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A Few Words With: Lee White

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, December 19 2009
Toyota made big news in auto racing in 2009. (File photo courtesy of NASCAR)

Toyota made big news in auto racing in 2009. (File photo courtesy of NASCAR)

Aside from all things associated with NASCAR lightning rod Kyle Busch, Toyota generated its boldest headline of 2009 when it pulled out of Formula One racing last month.

Toyota Motor Corporation confirmed it was quitting the FIA Formula One World Championship three days after the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. A statement issued by TMC said the decision reflected the “current severe economic realities” facing automobile manufacturers globally.  The decision has affected 700 employees at Toyota’s F1 headquarters in Cologne, Germany.

Domestically, Toyota celebrated Busch’s first NASCAR Nationwide Series championship, and second consecutive Manufacturer’s Championship, in ‘09. Lee White, president and general manager of Toyota Racing Development, recently dubbed Busch the “face of Toyota” in NASCAR – acknowledging that 41 of Busch’s 62 career victories in NASCAR’s three touring series have been scored in Toyotas. Busch, 24, intends to add to his total of 16 Camping World Truck Series wins as owner/driver of Kyle Busch Motorsports, a two-Tundra team launched last week.

Still, NASCAR’s premier Sprint Cup Series again was dominated by Hendrick Motorsports, as teammates Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon finished an unprecedented 1-2-3 in their Chevrolets at the end of the 10-race Chase.

Johnson won a record fourth consecutive Cup title in his Impala SS _ and third selection as Driver of the Year – performances that White begrudgingly admires.

“I hate it (the HMS/Johnson success) just as much as anyone,” White said during an impromptu interview with a group of motorsports journalists as the season wound down at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth. “I hate it for all of us. But on the other hand, how can you not sit in awe of what they’re accomplishing? It’s a two-edged sword. I mean, it’s killing us, but it’s the most impressive thing I’ve ever seen.”

White’s focus remains on the operation of Toyota Racing Development, U.S.A., and its facilities in Costa Mesa, Calif., and Salisbury, N.C.  TRD provides engineering and technical support for the company’s American racing programs, including Joe Gibbs Racing, Michael Waltrip Racing and Red Bull Racing in Cup. Toyota has been competing in the Cup and Nationwide series since 2007. The manufacturer joined NASCAR’s Truck Series in 2004 and won its first title in 2005.

White addressed a number of open-wheel and NASCAR issues during a free-wheeling session, with key excerpts below:

Question: What does Toyota’s decision to quit Formula One, with all its global reach, tell you about that series?

Lee White: “They’ve had their challenges in many ways, not just with manufacturers but with their own internal politics, various and sundry things that have happened in the sport. We watch it from a distance. We’re not involved with it. We’re focused on what we do here and that’s our primary interest. It will be interesting as a fan to observe and see how it shakes out over the next few years.”

Q: Is there a cost-containment message there that relates to Toyota’s NASCAR involvement?

LW: ”I think there’s a message there that probably should go globally to every motorsports contingent around the world…(that) is not only cost-containment based on the current economic challenges we all face, but just keeping motorsports relevant to fans. And looking at green elements and entertainment factors and competition and so on. There’s a lot involved with keeping motorsports a sport, but also making it entertainment so that it attracts fans. And NASCAR’s done a great job of that. And they’re doing a great job of leading the way and looking forward. At this point in time we are very, very pleased with our relationship with them and the direction that they’re taking.”

Q: Comment on Hendrick Motorsports’ domination of Cup. What are the frustrations associated with a team operating on tier that is higher than Toyota?

LW: “As a team, the Hendrick organization is a tier higher than everyone, including other teams representing that manufacturer (Chevy). So it’s not just a manufacturer-to-manufacturer envy, so to speak. But let’s give them some credit. They’ve done a fantastic job. We don’t begrudge them that. We just want to work hard with our teams and find ways of beating them.”

Q: Do you see the Formula One shutdown as an embarrassment for Toyota, much like Honda’s decision the year before?

