This is the third and final part of a featured series on the history and rise of the Toyota Racing Development dirt-track program. To read part two, click here.
COSTA MESA, Calif. – As the Toyota name has risen and endured in dirt-track racing, many notable faces have played a part in building the brand into a household grassroots name.
The late Dave Steele, who won Toyota’s first national midget race in 2007 during the Copper World Classic at Phoenix Int’l Raceway, was just the first in a long line of drivers who have contributed to the manufacturer’s success over the past 12 years.
Among those who have jumped behind the wheel with Toyota’s midget program are four of USAC’s Triple Crown winners, three household names who went on to high-profile stints in NASCAR and several enduring veterans who remain close to the United States Auto Club.
“If you look back at our history, just consider some of the names that have driven Toyota-powered midgets. Of course Dave Steele won our very first race, but a legend in Dave Darland, Bryan Clauson, Tracy Hines, Jerry Coons Jr., Kevin Thomas Jr., and more modern guys like Kyle (Larson), Christopher (Bell) and Rico (Abreu) … we’ve truly had some of the all time greats,” noted TRD President David Wilson. “Fast forward to today, and what we came to really appreciate after going to hundreds of these races is that the talent level required to wheel one of these race cars is just awe-inspiring. It’s difficult to quantify that.
“There are some really talented drivers engaged in this sport. Kyle Larson, a few years ago, obviously really stood out, but there have been others and continue to be others,” Wilson added. “It’s just a cool process to see all those who trust what we do and want to be a part of that and have been a part of it through the years.”
Larson remains the most notable, but Wilson and his comrades hold their heads high strictly at the fact that the Toyota grassroots program has been able to aid in the development of some of the top names in American motorsports today.
To them, it’s not just about trying to hold on to talented drivers, but about knowing that even if some of those talent goes elsewhere, Toyota helped to move those drivers forward.
“Ultimately what we’ve wrapped our heads around is that even though we will lose more drivers than we’ll ever keep, if we find a diamond in the rough, then it makes it all of our efforts worthwhile,” explained Wilson. “Toyota gets so much value out of racing; it’s lifted our brand in this country. Motorsports is part of our culture, the American culture, and we’ve always felt that we should invest back in the sport, and we should invest in some of these young kids and give them opportunities that they wouldn’t ordinarily have.
“Christopher Bell, we believe is one of those diamonds,” Wilson pointed out. “His family is of fairly modest means, and he wouldn’t be sitting in that NASCAR ride today, getting ready to be in a Cup Series car, without Toyota behind him and us giving him that little extra help. That’s what I’m most proud of, is that we’re giving some of these kids opportunities and how much fun it is to watch them come up through the ranks and learn what it’s all about.”
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