Last weekend’s NASCAR Cup race at Kansas Speedway was big for Toyota.
All six of its cars finished in the top 10 and Kurt Busch claimed his first win with 23XI Racing, giving the sophomore team its second overall victory.
Two days later David Wilson, the president of Toyota Racing Development, took part in a one-hour media video conference.
Wilson discussed a wide range of topics, from the progress of 23XI Racing, the status of Kyle Busch’s contract with Joe Gibbs Racing, plus Toyota’s “displeasure” with how NASCAR announced its plans with Hendrick Motorsports to field an entry in the 2023 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Here’s is a condensed version of Wilson’s availability covering the most notable topics.
On Sunday, Danny (Hamlin) talked about how he has a five-year plan for making 23XI Racing a championship-contending team on a regular basis. So from Toyota’s perspective, what were the benchmark goals? Have they actually been met or exceeded so far? Or have they actually changed at all given what Bubba Wallace and Kurt Busch have done so far?
Wilson: Ultimately, the vision that we shared with Denny was and still is a long-term vision. And it’s focused around building a top tier, multi-(car) team, a championship-caliber organization. Since we’ve come in the sport, we’ve had a number of different partners and then a number of partners who have come and gone .. most notably, you know, looking at Furniture Row Racing and the success we had with them and the disappointment we all felt as an industry and certainly on a personal level that they’re still not here.
So really the target for for 23XI was to build from a clean sheet of paper a success successful enterprise and one that will be part of our family for decades. We have a regular dialogue, not just with Denny, but Michael’s team that he puts on this project currently, Curtis Polk and and Jean Mason, guys that report directly to Michael Jordan. The dialogue is about climbing this hill and in making a long-term commitment. I think early on, there were probably of lot of folks that looked at this as well, someone else new coming in and trying their hand on it. And I think there was some questions about … the real commitment. And what I can say from the start, the dialogue, the narrative hasn’t changed. I would be very candid and saying, to win in the 31st start, to win as many races in the past 19 starts as Joe Gibbs Racing, would qualify them as punching above their weight right now. But, on the other hand, this is a new car that we’re dealing with, and we know that there has been a bit of a level setting to the playing field. Certainly they’re right on track, if not ahead of schedule. With a lot of work to do, and a lot out in front of them.
What are Toyota’s thoughts about what NASCAR and Hendrick Motorsports are trying to do with the 24 Hours of Le Mans? Do you have any concerns about one of your OEM competitors getting extra testing time for the Next Gen car, even if it’s a modified Next Gen car?
Wilson: Very candidly, when I heard about that press conference, I was actually at Sebring when that happened. I had zero notice. Candidly, I was a little bit disappointed that as a stakeholder and as a partner to NASCAR that neither ourselves nor Ford were alerted to this. That weekend, within minutes, I had a dialogue with (NASCAR President) Steve Phelps and Steve O’Donnell and (CEO) Jim France and expressed our concerns and expressed our displeasure. The good news is they have all responded and they hear us. And we have, between ourselves and Ford, have given them some shared thoughts as to if they’re going to do this, how it’s done in a manner that is reasonably fair. I can, stepping away from it, at 30,000 feet, I’m absolutely a fan of what they’re doing. This has the upside of putting our sport on the map, putting it in front of an international audience. But I would have preferred it’d be done a little bit different way.
When that Next Gen Le Mans announcement was made, Denny expressed some misgivings on Twitter about it doesn’t matter how different the car would be, any testing, any sort of development Hendrick could benefit their road course program in the Cup Series … Do you share some of those concerns that Danny has? And were any of those concerns assuaged by NASCAR?
Wilson: Denny and I were immediately in touch following that announcement, as coach (Joe Gibbs) and I were in touch. On the surface, of course, we we shared all of those exact same points. I would have much preferred that Jim France take Gary Nelson and his sports car team to Le Mans and run a Chevy. But of course, you need the sex appeal of Hendrick Motorsports, I get it. And unfortunately, they are an active competitor in the sport, and they are going to be taking some form of a derivative of the car that we race every Sunday to Le Mans and it’s going to require arguably hundreds if not thousands of hours of testing, thousands of miles of testing.
