When GM made the surprising announcement Wednesday that it was leaving the IRL after next season, Aust and his Toyota brain trust must have sat down and asked: "Where do we go from here?"
Toyota wants to race against GM, Ford and Chrysler, which it does now in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. Toyota's first season has been a clear success with four victories in the Tundra pickup, including three in the last six races. But the best place to gain exposure against the "Big Three" manufacturers is Nextel Cup. If Toyota determines Cup is worth the investment, it's bad news for the IRL.
Toyota has a contract with the open-wheel series through 2006, but a move to Cup in 2007 became more appealing with GM pulling the plug on its IRL program. The bottom line for GM officials was the age-old business refrain of return on investment. It was costing too much to be competitive in a league that has limited popularity.
Honda dominated IRL competition this year by reportedly spending between $80 million and $100 million. Toyota spent less than half that amount, and GM spent about $25 million. Honda won 14 races this season, and Toyota won two. From Toyota's perspective, if it's going to take that much cash to compete in the IRL, why not spend the money in Cup and get 10 times the exposure? One of the reasons GM is leaving the IRL is because of the way Honda spends its money. Honda reportedly subsidizes Michael Andretti's team and gave financial incentives to team owner Bobby Rahal and Adrian Fernandez to leave Champ Car. "Those things changed the way teams looked at manufacturers, and what they expect out of them," said Doug Duchardt, director of GM Racing. "Obviously, the costs have gone up while TV ratings and attendance were flat. It is what it is."
When asked to comment on the state of open-wheel racing in America, Duchardt paused and said: "I will leave it to you guys to do that." The IRL needs an American manufacturer, but the prospects are slim. Ford is selling its Jaguar team in Formula One. It also is selling Cosworth Engineering, which supplies engines for three F1 teams, Champ Car and Chevrolet in its final year in the IRL.
It would be a shock if DaimlerChrysler, which competes in all three NASCAR series, decided to spend the money to join the IRL. A lot rests on Toyota's decision. If Toyota goes to Nextel Cup, would Honda be far behind? Honda needs to compete against Toyota. Rumors abound that Honda already has built a prototype Cup car in preparation for joining Toyota in NASCAR's top series. Camry vs. Accord in Nextel Cup. Give it time. It could happen.