Toyota says they will not monopolize NASCAR - Sure Lee White has heard the murmuring. He's heard the muffled talk that his company is poised to jump with both boots upon the neck of a NASCAR series that is perceived to be severely wounded.
White, the president and general manager of Toyota Racing Development, knows that such murmuring comes with being both NASCAR's new kid in class and its most economically successful manufacturer.
And in a recent talk with The Star, he vehemently denied that Toyota would try to profit from the chaos gripping the sport's other manufacturers or that it was even in a position to do so.
White, who succeeded Jim Aust as the head of Toyota Racing Development last season and who, like Aust, is a native of rural Kansas, also discussed many of the other topics that have shifted NASCAR team-owners, drivers, fans and officials into a mode of reflection this offseason.
"It's going to be interesting," White said of 2009. "There is no shortage of story lines."
The biggest story line concerns economics. NASCAR, because of its close association with American business, will no doubt be more affected by the staggering economy than other team sports.
But while Detroit's Big Three have been suffering financial setbacks for years, Toyota has remained relatively healthy. That has prompted some in the sport to figure that Toyota, which has been tagged as racing's free-spender since it entered NASCAR several years ago, would turn destructively predatory in 2009.
White assures all that that will not happen.
"We're experiencing the same downturn that everyone else is," White said. "That's public knowledge now. There are not millions and millions of dollars out there to sprinkle around. Frankly, if there were, we would not do that because it is against our company's core values to be predatory and take advantage of someone else's difficulty. Management would not let us do something like that and take advantage of other people's business downturns."
"I'm of the opinion that, at least on the automotive manufacturers side," he said, "that you'll see everyone giving up the soft investment; TV ads, print ads, all the activation, we've seen a bunch of that already with race sponsorships. But even though there may be some belt tightening, the last thing any of them would give up is cars on the track with numbers on them."
White said the only company whose racing future may be clouded is Dodge. And that's because Chrysler is a privately owned company and, hence, tough to get a read on.
But the others, White believes, will all be back in racing, and that's because they almost need to be.
"I think it's just so much of a part of the culture of this country that they understand that," White said. "They're not about to disassociate themselves from something that is so engrained in the fabric of America. I mean all the clichés we used when we got in it, are absolutely true. It would be devastating to Toyota associates, to plant associates, to dealerships, to everybody who has jumped on the bandwagon to be associated with NASCAR, I don't think they want to go back to where we were."
"I think what is more important to the people in the grandstands is the price of gas, price of tickets, price of merchandise, the price of hotel rooms, price of food and so on to allow them to get away from work, have a little respite and have a good time," White said. "I think we have seen in the past how the movie industry took off in the Great Depression because people needed a distraction. Frankly, I think the fans enjoy racing, and they're still going to be there." More at ThatsRacin