Welcome everyone to another edition of "Underappreciated" where we look at the underappreciated racing cars of the past, relegated to the history books. We look today at the unknown, forgotten, and underappreciated Toyota Celica that ran in NASCAR in 1982 and made a lukewarm return in 2000.
Let's go places (in time)
Toyota today is known for the worldwide dominance in Sales, Research, and Motorsport. But it wasn't always this way, as one time Toyota was only known for SCCA events and were slowly building their reputation in the off-road racing world. (Ivan's Off-Road anyone?) But they hadn't yet broken into the asphalt racing word in any major way, that was until 1982, with one little car that helped make Toyota in America.
The Celica was the Japanese response to the Ford Mustang, a 2 door coupe with 2+2 seating, optional liftback, stylish sporty looks and Toyota reliability. It was not seen as a competitor to the Mustang at first, but as the 70's and the oil crisis affected the landscape, the Celica earned it's keep.
In 1978, Toyota entered the Celica as it's "Sports Car" into the DRM series with the now famous builder, TOMS. Toyota would see the benefit of racing development, helping to advertise their reliability and engineering and would work to make a Celica for Group B Rally and other racing series. Soon, the Celica could be seen from the Finnish Dirt to the Nurburgring and Toyota was on the map.
One place where the Celica wasn't seen was the high banks of Daytona and the short tracks of Bristol. Toyota was known for it's 4 cylinders and small cars so there was no way for it to go oval racing. Right?
The Poor Man's Way to Race
The Goody's Dash series was originally started as the "Baby Grand National Racing Series" that started out of North Wilkesboro Speedway in 1973. Its name came from the Grand National series (which was seen as the "minor leagues" to the "major leagues" of Cup Racing). The GN cars were usually smaller and would eventually run V6 engines to the Cup series V8. The BGNRS was designed to be the "Poor Man's way to Race!"compared to the Grand National Series. They took 4 cylinder cars from the street, putting them on the oval track as a cheap and fun way to get started in oval racing. This was a recipe for success, seeing over 40 cars enter per race in the 70's.
Eventually, NASCAR officials saw the popularity and low costs of the series as a great gateway for new talent to get to the highest level of stock car racing. In 1975, NASCAR sanctioned the races as the "Baby Grand National Series" and allowed the teams to race on NASCAR's roster of nationwide tracks from Daytona to Martinsville, with official support. Note, the name of the series would change when sponsored by different race tracks and eventually being sponsored by Goody's in 1992.
The BGNS would see NASCAR's first foreign manufacturer winner since 1963 with Dean Combs in a Nissan 200SX in 1980 (Nissan's only NASCAR entry), which would pave the way for Toyota's entry in 1982.
The Alpha Toyota
In 1982, the Toyota Celica was about to have it's first start on the high banks of Daytona in the BGNS. The driver of the Celica would be a young up and comer of NASCAR fame, Mr. Davey Allison. Davey was the son of famed Bobby Allison, multi time Daytona 500 winner and series champion. Bobby was a respected driver, founder of the "Alabama Gang" and most well known for the 79' Daytona 500 fight with Cale Yarborough. Davey had expectations that he would be the one to take over his father's mantle, but he had to start somewhere.
Enter the Baby Grand National Series and the 1982 Toyota Celica. Information on the series at the time is hard to come by, not being mentioned in many local papers, news stories, or either of Bobby or Davey's personal stories. We do know that Davey showed up to the track with a 1982 Celica, wrapped in his Dad's Miller High Life sponsor colors, went racing, and that the car did retire early based on eyewitness acounts. We also know that Davey competed at Darlington with either a different, or repainted, Celica that year (see below).
So while we don't know the full history of the Celica, who else raced it, or where it finished, we do know who drove it. That would be eventual Superstar Davey Allison, so it's certainly underappreciated as the stepping stone for Davey's career into NASCAR.
Almost 20 years later...
After Davey hopped out of the Celica, he went on to success in the Grand National series and Cup Series before his untimely death in a Helicopter crash at Talladega in 1993. Toyota would keep on it's course through the 80's and 90's of staying on the rally tracks and race tracks around the world. The ovals would not be Toyota's home, in any official capacity, until the year 2000.
NASCAR was experiencing it's boom period in the late 90's. It was becoming more popular than the NFL and expanding across the country with new tracks being built coast to coast. Auto manufacturers were seeing that fans had a high level of affinity and dedication for their driver and auto brand. So strong was this desire for this fanbase that Dodge, Honda, Volkswagen, Toyota and even Mazda were looking at a possible swim in the NASCAR pool in the late 1990's. However, only 2 brands would commit to the fast growing sport, Dodge and Toyota, and they committed in 2 different ways.
Dodge would enter the Craftsman Truck Series in 1998 to develop a serious R&D program for the Busch and Cup series. Dodge would announce their return to the Cup Series with the Intrepid in 2001 with Ray Evernham and Chip Gannassi as the 2 teams developing a program in less than a year.
Toyota showed a large interest, but wanted to enter the sport cautiously and develop their TRD NASCAR program slowly but surely. Where Dodge jumped in the deep end, Toyota was going to walk from the pool deck to the 3' depth mark and make sure the water was warm enough first.
