Who is in the TRD program?

Toyota’s development program can be best looked at as a pyramid. The higher one moves up within the program, the tougher it is to succeed. In addition, the higher the series, the more these drivers must learn both on and off the track and there aren’t as many seats. Think about it, getting up to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series is a special and exclusive club. There are only 40 drivers who race every week so no matter who you are or who you are racing for, if you can get to racing on Sunday, it’s a big deal.

Within TRD, Toyota has drivers in all levels of NASCAR and even further down to local short tracks. At each level, Toyota makes sure these drivers have all the information Toyota has, as well as setting them up with good equipment to give them an opportunity to see what they can do. Where those in the lower series may be more concentrated on car control and how to adjust their car, people in the higher series learn more about media training and how to be conditioned to compete in longer races.

We were able to chat with a Toyota driver who is currently in or has been in the driver development program from the K&N Pro Series, Camping World Cup Series, Xfinity Series and Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series to talk about how they got into racing, how the TRD program has helped them and what the future might hold.

Hailie Deegan
(@HailieDeegan – Twitter, @dirtprincessdeegan – Facebook, @HailieDeegan – Instagram, @Deegan38 – YouTube)

Hailie Deegan is just starting out in NASCAR but just like any other accomplished racer, Hailie started racing at a very young age. If the name sounds familiar, that may be due to Hailie’s dad Brian. Brian Deegan is an X Games legend, winning 14 total medals in Moto X and Rallycross. When Brian competed in the Lucas Oil Off Road Racing Series, Hailie got the itch to go out and race at eight-years-old and she very quickly took to racing.

Competing against boys her own age, and even boys older than her, Deegan was a natural in off-road trucks. Winning two regional championships as well as two national championships, Deegan became the first female to win a championship in the Lucas Oil Off Road Racing Series.

Wanting a new challenge, Deegan wanted to move to asphalt and get into NASCAR. After racing in legends cars, Hailie got into contact with late model team owner Lee McCall to test one of his cars. After impressing, calls were made and Deegan was testing for Toyota. Racing in a K&N Pro Series car driven by series champion Todd Gilliland, Hailie was eventually turning faster laps than Todd did while driving that same car earlier in the day. That put Deegan into NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program and NASCAR Next, which is NASCAR’s youth development program, in addition to Toyota’s program.

Now, at 16, Deegan is entering NASCAR for 2018. Hailie is going to be racing for Bill McAnally Racing in the K&N Pro Series, a regional series that concentrates on shorter tracks and is considered the highest regional NASCAR series. McAnally’s team has traditionally been one of the best in the series, winning races and championships and Hailie’s goal this season is to be the first female K&N Series winner.

Even at such a young age, Deegan fully understands the role she has when it comes to being a role model for girls even younger than her. Diversity is certainly something Toyota believes in and is a cornerstone of their development program. According to Jack Irving, Director, Team & Support Services of TRD, Toyota has tested 37 girls over the past two years for their development program.

Irving credited Danica Patrick with bringing in female fan interest and wanting to cement a female racing presence in NASCAR because there really isn’t any reason why women cannot compete, and win, against men.

“It’s important for the sport. I always go back to Danica sitting on the pole at Daytona and my wife was completely involved in that race because of that. In general, there’s no reason we can’t find female drivers, we just have to be looking.”

“There’s no reason why [female drivers] can’t compete equally. There’s nothing that’s different, it’s just opportunity.”

Now that Patrick is no longer competing in NASCAR, Deegan is already one of the top female drivers currently racing in the sport. And Hailie knows that her impact has already been felt when it comes to girls and women getting into the sport.

“Kind of this last year in off-road racing, just in these last couple races,” Deegan said. “When I started racing in off-road, there was me and my friend that raced, her dad raced too. And kind of my best friend, we were the only two girls there. And coming back after winning two championships in off-road racing, all of a sudden you see 10 girls out there. I’m like “Where did all these girls come from?””

“And next thing you know, all these parents want to buy our cars. They know it’s like “This girl won in this car. So we want our daughter to have this car because she’ll win in this car.” And I think, seeing all these other girls come up through racing, it’s different. It’s weird to see all these girls come up to you and be “I race in this series, I won this race.” And that’s cool to me, I see these other girls coming up to me winning races that I won and I see them on the same path that I am.”

