Q&A with Toyota's Lee White
How would you rate Toyota’s NASCAR program today versus this time a year ago?
“I think AJ Allmendinger said it very well yesterday, when he said he was dead last in the test a year ago. Yesterday, he was bouncing around the top-five all day with 40 cars -- and good drivers and good teams out there. That itself makes a fairly strong statement about the progress since a year ago.”
Are you optimistic about the Daytona 500 given Toyota’s performance at Talladega last fall?
“After the Talladega race last fall, the chassis dyno results following that event showed that we did our homework. We had very good rear-wheel horsepower after Talladega. If you look at the results here, everyone else has put the same focus on it and caught up, or at least got closer -- or equal, in the case of the Hendrick group. This is not the same as last year. It’s completely different. We have a year under our belts. The teams we’re associated with have a year under their belts and we have added the Joe Gibbs operation, which has completely changed our outlook as a company.”
What are your expectations for Toyota in the Daytona 500?
“I’m optimistic that we have a shot to compete for the pole, win one or both of the 150s and have a couple of guys contend to win the race. That’s why we’re here -- to contend, to compete and have a shot. We’ll see how it turns out. There’s some really strong competition. There are good teams here. It’s going to be fun. I can’t wait until next week when Dale Jr. runs in the Hendrick stuff because those guys have been really strong yesterday and today."
Do you think Toyota can avoid having to qualify most of its cars this season?
“Absolutely not. As long as the top-35 condition is set, anyone who is outside that group is going to be faced with that. You’re faced with building qualifying cars, period -- because that’s what it takes to get your sponsor in the race, and qualifying cars don’t race well. Consequently, it’s a coin toss as to what your chances are to elevate yourself into the top-35 group. As long we have 12 to 16 guys competing on a regular basis that are funded with good people and good drivers, that condition really isn’t going to change. Our relative performance, compared to those guys, should be better. Our percentages should improve, but will they improve to the point where all 11 Camrys will make it into the field? I doubt it. We have six guys that right now are ‘go or go-homers’ -- and I think we have the opportunity for slightly better than half of those that should make the race. Hopefully, by the end of five races, the five guys that are in the top-35 are still there.”
Does TRD have people within the Gibbs organization working with their engine department?
“There are three or four people based in their shop, helping them get over the hump and helping to get them going. We are working very closely on specifications of engines. At some point, because we are supplementing their parts acquisition activity so they can spend more time developing and working on the engine, we would hope that the two shops -- TRD and Joe Gibbs -- will build the same engine so all of our teams can race an engine that’s assembled from the same components.”
What do you think caused the deficiency in Toyota’s mid-range power band last season?
“We worked pretty hard all year on that, and that’s probably the result of our history. TRD is a company that for the past 15 years has been building a lot of Indy car motors, and there is a fundamental difference in the way that you burn methanol and the way you burn gasoline. It’s a difference in engineering philosophy. When you have a group of engineers that come from Formula One and Indy car and that’s what they know, it takes a little while to evolve them into two-valve, push-rod NASCAR technology. Facts are facts. It took about six months for the lights to come on and people to go down that path. It’s a change and an adjustment that took some time to implement, but the result is the best of both worlds.”
What would it mean for Toyota to win the 50th Daytona 500?
“For our company, given the level of acceptance company-wide since we joined NASCAR, it would be a big deal. If we do pull it off, against the odds, and win the Daytona 500 in our second year, it would be a very, very big deal. It would be very popular and well-received. The parking lot, come race day, is going to have a lot of Toyota products in it -- and a lot of those people are fans.”
What ultimately caused Toyota to decide to compete in NASCAR?
“Seven or eight years ago we looked at our racing programs here and wondered if we were delivering value for our investment. At that point in time, we started moving to NASCAR and can’t say that we’ve had an ounce of regret. We have never looked back and said we made the wrong decision. We enjoy working with these people. They are great people to work with in a great environment. We’re having a ball. It’s hard work and it may not happen overnight, but the company is patient. We have tremendous support globally for this program, and it would be phenomenal to win this race and it would be phenomenal to have some people, in our second year, to contend for a championship.”
What do you think makes a championship-caliber organization in NASCAR?
“There’s no question that NASCAR, because of the nature of the beast, the driver is easily more than 50 percent of the equation -- probably 60 percent of the equation. There’s so much experience and feel required from a driver to make these cars work. The envelope they operate in is so small that it’s very difficult for a driver to have the level of experience in the seat of his pants, and then be able to communicate that. The driver is key, and the relationship with the crew chief is almost the rest of it. And, then being able to have the right people working for that crew chief and engineering support behind him to make it all work.”
What is TRD’s vision for elevating its entire Cup Series program?
“It’s working as a group. In our truck program, it’s a complete open book. After every practice, our crew chiefs get together and open the book. They show tire pressures and they show chassis settings -- they show everything. That’s probably very optimistic to think that will happen in the Cup Series because there’s too much at stake. There are a lot of projects that can be done as a group that can better everyone to prevent everyone from spending the same dollars and doing the same projects. That’s where we think our role as a company, with our engineering support, can help Joe Gibbs, Michael Waltrip, Bill Davis and Red Bull spend their money more wisely so they can get more out of it.”