Toyota open to "sharing seats globally" among drivers amid NASCAR interest

The recent wave of international interest in NASCAR combined with Shane van Gisbergen's Chicago win has sparked new conversations at Toyota about how it can best share its motorsports assets.

Kamui Kobayashi with Tyler Reddick, 23XI Racing, Monster Energy Toyota Camry and Bubba Wallace, 23XI Racing, McDonald's Toyota Camry

Even before van Gisbergen’s victory for Chevrolet squad Trackhouse Racing on his NASCAR debut, there had been growing international attention on NASCAR’s top series this season.

NASCAR’s Hendrick Motorsports-run Garage 56 Chevrolet at this year’s Le Mans 24 Hours, which included 2009 Formula 1 world champion Jenson Button and 2011 Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller, was well-received by fans while Button also made his own Cup debut at the Circuit of the Americas in a Rick Ware Racing Ford.

At Le Mans, it was announced that Toyota's 2021 Le Mans 24 Hours overall winner and former F1 driver Kamui Kobayashi would make his Cup debut in the 13 August race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course with 23XI Racing

In becoming the first Japanese driver to start a top-level NASCAR race in over 20 years, Kobayashi will join Button, plus returnee van Gisbergen and Supercars rival Brodie Kostecki, who will make his Cup debut for Richard Childress Racing.

“I’m looking more forward to Indianapolis than any other race on the calendar this year – maybe carve out Phoenix,” said Toyota Racing Development USA president David Wilson. “We should have some horses in that race. But it’s going to be great.

“We’re going to have the largest global audience. We have top management flying in from Japan, some who have never seen a NASCAR race. It’s putting Toyota and the U.S. programme and TRD USA on the map and I’m proud of that.”

Wilson said the response to Kobayashi’s NASCAR debut “caught us a little bit by surprise pleasantly”.

“There’s no question it’s put some eyeballs on our sport for the first time in many instances,” Wilson said. “He is a name and a face that is known – obviously in Japan he’s huge, but in Europe because of the penetration of WEC and sportscars he also has a name.

#7 Toyota Gazoo Racing Toyota GR010 - Hybrid: Kamui Kobayashi

#7 Toyota Gazoo Racing Toyota GR010 - Hybrid: Kamui Kobayashi

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

“You pair that up with what Shane did at Chicago. Without a doubt there is more interest. Without a doubt, Kamui’s excitement – it’s palpable.”

Perhaps the biggest change for Toyota to come from the interest in NASCAR from international racing stars – including those supported by Toyota – has been a change in how the OEM looks at its driver assets and their futures.

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“It has helped open a dialogue that we haven’t had in the past,” Wilson explained.

“The way that Toyota has managed motorsports globally is what I refer to as a decentralised model. The new Toyota president Koji Sato recognizes the North American marketplace from a motorsports perspective, from a production vehicle respective, is a different marketplace than Europe and Asia.

“The philosophy is to give us the autonomy to manage our participation, decide where we should race, how we race, how we manage our assets including drivers.

“What that’s done over decades is kind of built silos around each country. Where we’ve had technology-sharing, we’ve never really talked about drivers.

“The ‘Kamui effect’ or the ‘Shane effect’ has certainly caused us to open a channel of communication.

“It has us looking at the stable of drivers we have and seeing if there are some organic potential fits to exchange and trade resources or drivers. That’s pretty cool; that’s pretty exciting.”

Bubba Wallace, 23XI Racing, Draft Kings Toyota Camry, Tyler Reddick, 23XI Racing, Draft Kings Network Toyota Camry

Bubba Wallace, 23XI Racing, Draft Kings Toyota Camry, Tyler Reddick, 23XI Racing, Draft Kings Network Toyota Camry

Photo by: Matthew T. Thacker / NKP / Motorsport Images

Sharing assets between Toyota's racing operations 

Wilson said the OEM is taking a more “pyramid look” at its motorsports operations – looking to see how assets can be shared or even moved around. That even includes Toyota’s highly-lauded driver development programs.

The interest in NASCAR can open the door for some of Toyota’s drivers to explore additional career paths – ones they perhaps never considered in the past.

“I think drivers like Shane that are still young, I think the consideration opens for a second career in NASCAR,” Wilson added.

“Could it open doors for a part two to a career to take a run at a championship in NASCAR? I think the answer is absolutely. Absolutely there will be some thought.

“To even be more aggressive, why couldn’t NASCAR be on the consideration set for younger drivers internationally?

“I know in talking to our own family, now that we have a better understanding of what we’re doing, we’re talking about sharing seats globally.

“We’ve never had those types of conversations before. It’s a reflection on the respect the sport is getting.

“It’s a reflection on the respect TRD is getting relative to our investment and commitment to driver development.”

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