And when it comes to beating the boys, Hailie is all about that.

“Seriously, beating the guys is my entire life. It’s been that way since I was 8 years old. That’s how my life is, I grew up racing that way. It’s never “Go out and beat this girl.” it’s always “Beat that guy. Beat this guy that’s three years older than you and been driving way longer but you need to beat him.” That’s how I grew up, it’s racing, there’s not many girls out there and I like being the girl out there who beats the guys. It’s just something extra about me that makes me different”

In just two K&N Series races, Deegan has surely impressed some important people in the sport. After suffering mechanical issues in her first East Series race, Deegan came back to finish seventh in the first West Series race of the season in Bakersfield, CA. MENCS champ Kevin Harvick noticed and revealed this past Friday that of everyone in the field, Deegan showed the most potential to be a future star.

“If I had to pick one person to say, “Alright, that’s the person KHI (Harvick’s sports and celebrity-marketing agency) would want to represent and has the most potential,” it would probably be Hailie Deegan,” Harvick said. “She did really, really well.”

As far as the future, Deegan is aware of the danger of moving up too quickly and that is something younger drivers may not grasp but end up being very important in their development. For one thing, Hailie isn’t racing in Truck’s full-time until she turns 18 and that’s in a couple years so she knows she has some time to learn. Deegan said that after a couple years in K&N or ARCA, maybe do a couple years in Trucks. And then after a couple years in Trucks, move up to Xfinity.

Along with her father’s guidance, Hailie Deegan has a great head on her shoulders. Many of us aren’t even close to being as mature and as dedicated to what we want to do at 16 but Deegan has the confidence and maturity of someone who has been racing in NASCAR for years. There’s still a long way to go and I don’t want to add more pressure than is already on her, but Hailie Deegan is the real deal and is well on her way to being a star. A female driver has never won in any of the three major NASCAR series but if Hailie Deegan has anything to do about that, we’re not going to be saying that for long.

Todd Gilliland
(@ToddGilliland_ – Twitter, @ToddGillilandRacing – Facebook, @toddgilliland_ – Instagram, toddgilliland.com)

Todd Gilliland grew up in a racing family and his path was essentially chosen for him. Grandson of K&N Pro Series champion Butch Gilliland and son of former Cup driver David Gilliland, Todd started racing at the age of five. And after racing quarter midgets at five and late models at 13, Gilliland moved up to the K&N Pro Series, becoming a back-to-back West Series champion.

In 2018, Todd took that next step from the K&N Pro Series to the Camping World Truck Series. But while he got to join Kyle Busch Motorsports for the full 2018 season, Gilliland had to wait a bit. After not being able to compete at Daytona due to being 17, father David competed in the Pedigree Toyota and Gilliland’s Truck season actually starts this upcoming Saturday at Martinsville. Gilliland instead spent his Daytona weekend at nearby New Smyrna and won the opening K&N race in thrilling fashion over Harrison Burton.

The two sons of former Cup drivers put out a thrilling finish that was praised by fans and fellow drivers. The two drivers raced physically in their fight for the win but neither crashed the other person and gave each other a chance to win.

This is who Todd Gilliland is. He is a racer in every sense of the word and that was what attracted Toyota to Todd. But it took some work by David to get Todd into TRD.

 “My dad was talking to Toyota right when I first started racing,” Todd said. “You can see from the outside just how great of a driver development program they have. Every kid wants to be a part of it, to get all the resources that you can to be the best race car driver. I’m very lucky to be a part of it and hopefully we keep going up. But I think that’s where it started, my dad just being persistent calling Jack Irving probably every week and it worked out.”

“I think Toyota said they have drivers who are like 11 years old. So it’s crazy to think about that but you gotta start young. And the more you develop it and develop them as a person, give them patience, all that stuff that just comes with being more mature that they really just help with right away. It’s a big help for sure.”

David echoed similar sentiments about their relationship with Toyota. The fact that they were helping younger drivers get an opportunity and move up through the divisions was something he felt Todd should be getting into.

“We’ve just tried to put him in the right positions and a lot of the stuff that I’ve learned with helping my dad and myself driving,” David said. “Just trying to give him the best opportunities we can.

