COSTA MESA, Calif. – Fans looking from the outside in on the empire that Toyota Racing Development has built in modern-era midget racing might get the idea that the program is all about moving drivers to the next level.

But while it’s true that the TRD pipeline from grassroots motorsports up to the top echelon of North American auto racing – the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series – is one of the most well-known and widely talked-about ladder systems in racing, it’s about a lot more than just that.

In fact, it didn’t even start off with driver development being its purpose at all, as TRD President David Wilson will tell most anyone who asks.

Instead, the Toyota dirt-racing program is rooted in – and remains to this day – a passion for racing at the consumer level and for engineering new technology across the board.

“If you fast forward 12 or 13 years from where we started to where we are today, our short-track program does tend to get stamped with, ‘Oh, that’s Toyota’s driver development program,’ but really, that was a fortunate byproduct of the fact that we got involved in dirt racing in the first place,” Wilson told Sprint Car & Midget. “Dating back to our entry in 2006, racing on dirt, for us, was all about being a part of grassroots Americana. One of the things that I’m really proud of is, that in spite of all of our success at the national level, we’ve always embraced grassroots racing and we recognize how important that form of motorsports is to this country.

“When you think about it, it’s hard to find a town that doesn’t have some form of dirt track or short track, and we want to be a part of that as much as we can. We always have wanted to be involved.”

Travis Kvapil scored Toyota’s first NASCAR Truck Series win at Michigan Int’l Speedway in 2004, paving a road towards the brand’s short-track participation. (NASCAR photo)

Toyota’s participation in major American motorsports actually began in 2004, when they entered the NASCAR Craftsman (now Gander Outdoors) Truck Series fresh off a championship in the old Goody’s Dash Series with Robert Huffman the year prior.

It was, in fact, in the truck ranks where the foundation for what would become Toyota’s open-wheel short-track program was first laid – thanks to the technology that the auto manufacturer had to bring to the table in order to succeed as an OEM (original equipment manufacturer) in the division.

“The circumstance, or perhaps moment that was the catalyst for us, was our entry into NASCAR and the fact that we developed cylinder heads in particular that we were able to use as the basis for our Toyota midget engine,” Wilson noted. “That was when we were truck racing from 2004 to 2006. And it has just continued to grow and to evolve from there.”

That evolution is just as evident in the teams and drivers that have come through – and who have stayed – within the Toyota short-track ladder system over the years since it began in 2007.

From Toyota’s very first USAC national midget win – the Copper World Classic in November of ’07 with Nine Racing and the late Dave Steele – to Keith Kunz Motorsports, Tucker-Boat Motorsports and all the modern Toyota-powered teams that have followed, champions and young guns alike have flourished.

Whether it was household names like Kyle Larson, Christopher Bell, Darren Hagen, Dave Darland and Rico Abreu to Tanner Thorson, Dave Steele, Chad Boat, Cannon McIntosh and more, all who came and went had to trust that Toyota was determined to stick it out for the long haul.

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