24239Motorsports fans are surely well aware of how the current economic malaise and sharp declines in worldwide auto sales have led to the exodus of certain carmakers from their longtime participation in certain racing series. Among notable examples are Subaru and Suzuki's departure from the World Rally Championship and Honda and BMW's from Formula 1. As Toyota fans breathe a sigh of relief that, seemingly, <A HREF="http://www.autosport.com/news/report.php/id/77407">the Formula 1 team will compete in 2010</A>, we hear that the Lexus-branded Grand-Am Rolex Series Daytona Prototype effort may not be as fortunate and may run its last race at the Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida on the Saturday 10 October 2009 season finale.
Unfortunately, this author missed the first half of <A HREF="http://my.is/forums/f47/porsche-250-barber-nailbiters-continue-394898/">the Porsche 250 race at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama</A> telecast on Sunday 19 July, but soon the Grand-Am forums were abuzz with a remark by one of the SPEED TV commentators that Lexus would withdraw at the end of this season. Adding fuel to the fire was the suggestion in <A HREF="http://coldpit.blogspot.com/2009_06_01_archive.html">D.C. Williams' Cold Pit Blog</A> that "the reason for Lexus' departure may lie in part with the economy but is said to be largely centered on a funding dispute between Lexus and Toyota Racing's U.S. arm, Toyota Racing Development (TRD). It's said TRD believes it's owed money for running the engine program at Lexus' behest, whereas Lexus USA has supposedly said something along the lines of, 'Huh, did we commit to something like that?'" Meanwhile, some on the Grand-Am forums suggest it's simply a matter of the team falling in line with Toyota's NASCAR efforts (Grand-Am is owned by NASCAR) and rebadging the team from Lexus to Toyota.
Dissatisfied with these speculative half-answers, we contacted Les Unger, Toyota Motorsports National Manager, who told us that, in late May, Toyota Racing Development met with Jim France (vice chairman of the board of directors and executive vice president of NASCAR) and Chip Ganassi (owner of the last remaining Lexus-powered Grand-Am Daytona Prototype team) to inform them of Toyota's decision to officially withdraw from the series at the end of the 2009 season. The rationale behind the decision is the twofold combination of the current global economic downturn and sharply-reduced motorsports budgets; plus the huge decrease in the number of teams using Lexus power, as detailed in my.IS Front Page stories from <A HREF="http://my.is/forums/f47/upcoming-08-grand-am-daytona-series-tale-lexus-desertions-revised-11-dec-348199/">December 2007</A> and <A HREF="http://my.is/forums/f47/2009-rolex-24-daytona-one-ages-380664/">February 2009</A>.
Mr. Unger notes that, while Lexus is withdrawing official factory support for Grand-Am Rolex Series Daytona Prototype racing, Chip Ganassi and Félix Sabatés are free to continue using Toyota/Lexus power as a privateer team. As of this writing, Mr.Ganassi and Mr.Sabatés have not expressed a decision on what they will do for 2010. In other words, the proverbial ball is in their court.
Sadly, this isn't the only recent report of a Lexus exodus from motorsport, for the <A HREF="http://my.is/forums/f47/yes-its-real-lexus-f-goes-racing-366272/">DRC Motorsports Lexus IS SPEED World Challenge GT series team</A> has seemingly disbanded, and its drivers Robb Holland and Jeff Altenburg will drive <A HREF="http://www.autoblog.com/2009/08/08/momentum-race-group-to-run-camaros-in-koni-challenge/">Chevrolet Camaros for the Momentum Race Group in the 2009 Grand-Am KONI Challenge series.</A>
This author couldn't resist asking Les Unger about the rumors that the upcoming Lexus LFA supercar was being groomed for Le Mans or, possibly, by extension, American Le Mans Series racing. He replied that no discussions have been held, let alone decisions made on this subject, and he once again reminded us that, in this global economic downturn, Toyota is striving to make the most efficient use possible of its resources.
Our thanks go out not only to Les Unger for taking the time to talk to us, but to Kymberly Strong, Toyota's Senior Motorsports Public Relations Administrator, for arranging for us to speak to Mr. Unger.