As Toyota Racing Development President David Wilson told Kelly Crandall in a recent interview for RACER Magazine, “Those who know our culture and how we operate, our intensity level is a 10 out of 10. That’s just part of our culture; it’s part of our commitment towards continuous improvement.”
As recent motor racing history has taught us, Wilson has been front and center in joining Michael Jordan, Denny Hamlin, Bubba Wallace, Toyota and Toyota Racing Development together in the creation of the 23XI Racing organization. And as part of the commitment towards improvement and high performance, the 23XI team recently revealed that Kurt Busch would drive for the team during the 2022 NASCAR Cup season. A 22-year veteran who won the Cup championship in 2004, Busch is the perfect wheelman for a team that is still busily defining itself. Heavily backed and fortified by Toyota and TRD, 23XI is moving fast, has big plans and has focused designs on competing at the absolute highest levels and Wilson spoke about it all on the eve of Sunday’s South Point 400 in Kurt Busch’s hometown of Las Vegas.
Q: David, Toyota, TRD, 23XI Racing, Kurt Busch, the NASCAR Next Gen car, you have a lot on your plate! How in the world have things been going?
DAVID WILSON: It’s been a crazy year, to perfectly be honest, Eric. Not one like I can remember in a long time. The unique challenges that we’ve faced this year were amazing. We’ve got our day job, which is to compete every weekend across all kinds of different racing series and that keeps us plenty busy. On top of that and in parallel, we’ve got to put this brand-new race car on the track next year. For the industry as a whole, this has just been monumental challenge. It has just been chaos. The fun stuff really has been working with Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan and helping them continue to build this young organization and to be a party to what direction they are heading and I love that part.
Q: You’ve been very vocal about the importance of the NASCAR Next Gen car. It’s a project very close to the heart of not only Toyota and TRD, but to you, as well, isn’t it?
DW: Yeah, it really is. Our culture is somewhat unique relative to our competitors. We approach racing in a very hands-on manner. We have this dedicated focus group of some 200 to 250 engineers and technicians who are very closely partnered with all of our team organizations and I say that it can get really uncomfortable at times because we put ourselves in a position where we are part of what goes on track every single week and that’s what we love. We learn so much from that and we truly feel like we are a part of the team effort. The payoff is when we succeed. Whether it is race wins or championships, those become that much more special because we are in the trenches with our partners.
Q: Martin Truex, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Christopher Bell all made it into the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs. It’s very evident Toyota and TRD are in it to win it. And with that comes a hell of a lot of time, effort and tenacity. No shortcuts, huh?
DW: Exactly. Our week starts with a lot going on. There is no, “Why don’t we just chill on Monday?” Our week starts on Monday at the shop. We are right in the competition meeting at Joe Gibbs Racing and we’re sitting at the table and what I love about it is that you go around the table and if you didn’t know better, you wouldn’t know who is TRD or who is Joe Gibbs Racing. We are imbedded. Well and truly. It’s a very organized process where our driver athletes have the opportunity to download. They literally fill out a report before the get to the meeting. They compose their thoughts and in a very open way. Sometimes it can be difficult, but in a very open and transparent manner we share where we are and what isn’t working well and what needs to be better and we talk about near term, mid term and long term plan. That’s a constant cycle, so here we are. We kind of just put the first round of the playoffs behind us. Our focus is on Las Vegas, Talladega and the Charlotte Road Course because that is the next chapter in our goal. Our goal is to get no less than three of our four teams to advance to the next round.
Q: It’s so hard to win these Cup races. Strength in numbers is a big part of it now, isn’t it?
DW: It’s strength in numbers, but it’s also strength by focus. I talk about this a lot. We’ve never had the numbers as an OEM. Look at the entry list on Sunday on any given race weekend. Toyota is the least subscribed manufacturer and I used to think we needed a proportionate number of driver and cars in the field. What I came to understand — and this is the principals of warfare — is that fewer higher quality cars allows us to amass our resources in a more effective manner. And the fact that we’re the only OEM that transferred every one of their drivers into the next round isn’t an accident because we don’t have any fluff. Every one of those drivers were capable of winning on any given weekend, but to your point, it requires a tremendous focus at this level of competition. As you pointed out, it is so hard to win and you cannot make mistakes. You have to execute. Forget about the speed of your cars and your hardware, but the race craft has to be spot-on.
Q: I wanted to ask you about all of that. I’ve read in recent interviews that you have done that you’re a major proponent of investigating race strategy and even gaming science as NASCAR moves into this new era. Thoughts?
DW: Yeah, this is absolutely something that TRD is putting a lot of focus and a lot of resources towards globally. Whether it’s international soccer or stick and ball, strategy is a big deal right now and so is applying science and history and building a model that allows our teammates to make good decisions. You know, so much of the history of our sport involved crew chiefs and talking about their notebooks. Those notebooks are long gone, simply because we have so much data and we’re able to know collect it and process and put it in a manner that, again, gives those crew chiefs just better information to help make better decisions. Because where the sport is going is all about technology and innovation, but we also recognized as an industry that we have to protect ourselves from ourselves.
You know, engineers left to their own devices can be dangerous thing. I’m an engineer, so I can say that. So what we’ve done is that we’ve started to marginalize, or make the margins smaller, where can’t compete because of the costs and the potential costs is just kind of open ended development, so what we love to do is say, “OK, the box that we have to operate in is smaller. How can we innovate and in what areas can we focus on to get out and front and learn?”
And what that involves? Honestly, it involves a lot of failure. We fail a hell of a lot more than we succeed, but on occasion we find stuff. Obviously, we were the first OEM to bring vehicle simulation into the sport and now everyone has it. You have to have it. It’s part of this area where you still can compete and so yes, gaming and strategy are there. I feel like we are still just on the cusp of it all. We’ve got a lot of work to do, but I think that is something that we are going to put a lot of focus on.