Wed, Jun 7, 2023 8:05 AM
By JENNA FRYER, AP Auto Racing Writer
LE MANS, France (AP) — Left out of the NASCAR celebration at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Toyota used Wednesday at the track to showcase its own stock car program and the upcoming Cup Series debut for one of the top racers in the world.
Kamui Kobayashi will make his NASCAR debut on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course with Toyota in August driving for 23XI Racing, the team owned by Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan.
The announcement made Wednesday had several top NASCAR executives in attendance — including chairman Jim France — as Toyota found Le Mans to be the perfect backdrop to spotlight the one-race deal.
Toyota Gazoo, after all, has won Le Mans the last five consecutive years and Kobayashi, part of the 2021 winning effort, is team principal of the two-car organization that will try to make it six straight wins in the most prestigious endurance event in the world.
Toyota had initially felt jilted when NASCAR blindsided the industry last year by announcing it would bring its new Next Gen car to centenary Le Mans in a specialized category that showcases innovation, but the project was with Chevrolet and Hendrick Motorsports. Toyota was the first rival NASCAR manufacturer to complain, and NASCAR has since tried to include all its partners in this weekend's celebration and France signed off on holding the Kobayashi announcement at Le Mans.
It allowed Toyota to display the Camry it races in NASCAR; Kobayashi will drive the No. 67 in the Aug. 13 race.
“We've been working on this assignment actually for a couple of years and Kamui has become a friend and we understood it was his dream one day to race in NASCAR,” said David Wilson, president of TRD, U.S.A. “With this great new Next Gen Toyota Camry TRD, the stars and planets started to align themselves and the next question became: Where should we announce this?
“It dawned on me with Kamui's record of success, and being the team principal, to do it on this global stage at the biggest sports car race in the world.”
Kobayashi will be only the second Japanese driver to race in NASCAR's top Cup Series and only the fifth to race in one of NASCAR's top three national series. Kobayashi will be the first Japanese driver to race in the Cup Series in a Toyota, which entered NASCAR's top series in 2007.
“It's my dream, actually,” Kobayashi told The Associated Press. "It's such a big sport in the United States and racing in Europe, I never had the chance or opportunity to race NASCAR. I think the opportunity will be challenging for myself because it is such a different category.
“But if I have success, I think it will make more opportunities for Japanese drivers. Toyota has been in NASCAR a long time, but there has never been any Japanese drivers for Toyota. That's also why I say I appreciate this opportunity for myself.”
Kobayashi won the 24 Hours of Le Mans for Toyota in 2021 and hasn't finished lower than third since 2018. He has six podium finishes in eight appearances in the iconic endurance race.
Toyota trails only Bentley, Jaguar, Ferrari, Audi and Porsche for most wins at Le Mans. Porsche holds the record with 19 victories.
Kobayashi in 2021, after winning Le Mans and the World Endurance Championship title driving for Toyota Gazoo, was named team principal.
Kobayashi started his racing career karting in Japan but was discovered by Toyota while racing in Europe. He was named one of Toyota's reserve Formula One drivers and made his debut during the 2009 season at the Brazilian Grand Prix. He raced in F1 through 2014 with one podium finish in 75 career starts.
Following his F1 career, Kobayashi returned to Japan and switched to the Super Formula Series, a class he still actively competes in. He's since won the Rolex 24 at Daytona twice and was the anchor on an IMSA endurance sports car team in the United States for two seasons that was formed by seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.
Kobayashi loves racing in the United States, but IMSA's adoption of new regulations to make its top class eligible to compete at Le Mans created a conflict of interest between Kobayashi's Toyota responsibilities and continuing to race in IMSA, where Toyota is not represented in the top class. Toyota does field a Lexus in a lower IMSA division and Kobayashi raced for Vasser Sullivan Racing last June in Canada to get a feel for the GT car.
Many consider NASCAR's Next Gen car to be very similar to the GT Lexus sports car that Kobayashi drove in IMSA last year, and that's his closest experience to driving a stock car. He'll be permitted to test with 23XI at a small track in Virginia ahead of the race at Indianapolis, and expects some time on the simulator.
Either way, he isn't worried about seat time.
“I think I'm a guy who doesn't need much practice, to be honest,” the 36-year-old Kobayashi told the AP. “I think once we jump in the car, we will be OK in a couple of laps. So I'm not really concerned about form.”