NASCAR is in a transition period and over the past few years, there has been a youth movement. Some of the best young drivers around the country are getting their shot in NASCAR. One of those companies who have been looking for the next great talent is Toyota.
Already exhibiting one of the best and most organized youth development systems in NASCAR, Toyota’s driver development program has already paid off for the company with drivers like Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, but when you are at the top of the development front, you have to keep improving and look for even more future talent to remain ahead.
That’s just what Toyota did last week when they held their second driver development combine at Irwindale Speedway. Toyota invited eight drivers, six females and two males, to get some coaching and track time to try and show Toyota they have what it takes to move up in their racing career.
This is the first combine Toyota has held in four years. In their first combine, Toyota brought in such drivers as Harrison Burton and Todd Gilliland, which lead to both of them winning championships in the K&N Series and racing in the Camping World Truck Series for Toyota. Jack Irving, Director of Team & Support Services for Toyota Racing, planned this combine and has really been instrumental in making Toyota’s development system as strong as possible.
While Irving said that Toyota has done smaller combines, this was the first on such a big scale in four years. At some point, the goal for Irving is to do a combine like this once a year. Irving said, “I think I want a group annual [combine] and then I want to do quarterly or bi-annual tests with individuals or pairs to just kind of check what growth is going on and if they’re progressing or regressing or if there’s areas in their vocabulary that we can help with.”
There isn’t really a set criteria in which people are chosen. While the eight drivers are young and have similar goals, they have various forms of experience. Irving says that instead of choosing people based on where they finish, he is more looking at things like car control, single-lap speed, how they maneuver within traffic and their communication back to their team.
While quick lap times might be impressive, sometimes it can be more important to Irving to know how a driver handles an ill-handling car and how they can express that to their team to improve the setup and find out how they make the best of a bad situation.
Some drivers only have experience on dirt while others have raced on asphalt. Two drivers who we talked to, 16-year-olds Tanner Carrick and Presley Truedson, got their start on dirt and this is their first experience on asphalt. In fact, before the combine, Truedson said that she had never been to an asphalt track, never been to California and never drove a car as big as a late model. Instead, Truedson had raced karts and mini-sprints and just started racing midget cars this year. Carrick started out in karts and started racing midget cars and 360 sprint cars in 2017. Carrick won his first 360 sprint car race in Chino, CA this past Friday.
While both had different approaches in what they expected in going from dirt to asphalt, Carrick and Truedson both pointed to car control as being something that was really important to have when transitioning from dirt to asphalt and both of them have that with their dirt experience.
Carrick said, “I think [racing on dirt] helps you attack the corners a little better than someone that just started racing; other than, someone who hasn’t had dirt experience. If you get the car free or something, it’s easier to recover it I feel like.”
Truedson added, “Coming into this, I had no idea what to expect. I was expecting to find a little bit of correlation but there really is not a whole lot when you jump from dirt to asphalt. The biggest thing for me was actually, it’s kind of silly, but turning left. I actually was not used to that at all. How smooth and consistent and you have to have that finesse and car control with these cars. So I think car control and definitely finesse, being able to push the car at the same time.”
In addition to racing, these kids are in high school. Balancing racing and school might sound difficult but Carrick and Truedson are able to prioritize both, not only succeeding on the track and in the classroom, but already exhibiting the time management skills needed when they have to fulfill a variety of commitments the further they advance in their racing career.
Carrick goes to school online and is able to set up his schedule to where he is able to get his work done by the end of the week. “Everything is online, I basically just do it whenever I got time throughout the week, a week’s worth of work is all due on Friday,” Carrick said. “So I kind of conserve my time on Monday and Tuesday because those are my least busiest days in the week. And just about every week, I get the work done by Monday or Tuesday.”
Truedson finds value in going to school and racing at the same time because she is able to take what she learns in the classroom out on the track and help her be a better racer. “The beauty of high school and racing at the same time is that I was able to find a lot of correlation between what I was learning in my classes and that actually was able to help me progress so much with my racing,” Truedson said. “Just because I can understand the physics of everything better and the mathematics behind things made a lot more sense.”
