Podcast: How Toyota develops its young drivers during the pandemic

Toyota Racing
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The 2020 season started off well for the vaunted Toyota Racing TD2 driver development program that has churned out top-flight prospects such as Christopher Bell.

There was an inaugural Xfinity Series victory Feb. 29 at Auto Club Speedway by Harrison Burton, who is the NASCAR circuit’s points leader. That came on the heels of a successful first two months of 2020 that opened with several Toyota Racing Development prospects excelling at the prestigious Chili Bowl midget dirt race.

“A lot of our young kids did a really nice job at the Chili Bowl, so that was a good start,” TRD general manager Tyler Gibbs (on the right of Bell in the above photo) said on the latest NASCAR on NBC Podcast. “But the season hasn’t progressed quite like we thought it would.”

It hasn’t been a lack of results for the band of teenagers assembled by Gibbs and TRD senior commercial manager Jack Irving as potential future stars in NACAR.

It’s been a lack of track activity because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

How do you develop drivers during a two-month layoff in which no one is racing?

“Not going to the racetrack is a bizarre thing,” said Irving (on the left of Bell in the above photo), who normally travels 200 days annually helping manage the program but has been home for his longest stretch in 10 years. “We haven’t seen (drivers) in two months.”

Gibbs and Irving, the Southern California-based brain trust behind Toyota’s youth driver pipeline, discussed the difficulty of navigating the pandemic while also grooming young drivers.

Because the TD2 program is rooted in analytics and sports science principles that provide regular report cards on how drivers are progressing on and off the track, TRD has used apps to stay in touch with its prospects and ensure they are adhering to exercise regimens and proper nutrition.

Irving said much of the communication is through a private Instagram channel.

“They won’t go to a website, but they will for sure click on an Instagram link,” Irving said. “So that’s worked out. That’s just how you engage and actively keep them motivated. There’s a lot of text streams. You also don’t want to over-inundate them with data that they stop reading.”

As short tracks and series slowly come back online, some of TRD’s younger drivers are racing again. Giovanni Scelzi raced when Knoxville Raceway reopened with a World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series event May 8 without fans.

TRD officials have encouraged younger drivers to race if they feel comfortable

“I’m a fan of kids racing as much as they possibly can if they can safely race in anything they can,” Irving said. “I think it’s important forever, honestly. I think it’s a big deal. We don’t get enough races in anyway. So if you race once a week, and if you had a bad race, if you can go race Tuesday at Knoxville, you probably should. I also think it’s extremely important to cross develop. I think it makes them better pavement racers, and being a pavement racer makes you a better dirt racer. Great racers win in everything, that’s what makes them great.

“We did have a little bit different approach with the Cup guys. There was more focus on, ‘You’ve got to get to Cup racing,’ and you can’t put yourself in a position to where you’re exposed to anyone who may have had (COVID-19).”

Outside of the conditions limiting racing the past two months, Gibbs and Irving said Toyota generally allows its young drivers great latitude in choosing how and where to race.

“We’re not steel-fisted guys saying, ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that,’” Irving said. “Everyone has what they are trying to accomplish, and it’s different for each one. If asked, we’ll give that counsel and let them make decisions. There are times those decisions aren’t ones we would have made, and we’ll let them know that, but it’s still their decisions.”

Gibbs said TRD is “much more open to letting kids race in multiple disciplines than most people.”

Reaffirming that philosophy also has been important during the layoff.

“We are going to race again, and you want to be ready when that time comes,” Gibbs said. “But most of the kids are pretty self-motivated. I think they all kind of took the first week or two soft, but after that they began to ramp back up again and were anxious to get started.”

During the podcast, Gibbs and Irving also discussed:

–The origins of the driver development program;

–How they sign sponsorship for the program;

–The importance of Bell’s success;

–Developing evaluation through best practices from TCU and the Texas Rangers.

To listen to the podcast, you can click on the embed above, or download the episode at Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, Google Play or wherever you get podcasts.