• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Monday, January 04, 2010

THE MOST TO PROVE IN '10? TOYOTA

Who has the most to prove in 2010?

Brian France? Dale Earnhardt Jr.? Lance McGrew? Kyle Busch? Danica Patrick? Jack Roush? Carl Edwards? Sam Hornish Jr.? Richard Childress? Kevin Harvick?

No.

The most to prove in '10? To me, that's obvious.

Toyota.

In the non-Tiger category, has anyone or anything taken a bigger hit to his/its reputation for quality and class? I think not.

In recent weeks, virtually every major newscast, newspaper and especially the business media has focused a harsh spotlight on the diminished Japanese automaker. For about a generation, Toyota's image was for quality and reliable vehicles at an acceptable price. Now? Well, I'd say the Dec. 21 USA Today headline put it as well as anyone: "Toyota's reputation needs some TLC -- Company built on quality has suffered painful hits".

It wasn't that long ago that "recall" and "Toyota" would fit into the same sentence about as well as "scandal" and "Tiger." Now, neither are unusual. Toyota has been smacked with reporting on the hottest-of-hot-button consumer issue: Safety. The most prominent of which is unintended vehicle acceleration.

No need for me to repeat the list here -- the stories have been out there far-and-wide. If you require some useful background commentary, go to Peter De Lorenzo's Autoextremist.com site.

Full disclosure: My 2001 Platinum-edition Lexus GS was one of the best cars I've ever owned. But my current GS has had 3, three, THREE (!) factory recalls, as well as some other issues with the build and dealer service. My position is clear: For a Lexus owner, ONE recall is unacceptable. Period.

And, in my opinion, it hasn't helped that PR people have been offering-up outdated consumer "satisfaction" data -- instead of dealing with the problems head-on. It sure hasn't impressed me, I'll tell you that. Some straight-talk is definitely in order!

The question here is: Can Toyota recover?

Maybe.

One way to get down that road is the same as Tiger's: Win.

I know, from my own study and travels to Japan, that a great strength of the Asian culture is to look way down the road. I congratulate my friend, Lee White, president of Toyota Racing Development, for the automaker's to-date success in NASCAR. Now, however, in Cup Season Four, the needs and expectations should be and are higher. A Daytona 500 victory. (Yes, it looked like Kyle Busch had the car to beat the last two years.) A Brickyard 400 win (to go along with the Indianapolis 500.) A Sprint Cup championship (after Busch failed to make the Chase.)

Winning won't cure all of Toyota's problems. Or fix my unhappy experience. But it sure would help given the existing and negative environment.

I'll bet you Tiger is thinking the same thing.


AT&T took the PR art of burying news to a new level by letting word out it had dropped Tiger on New Year's Eve day. If you think that timing was just a coincidence, I have a dirt track near the South Pole to sell you.


Oh, yes, Tiger's team botched it Big Time. You can add the president plus the laughable initial comments of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs after the Christmas Day terrorist attack to the how-not-to-do-it list. Laughable, that is, if it were not so deadly serious. Please do not insult our intelligence by calling it an "attempted" or "alleged" or "possible" or "potential" attack -- all of which I heard from various politically correct politicians and pundits. It WAS an ATTACK!

And, let me add, if the conservative broadcasters really were as attuned to their audience as they like to tell themselves and everyone else, every one of them would have come off vacation and back in front of the microphone (Michael Savage did) right away. (Get well soon, Rush.) From a strictly political standpoint, they wasted a watershed week to spread the word and work to change opinions going into an election year. (!)

Question. Since the president's perpetual campaign theme is "unity" -- and since he was vacationing just miles from the hospital where Rush Limbaugh was taken -- why didn't Obama go visit the leader of the opposition? That was an opportunity to send a powerful message of goodwill and really show a desire to work with all sides in our great political debate. Conservatives would have had no honorable choice but to grant a Big IOU to the president.


I have a new drag racing coverage home. As of January 1, I have moved my business/politics-themed column to Competition Plus.com. I thank editor Jeff Burk for the opportunity with Drag Racing Online.com for the last 18 months. The chance to join CP.com editor Bobby Bennett and his very strong editorial team is a big plus. My new monthly column, "Drags, Dollars & Sense" debuts this month. Please give it a read.


FAST LINES: Anything written by Dave Argabright is worthwhile. Over the holidays, I read Dave's new book, Fast Company, by and about "Speedy" Bill Smith. As someone who interviewed and wrote about Jan Opperman, I was interested in those stories, including the 1976 Tony Hulman Classic, which forever changed sprint car racing. It's not just a racing book; it's a business book, too. As for the way "Speedy" had his tonsils removed, well, I don't want to hear anyone say how tough the Gitmo prisoners have it! Go to www.AmericanScenePress.com for more information . . . Is it just me, or is ESPN suddenly over-subscribed with NASCAR pit reporters? . . . Fascinating. Tiger Woods' TV commercials got yanked but Charlie Sheen, who was arrested Christmas Day, had his Hanes' spots stay on . . . I want to acknowledge the death of sportscaster George Michael, age 70, during the holidays. He was a victim of cancer. Michael was best known for his long-running syndicated The George Michael Sports Machine Sunday night show, which featured taped highlights before SportsCenter made such replays standard. I worked with George and his staff several times on racing-related features. Before his sports career, I well-remember Michael as one of the country's top AM radio DJ's on Philadelphia's famed WFIL.

Upcoming The Race Reporters guests:
(Show is Wednesdays at 7 p.m. ET, downloadable, and available on-demand at no cost. Click on TRR page logo in upper right-hand column.)

January 6 -- Best-of: NHRA Funny Car champion Robert Hight. Panelists: Mark Armijo, John Sturbin.

January 13 -- Best-of: NASCAR 2009. Panelists: Dave Rodman, Kenny Bruce, Larry Henry.

[ more next week . . . ]