“Our relationship with Toyota I saw very early on when Toyota entered the sport that they were doing all the right things that I felt like a young driver needs to be successful at this level. We tried to align ourselves with Toyota, Jack Irving and Tyler Gibbs [VP, Finance and Administration of TRD], everybody over there has been so supporting in taking Todd under their wing and work with them on really asking them “What do we need to do?” “Where do we need to be racing?” “Where do you want to see Todd racing?” And then developing building cars to run in each of those programs to best keep him under their eye.

“And that’s worked, Todd’s gone on to win a lot of races but Toyota has watched every single race he’s been in. So aligning ourselves with great partners like Toyota and TRD has probably been the best thing I have done.”

David made a great point that will help Todd’s development and should be something that every prospect should do. While Toyota’s driver development program gets results and gets drivers an opportunity to succeed, success is a two-way street. Toyota can do all they can to help develop a young driver but that driver will only get out what they put in. And by inquiring what they can do to make this partnership better on their end, will result in a stronger partnership for all.

David is very hands-on with his son’s development and that is great for Todd. David has done it, he has raced in all three levels of NASCAR, why not rely on someone like that to get some ideas and have them there in your development. In fact, David is Todd’s spotter when he races and has been to all of Todd’s races.

“At the racetrack, my father offers a lot of advice and helps me out in any way he can. He’s spotted for me the last two years even so he’s very, very involved and I’m pretty lucky to have him,” Todd said.

“I think it’s something I appreciate a lot. I think once we get into the race it’s kind of just a spotter/driver relationship. I think he always gets a bit more nervous spotting for me than someone else just because he knows how much we’ve put into this and he’s caring. It’s that extra little bit that matters to him but I think he does a good job separating and trying to give me good advice to be a better race car driver.”

Todd Gilliland’s #4 Pedigree Toyota Tundra he’ll race in the 2018 Camping World Truck Series season. Credit: Phillip Bupp

“I’m very hands-on, he wants me to be,”  David said. “I’ve spotted for him the past two years in K&N Series. We’ve built his cars, gone to every single race. And I’m there for if he has a question to bounce off of me. Just trying to help him, it’s not easy. This isn’t an easy game, not an easy sport but it’s something he’s very passionate about so we’re going to do all we can to help him achieve his goals.”

Todd revealed that he received a waiver from NASCAR to still be eligible for this year’s Camping World Truck Series Playoffs. Unless you receive a waiver, you must compete at every race to be eligible for the playoffs. While he is far behind in points after having to miss three races, Gilliland can still get in the playoffs with a win at some point in the regular season. That would be the goal, to improve throughout the season, win some races and get in the playoffs.

If Todd Gilliland can replicate the success he had in the K&N Pro Series, along with a team as successful in the Camping World Truck Series as Kyle Busch Motorsports, he will certainly be a title contender for years to come.

Christopher Bell
(@CBellRacing – Twitter, @christopherbellracing – Facebook, @cbellracing – Instagram)

Christopher Bell didn’t grow up in a racing family but his story shows that sometimes racing finds you and it’s your destiny. Bell got into racing after seeing one of his father’s high school basketball players race. After seeing that, Christopher got the bug and never looked back.

Since then, the Bell family became a racing family and Christopher began to tear up the dirt tracks in his native Oklahoma. After getting into USAC and winning the National Midget Championship, Bell raced Super Late Models as well as the World of Outlaws. It was racing Late Models for Kyle Busch that he got into the TRD program.

“Well the TRD program put me where I am. If it wasn’t for them, I would still be a sprint car racer,” Bell said. “So it’s cool to be able to see that they are able to pick up talent and develop the talent and move them up through the ranks like they’ve done to myself, Erik Jones. So it’s cool to watch and you’re always looking out to see who’s coming behind you. And they’ve got a lot of great prospects in the pipeline.”

Even though Bell was moving up in NASCAR, he never left his dirt nor his Oklahoma roots behind. The Chili Bowl is one of the biggest and most prestigious Midget races of the year. In nearby Tulsa, dozens of cars race around the quarter-mile indoor bullring that is the Tulsa Expo Center. Bell is the defending back-to-back champion, racing for Toyota.

Dirt and asphalt racing are two very different beasts. But starting on dirt has certainly helped Christopher. Anyone who has ever raced on dirt will tell you that you will learn a lot about car and throttle control. Sprint cars rival the horsepower of a stock car but is much lighter and they’re driven on a slippery surface. If you can master dirt racing, racing on asphalt is figuratively and literally smoother.