Toyota started their official support in NASCAR in the Goody's Dash Series in 2000. And what car did they have at their disposal now that the Supra was dead?
A Celica in sticker only
Toyota would once again call on the Celica to be it's flagship race car in their new NASCAR experiment. Team Van Cleef Racing would sign with Toyota and develop a Celica around their current Pontiac Sunfire to resemble the Celica. Tube frame chassis, thin sheetmetal, 4 speed transmissions and traditional coil link suspension were the norm here. There was one exception to the Celica that made it stand out from it's competitors, it's engine.
The Goody's cars at the time were running V6's engines, Pontiac Sunfire's with a modified 3800 and Ford running a heavily modified Vulcan engine. Toyota had expressed wanting to run a DOHC engine in the series, and NASCAR was open to the idea. NASCAR saw it as a chance to help increase fan interest and develop new engines for other series in the future. Toyota took the venerable 5VZ V6 from the 4Runner and took a "Southern" racing approach to it. Converting the engine from EFI and electronic ignition to a 2 barrel carb, points ignition, and an uneven firing order (requiring a new crank design).
The new engine, with TRD design, ran at 9:1 making 275 HP. This was about 30HP less than the OHV Pontiac engine leading to a disadvantage in acceleration and speed. However, the engine weighed significantly less allowing the car to be significantly better in handling and off throttle grip. Testing showed the cars were only 2 seconds off the pace of a conventional, V8 Cup car at the time (estimated to be making 600-750 HP at the time).
The odd engined Celica with it's weight advantage would be a competitor through it's first few years. Toyota R&D would enhance the V6 engine and help their teams design, develop, and modify chassis/bodies to be more competitive as well. Eventually, this slow burning approach would lead to success.
Toyota gets their first C(elica)hampionship
In 2003, Van Cleef Racing would leave NASCAR after some success with the Celica. A 4 time Champion of the sport, Robert Huffman, who had also joined the Toyota camp in 2000, ended up taking the mantle from Van Cleef in 04'. Huffman would be at the top of the Championship standing all year in his now famous, yellow #37 Celica.
While any race specific information is again hard to come by, we do know that he had several wins in 2001, 2002, and 2003. Huffman placed second in both 2001 and 2002 with his Celica, proving it was a contender. Huffman would navigate the Celica to Toyota's first NASCAR Championship in 2003, cementing Toyota's place in the sport in history (and for years to come).
Times were a changing
In 2003, NASCAR saw that the craze of the compact car era was slowly going away. Viewership for the Dash series was low, almost always playing on tape replay on small market channels. Attendance at races were so low, that including the race for free on any ticket wasn't drawing enough support for the series. Even with some fantastic racing and multiclass style potential, NASCAR was going to shut the series down. The series would be bought by a private citizen (Buck Parker) and changed to the iPOWERacing Dash Series.
The series would last until 2005, suffering from a lack of a competitive field and interest. The series also suffered a PR nightmare with the death of a safety worker in 2003 at Daytona. The worker, Roy Weaver III, was killed by Ray Paprota who was working to catchup with the field. Roy was hit at over 100MPH trying to clean debris, leaving a blackmark on the Dash series as a whole. the iPower version of the series was absorbed into the ASA and would official cease all racing operations in 2011. The Celica would compete, without official support from Toyota, until the series end in some capacity.
The Toyota Celica would also suffer the same fate as the Dash series by 2004. Lack of interest in compact sports cars (along with Toyota's reluctance to develop a new sports compact in RWD or FWD form) forced Toyota to put the Celica and MR2 out to pasture in 2004. Toyota would still make a sporty compact, although it would go to their sporty "youth" brand, Scion as the tC.
What did you and Toyota learn?
Toyota and their NASCAR Celica were the humble foundation of the NASCAR empire that Toyota has today. After the 2003 year, Toyota would expand to the Craftsman Truck series with their first TRD V8 in the Toyota Tundra. Toyota would see success in their first year of the Trucks series with a win in Michigan. This win would vilify Toyota with hardcore NASCAR fans, but would also gain new fans who wanted to see a new manufacturer succeed. Toyota would eventually bring their Camry to the Busch and Cup Series in 2007 with Red Bull and Michael Waltrip Racing. From there, Toyota would go onto multiple Championships and multitudes of success in all series.
Toyota took the easy, slow and steady approach to NASCAR and found success over years building upon every year with success. Toyota has had it's up and downs in the series, but building a strong base for their success was always the plan from the start. Remember Dodge joining in 2001 in the Cup series while Toyota stayed in the Dash series? Dodge would end up leaving the sport in 2013 due to lack of development and team R&D. Meanwhile, Toyota and their Cup teams continue to be some of the most competitive and envied cars on the track every weekend.
While almost every NASCAR/Motorsports fan probably had no idea there was a Celica in NASCAR in 82, or even 2001, Toyota has never forgotten. Several drivers have done a "throwback" to the Davey Allison scheme and Toyota still keeps their first Championship car at their HQ in Plano, TX. A testament to the underappreciated car that started a circle track empire that expands to this day. That's why the NASCAR Toyota Celica is truly underappreciated.