Toyota: Hendrick Le Mans Entry Potential Unfair Advantage

NASCAR will permit Toyota and Ford access to tests and data.


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Toyota Racing Development president David Wilson found out about NASCAR and Hendrick Motorsports' plan to send a Next Gen to compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans at the same time as everyone else -- the introductory press conference.

"I was actually at Sebring when it happened," Wilson said. "I had zero notice. Candidly, I was a little disappointed that as a stakeholder and as a partner to NASCAR that neither ourselves, nor Ford, were alerted to this.

"That weekend within minutes I had a dialogue with (NASCAR president) Steve Phelps and (NASCAR chief operating officer) Steve O’Donnell and (NASCAR CEO) Jim France and expressed our concerns and expressed our displeasure. The good news is they have all responded and they hear us.

"We have, between ourselves and Ford, we have given (NASCAR) some shared thoughts as to if they are going to do this how it’s done in a manner that is reasonably fair."

The announcement was made on March 18 at Sebring during a press conference with France, Rick Hendrick, Chevrolet’s Jim Cambell, IMSA president John Doonan and Le Mans president Pierre Fillon.

The car will race out Garage 56 -- a one-off entry in the paddock that showcases innovation within the automotive industry. The endeavour will also serve as a commercial of sorts for the NASCAR Cup Series directed towards the international sports car community.

Since making its debut in 2012, Garage 56 has featured experimental and emerging technological entries, starting with the DeltaWing after its dismissal as a potential future Indy Car. Two years after that, a zero-emission coupe version of the DeltaWing named ZEOD RC, turned laps entirely using an electric powerplant.

The 2020 race was meant to feature a modified Prototype featuring two paralyzed drivers from the waist down and a left-handed amputee.

That a NASCAR Next Gen would be entered into the race immediately drew concern from Toyota driver Denny Hamlin, who felt the entry would provide an unfair advantage for Hendrick and Chevrolet, against the other teams and manufacturers.

"Finding out through a press conference is not okay,” Hamlin told reporters on March 30 at Circuit of The Americas. "We have too many people in place, NASCAR has too many executives for that to have slipped through the cracks. Not that it slipped through the cracks, but like, where’s the transparency of it?

"There’s certainly some performance advantages that every company is going to be concerned with. Short of us being allowed to have the same track time, I do not see any way possible that they will not have an advantage and (Hendrick) is a team that already has won more races than anyone this season with the Next Gen."

The general conviction is that the specs of the car would be modified from the version that competes weekly in the Cup Series, but Wilson agreed with Hamlin’s assessment that any track time has the potential to create an unfair advantage.

"I would have much preferred that Jim France take Gary Nelson and his Sports Car team (Action Express Racing) to Le Mans and run a Chevy. But, of course, you need the sex appeal of a Hendrick Motorsports … I get it," Wilson said.

"Unfortunately, they are an active competitor in the sport and they are going to take some form of a derivative of the car that we race every Sunday to Le Mans. And it’s going to require arguably hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of testing.

"It’s hard not to say on some level that they are going to figure out something. Now, NASCAR has done a tremendous amount to assuage those concerns."

Wilson says NASCAR will open every Next Gen test in preparation for Le Mans to Ford and Toyota for review and data collection.

"We’ll have visibility to every test, every time that car is on track that will be shared with us," Wilson said. "We will have that visibility and transparency because that’s what we’ve been promised. And we will be invited to every test."

Wilson said he understands the marketing reasons to send a Next Gen to Le Mans, and its potential to generate enthusiasm for the discipline abroad, albeit with the consistent caveat.

"Stepping away from it at 30,000 feet, I am absolutely a fan of what they’re doing," Wilson said. "This has the upside of putting our sport on the map and putting it in front of an international audience. I would have preferred it be done in a little bit different way."