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As the NASCAR season opens this weekend, Toyota makes its debut on what has long been the most American of our big-time pastimes.
All the country’s other major-league sports have grown to live with globalization by now: Euros star in the NHL and NBA, the Caribbean produces the best baseball players, and the NFL, after years of exhibitions in faraway lands, has even scheduled a regular-season game overseas for 2007.
But don’t expect the racing realm to embrace the shrinking world casually.
“As a purist, I don’t like it,” says Mat Toenniessen of the new NASCAR order.
When the green flag drops on Sunday in the Daytona 500, held at the track where a half-century ago D.C. native Bill France birthed the fabulously successful road show now known as the Nextel Cup, Toenniessen will be in front of a TV set, just like millions of other race fans.
“I’m going to watch Daytona,” Toenniessen says, “but then I probably won’t watch another race ’til, well, I don’t know. I don’t even memorize the schedule anymore. I’m not nearly as fanatical about racing.”
Throughout the 1990s, what Toenniessen regards as the Golden Age of NASCAR, “fanatical” didn’t begin to describe him. When last we caught up with the Manassas resident (“Race Matters,” 9/20/96), he was tooling around town and to racetracks all over the country in a 1978 Camaro painted and decaled just like the No. 42 Mello Yello car driven by Kyle Petty, his favorite driver on the Winston Cup circuit. Toenniessen proposed to his girlfriend in Turn 3 of Talladega, their favorite track. He bought stock in International Speedway Corporation, NASCAR’s parent company, during its IPO. The faux Petty car and all the race-related road trips he took in it won him the DieHard Fan competition sponsored by Sears and also helped him get PR work for various NASCAR teams.
The domestic partnership that kicked into gear at Talladega, Toenniessen says, is still going strong. His relationship with NASCAR, however, seems to have hit the skids.
When Toenniessen’s 42 car died after many engines and transmissions and several hundred thousand miles, he replaced it with another Camaro. But he didn’t tart up the factory’s paint scheme to flaunt his track allegiance. He no longer owns NASCAR stock, either.
He still has ticket subscriptions to many of the big tracks but rarely goes to races anymore. “I sell the tickets on eBay,” he says—as well as his extensive collection of NASCAR media guides, which is up for auction this week.
The Japanese invasion that launches this weekend with Toyota at Daytona is more a symptom than the cause of Toenniessen’s disaffection.
NASCAR fans have earned a reputation as the most brand-loyal consumers in the land. A lot of folks who root for Dale Earnhardt Jr. would only chug Budweiser—the Earnhardt team’s chief sponsor—while some portion of those who hate on Jeff Gordon would rather ride a bike than drive a Chevy.
Consumerism, obviously, motivated Toyota to fight for a spot in what had been a Big Three–only sport from the first Daytona 500 in 1959 until now. So the manufacturer’s retailers across the United States are pretty giddy about getting to find out if the old stock car adage “Win on Sunday; Sell on Monday” will translate to a foreign entry.
“It’s been mentioned for a long time, and now Toyota’s going all-out,” says Dave Catacora, manager of Koons Arlington Toyota. “We’re very excited about it.”
But Toyota’s arrival hasn’t left all the gearheads giddy. There’s a contingent that echoes the sentiments expressed by driver Jimmy Spencer when he first found out about NASCAR’s new foreign kid.
“Those SOB’s bombed Pearl Harbor, don’t forget,” said Spencer in 2004.
The presence of such Southern gentility as Michael Waltrip and Dale Jarrett behind the wheels of the Toyotas hasn’t mollified all the masses. To Toenniessen, who authors a by-the-book right-wing political blog when he’s not mulling over NASCAR matters, Toyota’s invitation to the Nextel Cup represents just the latest in a series of attacks on the traditions that kept him coming back to the track for so long.
If NASCAR’s losing a certified DieHard Fan, there must be others. Toenniessen says he’s not the only one who wishes NASCAR would stay focused on the Deep South and not gaze toward the Far East.
“They’ve done so much to try to appeal to a bigger demographic, but they’ve forsaken the Southern roots, and that’s starting to show up in the stands at the races,” he says. “You never used to see empty seats anywhere. There are still tickets available for Daytona this week. There never used to be tickets.”
Even the current name of the series makes him cringe. As Toenniessen feared back in 1996, “Winston Cup” was indeed targeted by the federal government as part of its war on tobacco. Nextel stepped in as of the 2004 racing season. (Spencer drove a car painted with the Joe Camel logo until cigarette sponsorship was forbidden.)
Toyota’s entry also comes after speedways that had become stock car landmarks, such as South Carolina’s Darlington, were forced to give up events as NASCAR moved races to new tracks in California, Illinois, and Missouri—bluer states than those where Dale Sr. and his No. 3 Chevy were routinely worshipped.
The nadir of the expansion effort from the old-timers’ point of view came when NASCAR officials fought to have a superspeedway built on, ahem, Staten Island. That bid ultimately failed, but some fans haven’t forgiven racing’s most powerful sanctioning body for the attempt.
And now comes Toyota.
“As a realist, I see why this is happening,” says Toenniessen of the Toyota debut. “Things have changed. If you’re traveling through Alabama, you got a Mercedes plant on the left and a Nissan plant on the right. You can’t travel south anymore without going by a foreign plant. So from NASCAR’s point of view, [bringing Toyota onboard] had to be done. But there’s an emotional argument as well. And as a puritan and a fan, NASCAR has issues. It’s all corporate now, to where Dale Jr. makes a lot more money selling souvenirs than he does from racing.”
Toenniessen also thinks that most of the rules changes that have been implemented in recent years, such as caution-flag restrictions and fuel-economy edicts, have only ensured that overstaffed, big-money teams have a chance to win.
“When I went to the track in the mid-1990s, I had every confidence that any driver in the field could win that day,” he says. “When I turn on my TV now, the tracks all look the same, and the same five drivers are up front.”
Kyle Petty hasn’t sniffed the winner’s circle since 1995.
Toenniessen hasn’t kept his opinions about the state of the sport to himself and other fans. He says he applied for a job in the PR department at Dover International Speedway in Delaware, the track where, in 1992, he attended his first NASCAR race and fell for the sport.
During the interview he was asked by track officials what he thought was wrong with racing there.
He started with the track’s ticket prices and parking policies—and kept going.
“They stopped the interview and told me, ‘You think there are too many problems,’ ” Toenniessen says.
He didn’t get the job.