Had the CART-IRL split of the mid-1990s never occurred, Toyota might still be racing open-wheelers instead of having a huge presence in NASCAR. But according to Toyota’s U.S. racing boss, the split diluted the value of Indy car racing so badly that it ceased being of interest to the automaker.
“To demonstrate the lack of value … in 2003, we won the Indy 500, we won the race in Japan, we won 13 out of 16 races that year, and that fall, we still had to sell to our management to stay in the sport,” said David Wilson, president and general manager of TRD, U.S.A., the Costa Mesa, Calif.-based racing arm of Toyota.
“As much as we loved it from an engineering standpoint, we also starting realizing that there were a lot of empty seats,” said Wilson. “And open-wheel in the United States was not exactly catching fire, so that started our … relationship with NASCAR.”
Wilson said Toyota was ready to compete in the Indianapolis 500 when Tony George launched the IRL and split with Champ Car, a disastrous move in retrospect.
“We literally were testing cars and engines at the speedway in 1994 and we didn’t get to race there until 2003, when we joined the IRL ranks,” said Wilson.