Fifty years after entering the US market, Japan's Toyota Motor Corp has set its sights on the last stronghold of its struggling US competitors: the full-sized pickup truck market and NASCAR stock-car racing.
The challenge comes at a delicate time. DaimlerChrysler AG joined General Motors Corp and Ford Motor Co last week in plans to shutter plants and slash thousands of jobs amid massive financial losses.
Local media is bristling at the fact that Toyota has surpassed Ford to take the No. 2 spot in the US in recent months and is expected to overtake GM in global sales this year.
The reports have related a backlash among the "good ole boys" of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) against the appearance of a Toyota at the Daytona 500 racetrack in Florida yesterday.
Racing team owner Jack Roush was quoted recently as saying: "Americans shouldn't buy Japanese cars."
And Detroit is fueling the fire with patriotic ad campaigns reminding customers that this is "our country."
Toyota's president for North America disagrees.
"We are an American company," Jim Press said in an interview recently, noting that many of the cars Toyota sells in the US contain more American-built components than cars built by the US Big Three.
"If Toyota is an import car then Chrysler is an import: it's owned by a German company," Press said.
Toyota has also been fighting back with a series of print and TV ads touting its US$13 billion investments in 10 US plants and employment of more than 35,000 Americans across the country.
It was a big shift for a company that traditionally focused simply on its products.
"The problem is people in Detroit are trying to define us and I guess we're trying to define ourselves," Press said.
"We're a modest company. We focus on engineering good products and good customer service," he said.
"We're not so good at politics and communications and all that stuff ... [but] it's focusing on us and that's why we're being a little more proactive on trying to communicate the fact," he said.
Toyota's market research has shown that very few Americans carry their patriotism in their pocketbooks. If they did, sales certainly could not have grown so much.
But many full-sized truck customers have intense brand loyalty and it will take a lot of work to prove to them that Toyota can deliver the power and pull they are looking for.
Toyota's Tundra truck has already placed well in several NASCAR races. But racing the Camry in NASCAR's premier event and season opener, the Daytona 500, has been seen by some as the last straw.
A group calling itself Fans Against Racing Toyotas (FART) has launched a Web site lamenting the betrayal of beloved drivers who sat behind the wheel of a "foreign" race car.
Despite the backlash and bad press, Toyota thinks the race is a great way to reach out to truck owners.
NASCAR is one of the most popular spectator sports in the US with a traditional fan base in the rural heartland where Toyota has struggled harder to achieve sales.
Toyota aims to sell 200,000 Tundras in the US this year, a modest ambition compared to the top-selling Ford F-150 series pick-up which sells between 800,000 and 900,000 vehicles a year.
But there is plenty of room left at Toyota's sprawling new truck plant in San Antonio, Texas. At 809 hectares, it's the biggest manufacturing site in the world and is also bigger than Tokyo's Narita airport.
"We'll see how the reception is to the trucks and hopefully we'll be able to continue to grow our operations there," Press said.
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