WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – For Toyota, it was over before it began.
Over the past several months, Toyota Racing Development had quietly built a race car that eventually was submitted for the mandatory approval process that would allow it to be entered into the NASCAR Busch Series beginning in 2006.
For reasons known only to them, TRD officials would never acknowledge the existence of the car even though it had gone through the initial stages of the approval process (fitting the car to the templates).
Next up for Toyota was an on-track test at Atlanta Motor Speedway, similar to what Ford and Chevrolet recently underwent when submitting their new models for the 2006 season. But just three weeks ago, prior to the first scheduled on-track test, Toyota officials notified NASCAR that they were pulling the plug on the process.
Why the reversal?
Speculation centered on Toyota and NASCAR officials allegedly being at odds and not seeing eye-to-eye on the car and its engine.
"Not so," said a NASCAR official. "There was never a problem with the car. They just notified us that they were pulling the plug and ending the process – for now."
Despite confirmation from those in the garage, Toyota officials still won't acknowledge the existence of the car. Instead, they maintain that their goals have not changed since earlier in the year.
"We are committed to giving our complete resources and full energies toward our NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series program and the final year of our commitment in the Indy Racing League in 2006," said Toyota NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series program manager Pat Wall, who serves as point person for all of the manufacturer's NASCAR efforts. "It takes a huge undertaking to launch a program in any racing series, especially NASCAR."
Wall is no stranger to startup programs. He was involved with Dodge when that manufacturer returned to Nextel Cup racing.
"Our goals have not changed. We are still committed to a future in NASCAR, but right now we are waiting on NASCAR to make a decision on the design of the new car," said Wall, referring to NASCAR's proposed Car of Tomorrow.
NASCAR isn't sweating Toyota's delay in joining the Busch or Cup ranks.
"We're not disappointed," said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR vice president for competition. "For a company like Toyota, we'd rather that they have their ducks in a row and be ready to commit themselves to a full program.
"They are a large but young company, and [they] make decisions very slowly and carefully. For them, waiting another year or so doesn't have that much of an effect in the overall scheme of things."
Toyota announced in June that it would leave the Indy Racing League after the completion of the 2006 season. Then two weeks ago, the manufacturer announced its withdrawal from the Champ Car Atlantic Series. The two moves had many observers thinking that Toyota was preparing to make the move into the Busch Series.
Not so fast, says Wall.
"There is more than just the on-track commitment when it comes to fielding a racing program. There are many more off-track programs that come with activation," said Wall, referring to the development and implementation of NASCAR-specific marketing and advertising programs.