And it’s hard not to say that on some level they’re gonna figure out something. Yes, NASCAR has done a tremendous amount to assuage the concerns. It’s probably not appropriate to get into detail, we provided them kind of a laundry list of the things that we would like to see. One of the first things that Jim France made clear and the probably the biggest thing in my eyes, is, hey, while we’re disappointed that on the front end we weren’t looped in, just from a partnership standpoint.
Okay, setting that aside, from here on out, what’s most important is that they’re transparent. And that we have visibility to every test, every time that (car) is on the road, that’s shared with us. We will have that visibility and that transparency, because that’s what we’ve been promised. And we will be a party to participate in every test. We will be invited to every test. Jim France has invited us to come to Le Mans. He and in his team are working on how best to leverage this and not wrap this around one team or one manufacturer, but make sure it’s wrapped around NASCAR. And he would like to have representation from all of his manufacturers there to underscore that message.
What’s Toyota’s role right now with the Kyle Busch contract? How much are you guys involved in trying to get him retained and how confident are you that you’ll be able to keep him?
Wilson: We work very closely, we always have with with our teams as it relates to their drivers. We have our own relationship with Kyle Busch, we have our own relationship with all of our drivers through these personal services agreements. We’ve been very close to Kyle. for years and years and years. Some of that relationship, to be candid, has been born through trials that we’ve gone through together and through controversy that we’ve gone through together. We’ve had some really tough times with Kyle Busch. But we’ve also are sitting on two championships and in celebrating recently, our, our 1,500 starts across the three national series. One driver has accounted for 36% of our total wins across all three series. And you know who that driver is. It’s just amazing.
So any scenario that doesn’t have Kyle Busch retiring from Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota would be a monstrous disappointment. For us and for Coach Gibbs and the family. And so, yes, Kyle has been a little outspoken. You have to be somewhat empathetic, I guess, or try to put yourself in his shoes. He’s on an out year of his contract. This is so rare, because what the team and what we try and do is get well ahead of this, particularly with a tier-one driver like Kyle Busch. The circumstances, unfortunately, have made that challenging. We’re working on it. This is a conversation I have with Joe every week. And I’m optimistic. And Kyle, he doesn’t want to go anywhere else. He has been very candid. He can’t wait for the day that his little boy Brexton races a Toyota Tundra out of the Kyle Busch Motorsports stable. He has that in his sights. And that’s not going to be for another 10 plus years, which means that we’ve got to make sure that we’re still together long after Kyle’s out of the driver’s seat full-time. … I can’t envision any other scenario. Any other scenario is just unacceptable.
How did that reach this point in this instance with Kyle?
Wilson: It did simply because of Mars’ decision to to leave the sport and that catching all of us a little bit by surprise. Mars is one of a handful of Fortune 500 companies that were probably at the very highest level of sponsorship and the reality is Joe Gibbs can’t afford to pay Kyle Busch. That comes from corporate sponsorship. Every driver’s salary comes from whatever is on that racing car on Sundays. Again, it’s circumstantial. We remain optimistic. It’s a prized property in the end. And it has a lot of potential and we’re working on a solution, a number of different solutions harder than we ever have before.
Bubba’s obviously gotten a lot of praise since Sunday for his performance and coming back and how fast that car was. Bubba’s made the comment too that he feels like this is the best he’s been behind the wheel just mentally with his attitude this year. Have you seen that from him? Are you pleased with maybe just his growth as a driver?
Wilson: Absolutely. I just saw a statistic one of you probably floated out there, but Bubba had the most quality passes on Sunday. Now, to be honest, I don’t know what that means. I don’t remember what a quality versus a non-quality pass is. But the point is, he passed a lot of race cars. And we’re seeing speed from Bubba at tracks other than superspeedways. We know he’s a terrific speedway racer. But what is catching our attention is his performance at a track like Kansas, at a track like Darlington … It helps to have a teammate. I think having, just on an emotional level, having having Kurt to compare notes right and collectively share their feedback to the team and to (competition director) Mike (Wheeler) and the crew chiefs. That’s been effective. And I think that’s given Bubba more of a feeling of security and confidence. And we’re seeing that translate to lap time on the racetrack. And that’s really cool to see.