In racing, loose is fast and someone who is able to drive a loose car can be fast wherever they race. One thing Bell said that dirt racing doesn’t teach you is how to race for long periods of time. Sure, there are heat races and features and you’re probably racing 2-3 times per week but the most anyone is racing on dirt is 30-45 minutes at a time. A NASCAR race can go over three hours and races progressively get longer the higher you get in NASCAR.

That is no different to what Christopher has gone through but he has adjusted well to everything so far. Bell began his Camping World Truck journey in 2015 and won in his third career race at Eldora. For his first full-time season, Bell was a winner and a Championship Four contender at Homestead. And in his final full-time season in the Camping World Truck Series, Bell put in a dominating five-win season as well as winning the championship.

This season, Christopher Bell is in his first full-time season in the Xfinity Series with Joe Gibbs Racing. But Bell has already come in the Xfinity Series as a race winner, winning at Kansas last season. With that, the expectation is high and Christopher’s goal is to win an Xfinity championship.

Erik Jones
(@erik_jones – Twitter, @erikjonesracing – Facebook @erik_jones – Instagram, erikjonesracing.com)

Erik Jones is the result of someone who has gone through all the steps of the driver development program and is now on top of the pyramid, racing in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

Jones grew up in Michigan and started racing quarter midgets at seven. From there, Jones began racing late models at 12 and was competing in some of the biggest short track races in the country. In his first appearance in Pensacola, Jones held off Kyle Busch to win the 2012 Snowball Derby. That impressed the Cup champ and Busch hired Jones to drive for him in late models.

“I think Toyota really takes an active role in finding the drivers and giving them an opportunity early on,” Jones said. “I’ve seen other manufacturers support drivers after they’ve somewhat made a name for themselves. Toyota really took me on early before I made it at all. I was able to kind of move and and take an active role and trying to move forward in NASCAR and make a bigger name. So it was a different progression that I think than most. You have to find your way into the sport and then somebody picks you up. So that’s the nice thing about Toyota. They’ve got a full pipeline. You see all the young guys and girls coming up. And they’ve been racing in K&N, Trucks and it’s really neat to see, it’s fun for me to watch. It’s fun for me to try and help out and talk to those kids and give them advice when I can and just see what they’re all about.”

After a second consecutive Snowball Derby win, and a Truck Series win as a 17-year-old, Jones was given an expanded Truck schedule for 2014 and began racing in the Xfinity Series. Victory Lane and Erik Jones became great friends because he was there three times in 12 races. For 2015, Jones was in Victory Lane three times in Trucks and twice in Xfinity. And in his first full-time Truck season, Jones won the Camping World Truck Series championship, breaking records left and right on being the youngest to win races and championships.

After one full-time season in Xfinity where he finished in the Championship Four, Jones moved up to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Jones took to racing in the top series, being teammates with champ Martin Truex Jr., and ended the season with five top-fives. Jones was praised by many for his ability to improve at tracks where the Cup Series returned for the second time. Jones improved his finishing position at 10 of 15 tracks once he has been back for a second time. That kind of improvement won Jones the 2017 Rookie of the Year title.

Erik Jones greeting fans before the 2018 Daytona 500. Credit: Phillip Bupp

This season, Jones moved over to Joe Gibbs Racing and had big shoes to fill after replacing the legend Matt Kenseth. After a Daytona 500 where he led early on but got caught up in a crash, Jones is on a run where he has had three consecutive top-ten finishes as well as an 11th place finish at Atlanta.

As someone who got to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series via the TRD program, it’s weird to call a 22-year-old an “elder statesman,” but Erik Jones is someone who can be seen as a success story from the driver development program. Jones, along with Daniel Suarez, are two drivers who took what they learned through the program, became successful and are now racing in the top series of NASCAR.

They are two people who development drivers can look at and say “If I have the skill, if I can put in the time, if I can put in the work and if the situation presents itself, I can race on Sunday’s with Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez someday.”

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About Phillip Bupp

News editor for The Comeback and Awful Announcing, highlight consultant for Major League Soccer as well as a freelance writer for hire. Opinions are my own but feel free to agree with them.

Follow me on Twitter @phillipbupp