LW: “I don’t know if ‘embarrassment’ is the right word. It’s certainly regrettable that the economy made it happen. It wasn’t something that was an easy decision to make, I’m sure. I wasn’t part of the decision. But we, because of the economy and the direct costs involved, have suspected for a while that it may be something they would have to consider, and ultimately they did. But I mean, we’re not embarrassed because of the global economic situation. It happened, and we’re _ along with every other automotive manufacturer in the world _ at direct impact from it. So it’s unfortunate, but it’s a decision that was made by the company in the best interests of the company.”

Q: How can your (NASCAR) side of the company take advantage of that situation? How can the knowledge and personnel involved benefit Toyota in this arena?

LW: “That’s going to be a bit challenging to take advantage of it now, because we were already taking advantage of it. Given our open-wheel experience in North America, we had a lot of friends there _ people who have been with us through Indy-car (CART) and IRL and even NASCAR who were on current assignment in Cologne, Germany, working with the F1 program. We had a fantastic relationship on the technical side, on the engineering side, with Cologne. We shared a lot of projects, we worked together on a lot of projects. We had even planned later this year to have one of their vehicles in our facility in North Carolina on a regular basis, doing work with our engineering group.

“So it’s not so much that now we can capitalize on their demise as much as we are being affected by the loss of them. And don’t really expect to have any real benefit from their going away. And they have some neat toys, without question.  And don’t think that I won’t be holding my hand out, thinking that, ‘Hey, if that toy’s going to be available, look our way.’ But I think that they have some work to do and they’re looking at other options before it would ever come to that, so we’re pretty far down the pecking order.”

Q: Does the F1 decision mean you will lose access to the “rolling road”  wind tunnel in Cologne?

LW: “We’ve never used that. They’re scale-model size, and we do all of our work full-size, and we do it right down the road at another wind tunnel in North Carolina. So we’ve not done that. We’ve been there in Germany at Stuttgart at a couple of full-size tunnels, but we’ve never used (that) tunnel.”

Q: Speaking from an auto manufacturer’s perspective, do you feel the worst of the recession is behind this economy?

LW: “I’m hearing anticipation of a turnaround. I mean, everyone in the company seems to think we’ve scraped bottom, and certainly the sales numbers are kind of flat now and up in some cases. Ford announced a nice profit for the last quarter; we made a modest profit the last quarter. So I think everyone’s kind of crossing their fingers. I know there’s excitement in our sales group because we have some really great product coming. Our company usually plays under the radar. It doesn’t go out and announce a lot of things until they’ve got it on the ground, but there’s a lot of great product coming. There is a significant amount of product coming, which is good for consumers. So we’re looking forward to the next year being a bit of a rebuilding year and being pretty strong by 2011.”

Q: Is there any chance the demise of the F1 program would trigger a Toyota return to IndyCar, where Honda is the sole engine supplier?

LW: “No. Whatever it is now, no, there’s no consideration whatsoever for that at this point. Or even discussion.”

Q: Would you be surprised to see Honda eventually come over to compete in NASCAR?

LW: “Ah, the door’s wide open.  Bring it on. We welcome the competition if they decide to come and take on the folks that are here. I mean, maybe a little more competition would bring the Hendrick guys in line. We need all the help we can get.”

Q: When you see the number of manufacturers leaving F1 (including BMW), do you see that sport as one that has lost its focus? That it’s not so much about the sport anymore, it’s about the lifestyle or politics?

LW: “I don’t even have a comment on that. I mean, Formula One for a long time has been the pinnacle of motorsports on the face of the earth. But it’s selling technology, so to speak, as opposed to selling wheel-to-wheel competition. And we went through that here with CART and Prototype cars and Can-Am. Remember Can-Am back in the day, when they were the fastest race cars in the world? I have a picture of one of ‘em on my (office) wall _ and they’re extinct. So I think what you’re seeing is something that we’ve seen before. At least in North America we’ve seen it, and we’ve seen it in other forms of motorsport around the world _ where something starts, grows, gains a following and then…does it lose its way? Maybe, but maybe it just becomes a bit more not totally relevant, so the fan base kind of erodes away. And then it has some internal issues.

“We saw it with open-wheel in America with ‘The Split’ (between CART and the IRL) over 10 years ago. And it’s still trying to pick up the pieces and become relevant to North American fans again. We saw NASCAR have a phenomenal period of growth during that period, and now we’re suffering through…the TV audience is down a couple percent or three percent or four percent or 10 percent. And the fans in the stands are down, so that NASCAR is seriously looking at how to become relevant again. And of course, we as manufacturers with a vested interest are all shoulder-to-shoulder with them, trying to figure out how to make it all work.”

