Akio Toyoda is both master driver and late bloomer

on May21

EDITOR’S NOTE: Come back to autonews.com/racing on Monday for our in-depth look at racing and the key role it plays in the auto industry.This story will be part of that section.

TOKYO — Akio Toyoda is re-nowned as Toyota’s driving CEO, at home spinning doughnuts in the mud for race fans or pushing a Camry stock car flat out around a banked oval.

But he was a late bloomer.

The wealthy grandson of Toyota Motor Corp.’s founder took his first tentative competitive racing laps only 10 years ago, just two years before assuming the helm as president. His family discouraged him from driving. Fearful for his safety, fellow company officers did, too.

But today, Toyoda not only runs the company, he is its anointed “master driver” — the final arbiter of what makes a Lexus a Lexus and a Toyota a Toyota.

Knowing how to race, not just drive, makes him like no other president in Toyota’s history.

“Everybody says I’m the racer-president, or they call me master driver,” Toyoda, 61, said in an interview this month. “That’s all correct. But I see my role as being the guardian of the taste of Toyota and Lexus cars.”

Toyoda and mentor Hiromu Naruse, right, celebrate at the 24-hour Nurburgring race in 2010. After Naruse’s death, Toyoda was asked to succeed him as master driver. Photo credit: HANS GREIMEL

The master

Toyoda’s journey from silk-suited boardroom scion to race-suited speed demon came under the painstaking tutelage of the late Hiromu Naruse, Toyota’s first master driver.

Growing up in the Toyoda household, the future CEO loved cars from childhood. At one point, he even wanted to be a taxi driver. His elders discouraged him from motorsports — not a serious pursuit for someone of his station, they said. Instead, during college, he took up field hockey.

But the lure of driving returned after he joined the family business. As he rose through the ranks, Toyoda dabbled more and more in driving, as a way to talk nuts and bolts with Toyota’s engineers.

He became quite self-satisfied with his growing car-guy status — until he bumped heads with Naruse.

“A person like you doesn’t know how to drive a car,” Toyoda recalls Naruse scolding him. “So I don’t want you telling me about cars when you don’t even know how to really drive one.”

Naruse made him an offer: “If you want me to teach you driving, I will.”

Thus began the education of Akio.

In scenes reminiscent of The Karate Kid, the executive — then well into his 40s — was sent through tedious training rituals by the crusty old sensei.

“At first, I would just follow the car that Naruse was driving,” Toyoda recounts. “When the red brake light lit up, I was told to brake. And when the distance widened, I was told to accelerate to keep the gap from getting larger. That’s the only thing he had me do.”

When they had practiced at nearly every track in Japan, they migrated to Nurburgring, the fabled German Grand Prix raceway dubbed “The Green Hell” because of its punishing turns, steep grades and narrow, bumpy tarmac.

Toyoda was in awe there, even though all he did was carefully follow Naruse’s path around the demanding 13-mile course.

“It’s very dangerous,” Toyoda says of Nurburgring. “There’s no emergency shoulder. So when you have a major spinout, it can be life-threatening.”

The training continued like that until one day, Naruse suddenly changed gears.

It was time to race, he ordained.

Toyoda’s track time sets the tone for the company. Photo credit: HANS GREIMEL

The whirlpool

“What are you talking about?” Toyoda asked him. “What race? And he told me there is a 24-hour endurance race on this course. I thought I couldn’t even complete a single lap of this course by myself.”

Back in Japan, they began to enter real competitions.

He nervously buckled in for his first race in 2007, carefully piloting a $10,000 secondhand Toyota Yaris subcompact around Japan’s famed Twin Ring Motegi raceway.

His goal: Just cross the finish line.

During his second race, at Okayama International Circuit, a white-knuckled Toyoda fish-tailed his way through the qualifying round in pouring rain.

In the final, the challenge only intensified with rival racers bearing down on him from all sides.

“I felt like I was suddenly thrown into a whirlpool,” Toyoda says. “Most of the cars overtook me. Only very rarely was I able to pass somebody else.”

And yet he somehow finished third in his class.

The next day, Toyoda made a fateful decision that would transform his personal identity and eventually help reshape the entire company. He decided that he would test his mettle in the 24-hour endurance run at Nurburgring.

For his first competition at the German racetrack in June 2007, Toyoda sat behind the wheel of a retrofitted Lexus IS. But even the “whirlpool” of Okayama did not prepare him for the steel typhoon at Nurburgring.

“It was much, much fiercer,” Toyoda says. “I couldn’t maintain my normal driving pace. I was fearful. I didn’t want to get hit by the other cars. It wasn’t possible to even think about passing.”

But he finished, and the experience thrilled him enough to return repeatedly to Nurburgring, sometimes behind the wheel, sometimes as moral support. After becoming CEO in 2009, Toyoda scaled back competitive circuit driving amid concerns about his safety.

But he didn’t give up racing. Last year, he returned to Nurburgring to drive in the qualifying run. And he still competes in about four rally races a year, in his go-to car, the Toyota 86.

“Quite a few people within the company are against the idea of my taking part in circuit races,” he said. “They think it’s dangerous. Even if I manage to keep my own car under control, other cars could collide with mine. In the case of rally races, it’s also dangerous. But there is an interval between each car starting, so I can at least maintain my own pace in the rally.”

He is solemn about safety for a good reason.

In 2010, a month after Automotive News accompanied Toyoda to Nurburgring, tragedy claimed his revered racing guru. Naruse, considered the godfather of the Lexus LFA for his role in fine tuning the car’s pinpoint handling, died just outside the Nurburgring course after crashing a yellow LFA he had been test driving. It was a bitter farewell to a man who, at 67, had earned the nickname Meister of Nurburgring for logging more hours there than any other Japanese. In the aftermath, Naruse’s disciples asked Toyoda to succeed Naruse as the master driver.

“They are all professional test drivers. So, of course, their driving skill is probably technically superior to mine. But I can figure out which taste should be the Toyota taste and which should be the taste of Lexus cars,” Toyoda says. “There is no one else in the company who can do that.”

As the master driver, the CEO is now training his own stable of possible successors.

“They have to be able to distinguish the Lexus taste and the Toyota taste,” the new sensei says. “If I think there is no one I can appoint as my successor, I won’t pick anybody.”

Even Toyoda finds it hard to verbalize how his brands should be flavored.

“There is no written recipe. It’s just my sensation,” he says. Lexus should be a little funky and deliver an initial impulse to “drive this car forever,” he says. Toyota should have mass-market appeal without selling out to mass mediocrity.

The filter

As CEO, Toyoda has made the pursuit of better-driving cars a top priority for Japan’s biggest automaker. The push is epitomized in the ultraluxury LFA supercar. But the mindset also is being channeled into more everyman rides, from the Toyota Prius hybrid to the Camry sedan.

Toyoda’s track time sets the tone for the company. It inspires executives, engineers and even salespeople to get behind the wheel and ruminate about what makes a better car. How do the cars drive? How should they drive? How can they be made better?

In a country where racing roots don’t run as deeply as they do in the U.S. or Europe, Toyoda is also a kind of torchbearer for that more emotional, right-brain approach. And in car-buff circles, he reaches outside the Toyota bubble through his nom de guerre, Morizo, a kind of brand-neutral alter ego he uses while racing. He is motorsports ambassador to one and all — not just Toyota fans.

“I am the ultimate filter for the taste of Toyota and Lexus cars,” Toyoda says. “If this filter were no longer precise or accurate, then I would give up the position of master driver.”



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