DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The excited eyes of the Japanese businessmen standing in Pit 25 of Daytona International Speedway stared down the front stretch as Travis Kvapil edged his yellow No. 24 Toyota truck into second and into history while the checkers flapped above.
And then an international celebration of hugs and high-fives erupted.
Toyota in NASCAR? Oh what a feeling.
Friday's Craftsman Truck Series Florida Dodge Dealers 250 was the first race any Japanese automaker ever had run under the NASCAR umbrella. It ended with a surprisingly strong second-place finish from the Line-X Bedliners Toyota driven by Kvapil, which even led for 15 laps.
Carl Edwards may have won in the Superchips Ford, but the Toyota team delivered a slap in the face to all the bigots, bashers and boo-birds who had hounded them since they decided to join this most American of sporting pursuits.
"I'm impressed," said Kvapil, who grew up in the General Motors factory town of Janesville, Wisc., but like 175,000 other Americans now works for Toyota. Will a second-place finish change people's opinions of the manufacturer? "I hope so. People can go out and [start] buying Tundras on the street now. That is what it is all about: truck sales."
No, this isn't just about truck sales. This is about more than that. This is about answering the critics in a most satisfactory way: by letting actions speak louder than words.
A Japanese company came here to compete and the response was unfortunate, a bunch of nonsense nationalistic banter rooted in a day and age long past.
"Those sons of bitches bombed Pearl Harbor, don't forget," spouted driver Jimmy Spencer.
Of course, Spencer, that great patriot, drives a Dodge, whose parent company is Chrysler, which is owned by Daimler, which happens to be located in Germany.
Then there was Roush Racing owner Jack Roush, who last fall declared to USA Today: "I really don't want to be seen as a guy that has laid himself down on the tracks and said we shouldn't have Japanese cars in stock-car racing. But I do hope that NASCAR and that the fans and everybody that's involved will take stock of what's good for our economy in their purchases of consumer goods."
Good for our economy? Whose economy?
"Well, they saved us, so I can't say enough good things about Toyota," said Shirley Robb, the mayor of little Princeton, Ind. where the Tundra truck is built at a plant that employs 4,300. "They help employment ... after so many companies moved out we were in pretty tough shape. Now we have hope for a future for our children and grandchildren."
Princeton is part of the American economy, right Ms. Mayor?
"Princeton is in Indiana," she laughed, "which is definitely in the United States of America. Yes sir."
Toyota produces 10 million vehicles in nine U.S. plants from Kentucky to California and is set to open another Tundra plant in San Antonio.
Meanwhile General Motors has sent so many factory jobs to Juarez, Mexico, that across the border in El Paso, Texas – where the American managers live – sports bars beam in Detroit Red Wings games.
I hate to get Dennis Kucinich on everyone, but it's a global economy and nothing is going to change that, no matter how much bluster a Roush or Spencer blow, no matter how many in the grandstand follow along like sheep and participate in some hearty Red, White and Boo patriotism.
Besides, you might as well get ready for Toyota's inevitable move to the Nextel Cup, perhaps by 2007.
Now, I'm not going to tell you Toyota is better than any other automobile company. Its record for allowing the United Auto Workers to organize inside its plants is weak by Big Three standards. And there certainly is a benefit to profits and white-collar jobs staying in America, which happens with American companies.
But I don't get the sense that the anti-Toyota crowd really is concerned about the profit shares of William Clay Ford or Richard Wagoner Jr. – CEOs of Ford and GM, respectively – or the social justice issues surrounding labor unions.
Sadly this is about fear, foolishness and misguided patriotism.
You can attach the biggest flag you want to the back of your Buick Rendezvous but it doesn't mean it wasn't built in Mexico. You can spit on the windshield of a Mazda6, but it still was assembled in a UAW plant in Michigan.
Hey, I am all for buying American.
It's just that I don't know what that term means anymore.
The world isn't simple anymore, even if some minds still are.
- Travis Kvapil