If Red Bull Folds, Toyota Will Stay Course
If management of the team currently known as Red Bull Racing is unsuccessful in its bid to find new ownership to keep the Sprint Cup organization alive after this season, don't expect Toyota to scour the garage area looking to add to its fleet.
Red Bull's intention to withdraw from NASCAR after this season has left team general manager and vice president Jay Frye searching for investors to keep the 200-employee operation afloat. If that doesn't happen, Toyota will lose two fully funded cars and be down to six total: three at Joe Gibbs Racing, two at Michael Waltrip Racing and one at JTG Daugherty Racing, which is allied with the Waltrip team. In that case, Toyota Racing Development president Lee White said the manufacturer wouldn't look to add another team currently aligned with a rival car maker.
"We're going to focus on the guys we have," he said. "Obviously we're blessed by having two teams in Waltrip and Gibbs that have an opening for a fourth car. So our focus would be more toward seeing if that would happen, if there's some sponsorship out there and a driver available, rather than pursuing teams that really are all already contractually obligated and don't exist. We're not going to go tamper with anyone's agreement. We don't break contracts ourselves, and we do not tamper with other people's agreements. That's contrary to our culture. It does not happen."
White said Toyota's goal in NASCAR has always been to have about a quarter of the fully funded cars in the Cup field, a ratio he said will be met even if the manufacturer loses the two Red Bull vehicles after this season. Toyota's contract with the current Red Bull team extends beyond this year, and White thinks enough of Frye that he wrote a letter to Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz recommending him for his current position. But whether Toyota that would continue its relationship with a re-branded organization -- provided the ownership and funding can be found to create such a thing -- remains uncertain.
"Toyota is a company that honors its agreements, and we expect out partners to honor their agreements," White said. "This obviously puts both parties to the agreement in a situation where somebody other than me is going to look at the agreement and give us advice. I'm sure they're going through the same thing. Once we have that bit of advice, I'm sure we'll sit down and talk about where we go from here regarding termination or liquidation or transference or assignment. There are any number of possibilities there, but I don't think we're at that point yet where we can throw it out there and say, we're going this way. Out of courtesy and out of respect, I want to give Jay a chance to see what he comes back with."
White said his larger concerns are with TRD, which is currently staffed to provide engines to the Waltrip and Red Bull teams, and could feel a trickle-down effect of a Red Bull pullout. "My initial reaction is, OK, I'm looking inward and worried about my own people," he said. "How are we going to keep our people busy and not face something that's negative? We're actually pursing that aggressively now to make sure we take care of our own people. Obviously we're concerned with the Red Bull people and what might happen to them, but my concern is my people at TRD."
Although Red Bull drivers Brian Vickers and Kasey Kahne have just three top-five finishes between them this season, White said Toyota was hopeful over recent strong runs in the spring and what he called the "stellar" aerodynamic performance of the Red Bull cars thus far this year. As recently as Charlotte, he had pleasant conversations with Thomas Ueberall, Red Bull's motorsports director. While there were the occasional hints that Red Bull was less than thrilled with the performance of its NASCAR effort, of larger concern to TRD were rumblings that the team might be pursued by Ford.
Wednesday of last week, White said he received a message that Ueberall would be in Michigan and wanted to have a meeting. TRD vice president David Wilson was dispatched to the Brooklyn track, where he received the news about the pullout. "We expected either/or," White said, "either [them] asking for considerations to go to Ford, or do what they did."
As for a full explanation of why Red Bull is leaving, White is still waiting on one just like everyone else. "We weren't ever given a concrete reason, to my knowledge," he said. "I think they've enjoyed their time here. They had a certain measure of progress and success in 2009."
That was when Vickers won Red Bull's lone Sprint Cup race and made the Chase. The team's performance dropped off after that, the situation complicated by an illness that cost Vickers most of the 2010 season, and the fact that Red Bull-backed former Formula One driver Scott Speed didn't develop as hoped. At Homestead following the final race of last season, White said he could tell that Red Bull racing consultant Helmut Marko "was not a happy camper with his NASCAR program."
Much has been made of the performance disparity between Red Bull's NASCAR program and its powerhouse Formula One operation, which is in pursuit of its second consecutive world championship. But White believes other factors contributed to Red Bull's decision to leave the sport. He points out the recent suspension of Red Bull backing for an air racing series the company had sponsored for years.
"Forever they were the sponsor of airplane racing, and they pulled out of it. You can't just say it's because of Formula One," White said. "They've enjoyed phenomenal success in Formula One and they've had their challenges here. Is that why? I don't think so. They're also involved in X-Games, they're also involved in rally, various and sundry motorsports, boats, hydroplanes, everything, all over the world. These guys have a very unique approach, and I'm sure the demographics and some of the challenges, it just got to the point where it's very expensive and we're not getting the results we need. And there are other energy drinks out there taking a piece of their market. So it could very well be that they need to be a bit more circumspect to how they apply their available budget, but that's not for me to say."