Happy 40th Birthday, TRD!
“We really just sprouted up as an offshoot of what the company was doing in Japan,” says David Wilson, a 30-year veteran of TRD and now its president. “We were Toyota’s version of a SoCal speed shop, trying to hot rod Celicas and Supras. We were right down the street from the sales and marketing folks in Torrance, but we had no direct affiliation with them.”
Fast forward to today and TRD hasn’t just become a core component of TMNA, it’s evolved into a state-of-the-art motorsports engineering team that’s achieved incredible success on multiple competitive fronts.
Along the way, TRD’s success on Sundays has had an increasingly direct impact on Toyota’s success in selling its vehicles on Mondays.
“In 1979, we had Toyota in our name but we were really out there on an island,” says Wilson. “Today, we are an integral part of Toyota in the United States, not just in terms of advanced engineering but also in helping the brand become more fully integrated into the culture of the American heartland.”
Toyota and Ivan Stewart proved to be a dominant combination in desert racing for more than 30 years.
Let’s Roll the Highlight Reel
This is a journey that began with the original Ironman, Ivan Stewart, subjecting Toyota trucks to the rigors of off-road racing in the brutal Baja, California desert. It progressed to sports cars as well as International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) prototypes, led by the legendary Dan Gurney. TRD took a big technological leap forward with the more exotic challenges of open-wheel racing on the CART and Indy car circuits, culminating with a win in the prestigious Indy 500 in 2003.
And then, in 2004, Toyota became the first manufacturer beyond the Detroit Three to compete in NASCAR, America’s most popular racing series. Though it was a steep learning curve, Toyota won its first NASCAR National Championship in truck racing in 2006, in Xfinity racing in 2009 and most significantly, in the Cup series in 2015. It’s been a dominant presence on the NASCAR circuit ever since, winning multiple driver and manufacturer titles and over 475 races — including nine Cup wins in this season’s first 14 races to lead the drivers’ and manufacturers’ standings.
The legendary Dan Gurney headed up Toyota’s highly successful International Motor Sports Association program in the 1980s, including this GT-Prototype entry at the Laguna Seca Raceway in Monterey, California.
Along the way, TRD also jumped headlong into National Hot Rrod Association Racing (better known as NHRA), yet another iconic American motorsports venue. It didn’t take long for the podiums to pile up there, too.
There’s a lot more to this tale of triumphs. To take a virtual stroll through Toyota’s motorsports heritage — both before TRD arrived on the scene and since it’s assumed the leading role for Toyota in this country – check out this fun and informative timeline. It’s well worth the detour.
But know this: TRD’s success is no accident. It’s a product of hard work, dedication and — in true Toyota fashion — a relentless commitment to continuous improvement.
The Milk Man
Gil de Ferran hoists the traditional bottle of milk after winning the iconic Indy 500 in a Toyota-powered open-wheeled racer in 2003.
A Hands-on Approach to Success
“We like to get our hands dirty,” says Wilson. “Other manufacturers function more as sponsors and outsource the development of the engineering you need to win. We actively participate wherever we race. So, for example, all of the NASCAR engines come from our headquarters in Costa Mesa (California). There’s this amazing logistical exercise that happens between February and November where, every week, engines are coming and going. We can deliver a level of technology that most of our team partners simply can’t match.”
Since 2008, TRD has been just as hands-on when it comes to chassis development. That’s when it established a purpose-built facility near Charlotte, North Carolina, to help lift its NASCAR cred to an even higher level.
“It’s an amazing place,” says Nelson Cosgrove, who has served as TRD’s vice president of Engineering and Vehicle Development since coming over as technical director of Joe Gibbs Racing in 2015. “Toyota invested in the headcount and tools to push the state of the art forward. And we are constantly challenged to keep pushing to ensure we stay ahead of the competition.”
The driving simulation technology used to fine-tune Toyota’s NASCAR entries is now also being pressed into service in the development of the company’s production vehicles.
Case in point: TRD is now recognized as a leader in driving-simulation technology. The same system it uses to fine-tune the handling of a NASCAR-spec Supra is now being used by TMC to help develop the next generation of Toyota’s production vehicles.
“People always ask, ‘How does racing benefit the cars and trucks we sell?’” says Cosgrove. “Well, this technology is a very tangible example. The tools we use are now very similar.”
Similarly, Wilson points out that TRD now collaborates with some of Toyota’s North American manufacturing facilities supporting them with prototype machining from their state-of-the-art manufacturing center in Costa Mesa. And they’ve also begun to apply some of the lessons they’ve learned on the track to the development of one-off technologies to the benefit of Team Toyota’s Paralympians.
The beat goes on for TRD, headlined by the return of the Supra — in this case in NASCAR form.
Changing Perceptions of the Brand, One Victory at a Time
Meanwhile, every Toyota motorsports victory helps change the way Americans see the brand. For instance, among diehard NASCAR fans, Toyota has gone from unwanted foreign interloper to fully accepted member of the community, with brand awareness and purchase consideration on par with, if not better than, that of Ford and Chevrolet.
This shift in perception has never been more important as, under Akio Toyoda’s leadership, the Toyota brand has become increasingly performance-oriented.
“You can see it in the production vehicles we’re building these days,” says Wilson. “Akio is a professional driver. He’s made it very clear that Toyota’s cars and trucks cannot simply be appliances. They must be fun to drive. And nothing encapsulates having fun behind the wheel more than motorsports.”
All of which suggests that TRD’s next 40 years just might be even more thrilling than its first.
“I’ve been in racing for 25 years and there’s more change in the works now than ever,” says Cosgrove. “There’s definitely going to be a move toward hybrids and electrification in some form. I can’t predict exactly when. But it’s coming. And I’m sure Toyota will be leading the charge.”
“We’re always looking to the future,” says Wilson. “But every once in a while, it’s good to stop, look back and recognize all that TRD has accomplished up to this point. I couldn’t be more proud of how far we’ve come over the years.”