Toyota Racing

Podcast: How Toyota develops its young drivers during the pandemic

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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.

NTSB releases final report on Dale Jr. plane crash

NTSB
Photo: Dustin Long
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Pilot error played a key role in the August 2019 crash of a plane carrying Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his family, a final report by the National Transportation Safety Board stated Wednesday.

Earnhardt, wife Amy and daughter Isla were on board the plane, which crashed after a hard landing at Elizabethton (Tennessee) Municipal Airport on Aug. 15, 2019. The report stated all three suffered minor injuries. 

The NTSB listed the probable causes of the accident as: “The pilot’s continuation of an unstabilized approach despite recognizing associated cues and the flight crew’s decision not to initiate a go-around before touchdown, which resulted in a bounced landing, a loss of airplane control, a landing gear collapse, and a runway excursion. Contributing to the accident was the pilot’s failure to deploy the speedbrakes during the initial touchdown, which may have prevented the runway excursion, and the pilot’s attempt to go around after deployment of the thrust reversers.”

A “go-around” occurs when a pilot pulls out of a landing and gains altitude to make another landing attempt.

The report stated that “the flight crew made several comments about the airplane flying too fast and allowed the airspeed to increase well above the reference speed for the approach.”

The report stated that “the pilot did not extend the speedbrakes upon touchdown, which landing checklist required, but instead attempted to deploy the thrust reversers immediately after touchdown, which was a later item on the landing checklist.”

Earnhardt’s Cessna 680A Citation Latitude bounced twice upon landing as it traversed the 5,001-foot runaway.

After the fourth touchdown, the right main landing gear collapsed. The plane went off the road and through a 400-foot long area of grass. It went down an embankment, through a creek and a chain-link fence. It continued up an embankment. The plane came to rest about 600 feet beyond the runway at the edge of a four-lane highway.

The passengers and two pilots escaped as the plane burned.

The full report can be read here.

Champion or not, Chase Briscoe won’t let Xfinity title define season

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Like the 11 drivers he’ll compete against in the Xfinity Series playoffs, a championship is the endgame for Chase Briscoe.

However, with the Stewart-Haas Racing driver one win from matching his preseason goal of at least eight victories, Briscoe wouldn’t be too disappointed if he failed to claim the title at the end of the seven-race playoff.

“I feel like to this point if we don’t get to eight (wins) … I feel like I accomplished or proved what I was trying to say at the beginning of the year,” Briscoe told NBC Sports on Tuesday. “There’s still no reason why we can’t get to 10 wins. I feel 100% confident in my team that we’re going to have the cars capable of doing it, I just need to do my job. If we do that, hopefully we can get to Phoenix and then (whoever’s) the best team once we get there wins.”

As he prepares to open the playoffs Saturday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN), Briscoe is wary of not letting “the championship define you and define your season. … Winning races is a big deal. That’s what you get paid to do is go win races and obviously win championships as well, but today’s format anything can happen in that final race.”

Briscoe can attest to importance of winning races. He enters the playoff with a series-leading seven wins, which has helped him start the postseason with 2,050 points and ties him with Austin Cindric.

Briscoe’s impressive numbers come a year after he had just one win in a season where Tyler Reddick, Christopher Bell and Cole Custer combined to win 21 of 33 races.

Briscoe believes the perception of his abilities as a driver are “way different” from last year as he struggled to chase those three drivers now competing in Cup.

“Personally, I felt like I could win races, and I think a lot of it was learning,” Briscoe said. “Last year, there were still a lot of tracks I had never been to before and didn’t even have 100 pavement starts in my entire career, and now I have that experience. I have the confidence to go with it and all of those things are totally different, and when I said what I said at the beginning of the year (about winning eight races) I felt like I was capable of doing that.

“If I could back it up, it would look even better. … I think I’ve proven my worth in this sport. I feel like if I do get the opportunity to move up, I feel like I’m ready, but I also feel like I could get a lot of benefit out of coming back to the Xfinity Series and running again.”

Briscoe, a Ford development driver, says he still doesn’t know what’s in store for him in 2021.

He said the uncertainty of his future is a “little bit easier” to handle compared to last year because of the wins he’s racked up.

Regardless of not knowing his NASCAR fate, if Briscoe can “somehow get to 10 wins this year and win the championship, then that would just make it, I feel like, a lot easier for the decision-makers.”

Mike Wallace’s appeal of indefinite suspension denied

NASCAR suspends Mike Wallace
Mike Wallace
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Mike Wallace‘s indefinite suspension by NASCAR was upheld by the National Motorsports Appeals Panel on Wednesday.

Wallace, who has made three Xfinity Series starts this season, was suspended Sept. 10 for violating Sections 12.1; 12.8; 12.8.1.e of the rule book.

According to the rulebook, a violation of section 12.8.1.e is any “Public statement and/or communication that criticizes, ridicules, or otherwise disparages another person based upon that person’s race, color, creed, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, marital status, religion, age, or handicapping condition.”

As part of the suspension, Wallace is required by NASCAR to attend sensitivity training.

The three-member appeals panel was made up of Dixon Johnston, Bill Lester and Kevin Whitaker.

Wallace has the right to appeal the decision to the National Motorsports Final Appeals Officer.

Wallace wrote the following on Facebook shortly after his suspension was originally announced:

“You know as I fly across the United States today I’m ready various people’s political views and I have to say a famous four star Military General that I spent time with in the MidEast told me Mike let me give you some advice don’t ever get in a conversation about politics or religion unless you are really smart. I said why do you say that comment His response it’s like being balanced on a single edge razor blade if you slip you will get cut!

Think about that before we all make foolish uneducated post! Moral of this story is most of use just repeat what we have heard we really don’t know.
Have a great positive day!”

Bubba Wallace to receive Stan Musial award for extraordinary character

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Following months of speaking out in support of racial justice and inclusion in NASCAR, Bubba Wallace‘s work has been recognized by The Musial Awards.

The Richard Petty Motorsports driver has been selected as the recipient of its Award for Extraordinary Character.

The award honors “an individual who demonstrates remarkable poise, perseverance and overall sportsmanship.”

The Musial Awards – presented by Maryville University in St. Louis – is named after Stan Musial, a former St. Louis Cardinal baseball player. St. Louis is also the home to one of Wallace’s sponsors, World Wide Technology.

More: Michael Jordan excited for NASCAR future with Denny Hamlin

In the wake of the death of George Floyd in May, the 26-year-old Wallace has been active in helping lead NASCAR through social changes, including the banning of the Confederate flag at series events and tracks.

He also drove a Black Lives Matter car at Martinsville Speedway in June.

“Bubba Wallace exemplifies what the Stan Musial Award for Extraordinary Character is all about,” Frank Viverito, president of the St. Louis Sports Commission, which produces the Musial Awards, said in a press release. “He has overcome much to be where he is, and he has courageously stepped forward to take an important stand for change. He is most deserving of an award that stands for sportsmanship and character, and is named for Stan Musial, whose own actions promoted racial acceptance and unity.”

Wallace joins baseball legend Hank Aaron as a 2020 Musial Awards honoree. Aaron is receiving the Stan Musial Lifetime Achievement Award for Sportsmanship.

The Musial Awards will air nationally on CBS on Saturday, Dec. 26.

After three full-time seasons in Cup racing for RPM, it was announced earlier this week that Wallace would compete in 2021 for a Cup team co-owned by Denny Hamlin and basketball legend Michael Jordan.