Q: How do you view the quality of competition in NASCAR, and is it something that can be altered and made more relevant?

LW: “It’s very hard to legislate competition. I don’t know that you can. It’s easy to point fingers at NASCAR and say, ‘Oh, you could do this and you could do this and this’ and it would fix everything. They can’t. It’s impossible, because they ‘re dealing with very bright people, good organizations and drivers that are going to find ways to make whatever you do a little bit better than the next guy. How can you legislate against the Hendrick organization doing a great job, beyond just making their life miserable and kidnapping their car every week, or multiple cars of theirs every week, and taking them back and taking them apart? Oh, they did that! And it didn’t work. So, I give NASCAR credit for trying, but they can’t legislate competition. They’re doing the best they can and we’re on-board with them. We support them, and I’m sure the other manufacturers are on-board with them as well. But some of these things, it just takes a little time until someone else figures it out and gets as good as those guys.”

Q: Do you believe quality of competition is an issue? Is competition down, or do people have such a misguided perception of what competition should be that the perception is more of a problem than what is taking place on-track?

LW: “Well, first of all, the biggest thing is that we’re still being affected by the economy. People are just not spending money. They’re not spending money on hotels, they’re not eating out, they’re not buying gas…so that’s definitely, probably, more than anything affecting what we’re seeing in the grandstands at the races. TV is another thing, and I’m not a party to it, but I’m sure there’s a lot of discussion going on about how to help the TV broadcast. Competition, is without question, a piece of that.

“But again, as you look through history and as I’ve watched NASCAR racing, I’m not sure that the races 10 years ago were… you didn’t have leader changes every lap or every two laps or every three laps. Or if you did, it was an unusual occasion. And occasionally now, we have the same thing. So I’m not sure the competition is so much different than it’s ever been. The difference is in the access that the population has to the ability to comment on it, with the Internet and everything else. People never had that before. When they came to the race and left the race, they were done. There wasn’t anything else until they read about it in a newspaper.”

Q: Is there one thing you would suggest to make the racing better?

LW: “I wish it were only one thing. I think it’s too complicated and frankly, that’s a question for the folks at NASCAR. We can and we are interested. We’re willing to make whatever suggestions, as is everyone, because it’s all of our livelihoods. Without the fans paying attention to whatever media, and coming to the races, none of us would be doing this. So it’s important. But I think it’s up to NASCAR to canvas opinions and then formulate actions and see if they can have an effect. Because I don’t think there’s any question that the very simple act of having the double-file restarts this year definitely enhanced the show. It looked to me like it did, and it made it more interesting and it made it more of a crapshoot as to what was going to happen by the end of the race. They probably just need to invert wherever Jimmie Johnson is and put him in the back. He’s just that good.”

Q: Where would you rank what Jimmie Johnson has done in Cup now for four consecutive years?

LW: “What he’s doing right now, without question is almost…I can’t think of anyone that has accomplished more in four consecutive seasons. No one. Especially in this era, with the cars so closely controlled by the rules, the competition so close, and the margins of victory so small. It’s incredible.”

Q: Hendrick Motorsports gets plenty of credit as an organization, but what do you say about the driver, about Johnson?

LW: “The driver in any of these situations in NASCAR is your single biggest piece. So, without question, Jimmie has to be playing a very significant part in that. I mean, if I were Mr. Hendrick and I wanted to do the right thing for all of us, I’d switch crew chiefs. And we all know where Chad Knaus would go. But, I’m not Mr. Hendrick and I’m sure he has selfish motives. And I say that jokingly.”

Q: To make it clear about the repercussions from the F1 decision _ there’s no way that Toyota shuts down this $300-million European program, and that none of that money gets funneled over to NASCAR?

LW: “We are still on very, very tight budget restrictions, as we have been for the last year and a-half, and are continuing to be for the foreseeable future. We don’t have any (NASCAR) cars that are fully supported. We have parts arrangements and contingency arrangements and engineering support arrangements with eight (teams). You don’t have to subsidize all of them. You have a good product, people want to run ‘em. We have a good product. Camry’s a great car.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, December 19 2009