subject of considerable discussion [two decades ago]. Were there cultural elements to overcome? And do you sense that the culture has changed in 2017?
Wilson: That’s a great question. Certainly one of the first things we did before we ever turned a wheel was spending a lot of time talking to the fans. We quickly understood that our participation was hugely polarizing, and a lot of fans didn’t like it. They viewed us as an import company. They were either threatened or had this nationalistic view, and we were not part of that view.
But they had tremendous passion and loyalty for NASCAR, and we used that to shape our entry. We asked the question, “How do you like Toyota coming into NASCAR?” The answer was often negative. Then we asked the next question, “What if Jeff Gordon was racing a Toyota in NASCAR?” Suddenly that answer was different. “Well, hang on, if Jeff is racing a Toyota then maybe that’s OK.”
That was the “a-ha” moment—the power and influence of the driver. It is about the driver. So again, we used that to shape our entry. It’s about building partnerships. Michael Waltrip was very influential, and he and his team have been great partners and representatives to talk to the fans about who we are.
Long story short, that has turned the polarizing point of view around, and today we’re just one of the guys. We got very little pushback on this issue when we won our first Cup championship, because I don’t think fans view us as an outsider any longer. People have not only accepted us, but they respect the way that we have participated. That makes the sport stronger because Toyota is a part of it. That feels really good, on a professional and a personal level.
PRI: The current environment in American stock car racing is one of very tightly controlled specs. Is it more difficult to carve out an advantage, a brand identity, in this environment?
Wilson: The identity is actually not a problem, because with the Gen 6 philosophy we can build that identity into our race cars. We came out of Detroit recently with one of the biggest production vehicle launches in our history with the 2018 Camry. In conjunction, we launched our NASCAR Camry. As you look at them side by side you can appreciate that this really is a Camry, through and through.
The technical side of it is definitely a challenge, however. On one hand NASCAR needs to tightly control that spec and the rulebook; they have to protect us from ourselves.
Given too big a box to work from, we’re going to spend a tremendous amount of resources to beat each other. But as the technical elements tighten it becomes a bigger challenge to secure an advantage over the competition. That’s what makes it fun. You have to be extremely creative, and you cannot stop.
One of the charming but frustrating aspects of the sport is that you’re parked 36 inches away from your competitors, every weekend. People have eyes. You know that any advantage you discover is going to be short lived. Engineering is the same for everybody—we all deal with the limits of physics. Our competition is very smart and tough as well. It’s difficult and rewarding, but we don’t want this to be a spec form of racing.
Part of our culture at TRD is getting our hands dirty—we want to participate and exercise our intellect to try and win. If we’re racing the same engine and chassis as everyone else, we’re not able to do that.
PRI: One of the most famous adages in motorsports is, “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday.” Is that observation still valid in 2017?
Wilson: It is absolutely valid. However, it’s valid provided that consumers know that you won on Sunday. One of things that doesn’t get discussed much is how well our partners and colleagues on the motorsports marketing side have leveraged our success on the race track. It’s not enough just to win—you have to use that to promote your brand, to promote Camry; we have done a good job of that.
The next question is how do you measure your return on investment, and while there is no definitive answer, you try to measure what you can.
Early on we did extensive surveys among NASCAR fans, things like would they consider purchasing a Toyota, what are their thoughts, etc. When you and your family are ready to buy your next car or truck or SUV, is Toyota in consideration? That is the key—moving people to consider your product. The dealer will always say, “Listen, all we hope is you get them across the threshold; from that point it’s on us.”
What we’ve learned is that our purchase consideration is greatly enhanced since we moved into the sport. In the early 2000s, in comparison to purchase consideration with Ford and Chevrolet, we weren’t even close. Our purchase consideration among NASCAR fans was very low, much lower than our competition. But we know definitely that our purchase consideration has turned around in a positive direction, and that’s the ultimate validation that this is where we belong.