“Win on Sunday, sell on Monday.” It’s a marketing line as old as the automobile. When Henry Ford raced—and famously beat—rival automaker Alexander Winton on the Detroit Driving Club’s 1-mile oval at Grosse Pointe in 1901, it wasn’t to prove who was the better driver, but whose was the better car. Racing made the reputations of Alfa Romeo and Jaguar and Porsche and Bentley; even aristocratic Rolls-Royce used its victory in the grueling 1913 Alpine Trial to enhance its reputation as builder of “the best car in the world.”
And it’s still an article of faith among many automotive marketers: Mercedes-Benz and Ferrari are each reportedly spending $400 million making sure their brands stay at the pointy end of this year’s Formula 1 field. Hyundai is said to pour about $100 million a year into its World Rally Championship team. And with battery electric vehicles about to go mainstream, no fewer than eight automakers, including Audi, Nissan, and India’s Mahindra, will tip at least $200 million into this year’s all-electric Formula E championship.
“Win on Sunday, sell on Monday.” It’s why, as the darkness falls on serried ranks of RVs and a thousand glowing campfires, I’m watching a pair of growling, bewinged Lexus RC F GTD racers hustle through the twisting infield road course section of Daytona International Speedway as the legendary Rolex 24 settles in to the rhythm of the night.
It’s almost 30 years since I first drove a Lexus. The original LS 400 was the sedan that changed the world, a car so refined and beautifully crafted that it shocked an entire generation of engineers in Stuttgart and Munich and Ingolstadt.
But the brand that positioned itself as the young upstart shaking up the luxury vehicle establishment is now inescapably part of that establishment. As it approaches middle age, Toyota’s luxury arm is seen by many as a legitimate Mercedes, BMW, and Audi alternative—and it’s become one without spending the cubic dollars on motorsport its rivals have.
So why go racing now?
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“We want to move the brand in a little more exciting, fun direction,” explains Cooper Ericksen, vice president of Lexus product planning and strategy. “Motorsport is an effective way to get in front of consumers and put yourself out there.”
That move is being driven from the top: Toyota boss Akio Toyoda, who put himself front and center of the Supra reveal at the Detroit auto show earlier this year, has made clear his desire that both the Toyota and Lexus brands be sprinkled with motorsport fairy dust.
Akio knows Lexus has no choice. Building the best sedan in the world was enough to stake your claim as a legitimate premium brand 30 years ago. Today you have to prove your premium road car can run with the best on the racetrack, too. The 42-car GTD class at Daytona (very closely related to the international GT3 and GTLM categories) included factory-developed cars from Acura and Audi, Ferrari and Lamborghini, BMW and Mercedes-AMG, and, of course, Porsche. In the 2019 Blancpain GT Series for GT3 cars in Europe (which subscribers can watch on MotorTrend On Demand), the GT3-spec Lexus RC F’s rivals also include Aston Martin, Bentley, Jaguar, McLaren, and Nissan.
Lexus—well, Toyota—can build world-beating performance cars. Back in the early 1990s Toyota dominated IMSA; it threepeated the Daytona 24 in 2006, 2007, and 2008; and has been a consistent resident of the NASCAR winner’s circle (though it was less fortunate in its foray into Formula 1).
The only question is, do Toyota and Lexus have the commitment today? We’ve seen the automaker dabble in fast, fun cars like the Supra, MR2, and Lexus LFA, then allow them to wither and die as it concentrates on building Camrys, RAV4s, and Lexus RX crossovers.
The roadgoing Lexus RC F Track Edition—all wing and carbon fiber and rumbling exhaust—is a promising start. But I’ll know the company is truly serious about performance and racing when I can drive the next-gen version to see a Lexus going wheel to wheel with a Porsche at Daytona 10 years from now.
Over to you, Akio …
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