Raw Japan

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Toyoda’s dilemma: To Race Or Not to Race

June 25, 2009

TOYOTA/RECOVERY

Today, reporters got their first chance to hear from Akio Toyoda since he became president of Toyota Motor — the company established by his grandfather 71 years ago.

Just two days on the job and much younger than the five executive vice presidents present with him at the news conference, Mr Toyoda, 53, was predictably cautious in what seemed a thoroughly scripted response to reporters’ questions. At times, he visibly flipped through the pages of what I could only surmise was a prepared Q&A cheat-sheet. Even the soundbites — “we’re setting sail in very stormy waters” — seemed unspontaneous.

But for a few minutes, it seemed, you could see the real Akio Toyoda come through.

It was when he was responding to a question about whether he would continue to race, as he did last month for the third straight year on the notoriously dangerous Nurburgring race track for the 24-hour endurance race.

After all, he’s now the chief executive of Japan’s biggest company and the world’s largest carmaker; getting behind a speed-machine would seem an obvious breach of safety considerations.

In the end, Mr Toyoda answered neither yes or no, but not before giving his audience a taste of his passion for racing — and cars.

“The people here,” he said, motioning towards his deputies seated with him at the long, white table in front of the room, “are pleading with me to stop.”

“But there’s a reason why I participate in these races. First, it’s because it’s Nurburgring. Second, it’s 24 hours. And third, it has a lot to do with the development of cars.”

LEXUS

Mr Toyoda, who has said he wants to be a president who is ”closest to the front lines”, went on to describe the smooth tracks he’s driven on in Japan, versus the rough, demanding surface of the Nurburgring.

As an amateur racer in a competition comprised mostly of professionals, Mr Toyoda said he was experiencing  driving from a standpoint “closest to a regular customer”.

Also, in a 24-hour race, you face a lot of issues that need to be fixed in a compact period of time, he said.

“During that time, you’re under so much time pressure to squeeze out solutions to the problems in front of you. That’s why I think it’s a helpful tool for training people, and making cars.

“Put another way, you can say that I’m staking my life to come up with a better product.”

Mr Toyoda, who races under the pseudonym “Morizo” — one of the mascots for the Aichi Expo in 2005 — on the Gazoo Racing team, had related these thoughts in a blog he writes under the same name on www.Gazoo.com, the Toyota-operated marketing website he helped set up.

In a June 9, 2007 entry, “Morizo” — whose identity is only ostensibly anonymous — writes about running into Aston Martin CEO Ulrich Bez, who was also at Nurburgring to race despite strong objections from his staff.

“As the head of a carmaker, he decided that he had to do it himself…for Aston Martin, which had become independent from Ford,” Morizo writes in the Japanese-only blog.

“It’s because there’s someone like this at the top that the company can come up with an emotional sports car like the Vantage. That was the feeling I got as an employee at a carmaker.”

Who knows, the executive vice presidents may be right. Quitting The Ring might be the prudent thing to do. But, if he does, that would probably be the end of Morizo’s blog, too, closing the door to what little insight there is into Mr Toyoda’s raw character. And that, for a journalist, would certainly be a shame.

Photo credits: REUTERS/Toru Hanai; REUTERS/STR

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