One very important part of Toyota’s combine has been diversity and bringing in female drivers. Toyota has multiple female drivers in their development program but they are going to keep on providing opportunities for women. And in this combine, six of eight participants are female.
For Truedson, she is like most females when they go into racing. In addition to participating against people older than her, she’s racing an almost all-male field. That extra incentive to beat the boys very much fuels her on the track.
“I think honestly, that is what first pretty much had me going in racing when I wasn’t sure if I should just do it as a hobby for fun with my family or to focus and just be a little more serious about everything,” Truedson said. “I mean, all my life, I’ve pretty much been racing against men who’ve been racing longer than I’ve been alive times two.”
“[The combine] was definitely a rare thing for me to be racing against not only people my own age but girls as a whole, that was very rare. So to be here and see what Toyota is doing which is bringing more females to the light in the sport, I think it is incredible what they’re doing because they’re really at the forefront versus any other company that is doing this. They’re the ones going out there looking for these girls and finding them. And then just working on developing us. To be able to have a company that does that, it’s just incredible.”
Jack Irving has spearheaded this initiative to find the best female drivers in the country. And to him, this is a long-term project that will span generations and whether it’s on dirt or within the various levels of NASCAR or another series, Irving wants the racing world represented by as many talented female drivers as possible.
“Ultimately, I’m worried about 15 years from now. I want these girls (at the combine) to be talking to the next generation of girls who are coming up and know that there’s a path. As much as the ones who are kind of in the program that are progressing through the program, I’m genuinely encouraged or want these next generation of girls to talk to the next ones. Because ultimately, it’s the five-year-old that’s racing now or wants to race now that’s going to look up to these 15-year-old girls and ultimately, I need her to keep racing.”
“Everything is five to ten years down the road ultimately for development. With a diversity program, you have to be looking 15 years down the road. It just has to be a pathway that people know there’s a path once they get in. That if they’re inspired, I mean, Danica inspired a lot of young girls to race and we need to make sure we have the next one inspiring the next group. And hopefully with the amount of girls that are racing and the exposure to how many girls are really out there racing, that will keep producing more and more race car drivers.”
“You saw Danica but it was just one person running. Ultimately, we need them at all levels. There’s going to be people who make it to the top levels of super late models, top levels of dirt, top levels of Truck and Xfinity. And ultimately the more and more girls that we have in the pipeline, the more and more that becomes a reality for anyone to enter the sport and know that there’s a path.”
“It’s not going to be one girl. I genuinely don’t want one girl, I want ten. I want them in every level running through, competing, winning races.”
No matter where she races, Truedson welcomes being that role model to boys and girls younger than her and want them to follow their ambitions.
“Absolutely [I would be a role model]. Just because, Hailee is one of and Danica Patrick obviously, but there really haven’t been that many girls in the forefront of motorsports at all. For them to be kind of, plowing their own path, and then for us to be following them while also forging our own path as well. It is so cool to be able to look up to them because they’re my role models and not only that but to have younger girls who might come out to the races and say “Hey, I really wanna do what you do.” And then I give them advice and honestly it’s just, keep at it.
Because it doesn’t matter whether you’re a girl or a boy but to be able to be out there and compete; when you put on a helmet, nobody knows whether you’re a girl or a boy anyways, we’re all equals on that track. To be able to have them to look up to and know that they made it there and it’s definitely possible for us. We just have to keep on that as well and just go for it. That’s the biggest thing I think I have taken away from everything that they have done is that you can really can follow your dreams and achieve them if you just keep at it and you work hard and you just go for it.”
For those who are selected in the driver development program, they will go back to what they are currently racing and receive more testing on an individual or pair basis. There is no set number Toyota is bringing onto their program. Toyota can choose to bring all eight people in if they want to, it’s about finding drivers who will be the right fit within the organization. And while fans may not know who these people are now, they very well may know who they are as they move up through motorsports.
Featured Photo: Michael Dorman Images