Team Toyota -- As this photo (taken last July at a 24 Hours of LeMons race in Joliet, Ill.) attests, Production Engineering might have started down the motorsports path, but other Toyota entities have since followed their lead. PE's two cars, a 1987 Corolla FX and a 1985 MR2, are on the left. Toyota Motor Manufacturing Indiana's 1999 Camry is on the far right. And the Toyota Technical Center's 1989 Celica, donated to them by PE, is in between.
Aaron Hoff has driven his Production Engineering (PE) Motorsports team’s 1987 Corolla FX16 at speeds up to 100 mph. That sounds scary. But in the heat of a 24 Hours of LeMons endurance race, the PE engineer says traffic is the ultimate test.
“I had a good feel for the track,” says Hoff of his team’s first outing of 2017: the ‘Shine Country Classic at Barber Motorsports Park in Leeds, Ala., in February. “Usually, though, by the time I get behind the wheel, a lot of the other cars have fallen out. That didn’t happen this time. So I just did my best to navigate the congestion without wrecking. It was very nerve wracking.”
Hoff and his five fellow drivers – supported by four other team members on the crew – not only made it to the finish line, they crossed it in first place in their class and 6th
among 104 vehicles overall. It was the perfect start to what promises to be a busy season of racing for these weekend warriors. 24 Hours of LeMons
events are on the docket in July and December, as is the iconic One Lap of America
competition in May.
Since 2006, as many as 20 TEMA team members like Hoff have been pushing vintage Toyota vehicles to their limits. In addition to the essentially stock FX16 – built at NUMMI, Toyota’s first manufacturing plant in North America – they also field a 1985 MR2 in the LeMons races and compete in the One Lap events in a 2013 Scion FRS and a 2013 Avalon. Over the years, they’ve gone to battle 22 times. The event in February was the FX16’s 20th start.
The 24 Hours of LeMons, a working man’s take on the famed 24 Hours of LeMans, is an endurance racing series in which teams of drivers compete in shifts totaling 14-15 hours over two days. One Lap of America, inspired by the legendary cross-country Cannonball Run, takes place at multiple venues over the course of a week. Teams complete time trials at each track along the way, then must drive their race car from one stop to the next. In both instances, the emphasis is on endurance over raw performance.
Battle Tested -- One of the team's go-to vehicles for 24 Hours of LeMons endurance racing is this 1987 Corolla FX16. It can still reach speeds up to 100 mph.
‘A Labor of Love’
TEMA provides a budget to help offset out-of-pocket costs, such as entry fees and travel expenses. But this decidedly extra-curricular activity wouldn’t happen if the participants weren’t willing to donate their time and expertise, and lots of it.
“It gets pretty busy in the month leading up to a race,” says Matthew Mudge. The engineer in Vehicle Planning & Production Engineering has served as team’s leader since 2010. “We’re currently using a garage in Erlanger (Ky.), which is about an hour’s drive each way for the people who are in Georgetown. There’s some activity after work during the week, but most of it happens on the weekends. It could be as much as eight hours on a Saturday. It’s a big time commitment, but we enjoy it.”
“It’s definitely a labor of love,” says Hoff.
Akio Would Approve
Like most of his teammates, Hoff embraced this challenge without any prior racing experience. Initially, he took on the grunt work of prepping vehicles and providing support at the events. Not until he’d had some formal driving training did he get his chance behind the wheel to, as puts it, “feel what it’s like to drive a mid-1980s econocar at high speed.”
It’s those thrills and chills, says both Hoff and Mudge, that bring these automotive enthusiasts together. TMC President Akio Toyoda, an avid amateur racer himself, would certainly approve.
“We learn so much from each other,” says Mudge. “The team attracts people who want to be around cars. And it’s good to work hands-on with a vehicle, which isn’t something we’re always able to do in our day-to-day jobs. We are so lucky to work for a company that allows us to do this.”
Winning Smiles -- Here's the team that claimed its class at Barber Motorsports Speedway in February, their first 24 Hours of LeMons endurance race of 2017. Pictured (left to right): Stephen Byington, Andrew Gibson, Luke Brophy, Tom Duesing, Chris Schuster, Justin LaChausse, Dave Schuele, Matthew Mudge and Aaron Hoff. Also on the team but not in the photo: Andrew Brownfield.
Better Engineers = Better Cars
PE Motorsports, though, isn’t all fun and games. Mike Triebsch, a special projects analyst in Manufacturing Communication, says senior management sponsors the team for multiple reasons.
“The lessons they learn on the racetrack in vehicle safety, performance, teamwork and problem solving make for better engineers – and better engineers make better cars,” he says. “Also, team dynamics developed in competition carry over to their daily work. And this outlet helps us recruit the next generation of engineers who have a love of cars and a passion for driving.”
Indeed, the team is open to all comers in PE, from full-time team members to variable workforce contributors to co-op students. And their success is inspiring other Toyota groups to follow their lead. PE recently donated a 1989 Celica to a fledging racing team at the Toyota Technical Center (TTC) in Ann Arbor, Mich. And they’ve provided guidance to another grassroots group taking shape at Toyota Motor Manufacturing Indiana (TMMI).
“We’re not the only people at Toyota who are doing this,” says Mudge. “There is a movement to bring all of these racing enthusiasts together. Toyota is clearly trying to inject more emotion into its product line – to be seen no only as a maker of reliable cars but those that are also fun to drive. Hopefully, our passion for racing can help move the needle on that.”
By Dan Miller