NASCAR fans may hate ’em, but oh what a feeling!

Toyota didn’t take the checkered flag at Daytona today, but the company sure got the attention of the racing world by competing in its first-ever Nextel Cup race. But as 200,000 NASCAR faithful gathered for the great race, Toyota found itself on the outs with fans who seem to resent this “foreign invasion” of the their sport.

camry.jpgYou could say Toyota has a public relations problem. I’d call it a PR opportunity.

AP’s Chris Jennings focused on the Toyota’s image problem, and in the process revealed an important irony. You see, the street machine versions of the Big 3’s Nextel Cup cars are no longer made in the USA. Ford’s Fusion is built in Mexico; the Chevy Monte Carlo and Dodge Charger are built in Canada.

Only one Daytona 500 entry, the Toyota Camry, has a street model built in the good old U-S of A.

Of course, the only similarity between the cars on the track and the ones on the road is the nameplate. But building credibility for those nameplates is why major automakers spend millions on Nextel Cup racing. None of that matters to NASCAR fans like Brian Ragusa, whom Jennings quotes in his article: “I think they shouldn’t be in here,” he said of Toyota. “It’s an American sport.”

For decades now, NASCAR fans have looked down their collective hoods at the Asian imports. But now even the most ardent Dale, Jr. fan knows that Toyota leads the world “quality race” for cars under $30,000. The Big 3 have been sniffing their exhaust for years.

NASCAR legend Darrell Waltrip may be to blame for this foreign intrusion. DW brought Toyota into the Craftsman Truck Series in 2004. Once that door opened, it was only a matter of time before the company moved up to Nextel.

dalejarrett.jpgWaltrip says it’s drivers, not nameplates, that draw fans. If he’s right, then Toyota made some smart choices. Dale Jarrett (left), at 51, is as long on fan loyalty as he is long in the tooth. Michael Waltrip is another fan favorite, though it’s rumored this week’s cheating scandal isn’t sitting well with Toyota Motor Sports.

If Toyota can duplicate on the track what it does on the highway, the company’s NASCAR public relations challenge will disappear. It will help if their drivers have southern accents and aren’t named Shigatoshi. But don’t worry, Toyota knows that.

I’m not much interested in NASCAR racing these days. But if “my” car company, Subaru, gets into the game, I’ll be there. I’m trying to imagine a supercharged Forester flying off Turn 2 at Charlotte — maybe with former commercial spokesperson Martina Navratalova at the wheel, a PETA decal emblazoned across the hood and rainbows on both doors.

It’d be a thing of beauty, I tell you. And it’d make NASCAR fans forget all about the Toyota Camry. Trust me.

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