Les Unger Has Led Toyota’s Motorsports Department Since Its Formation In 1984
By Tiffany Rider - Senior Writer
April 09, 2013 - One constant in the history of Toyota USA, and the nearly 30 years that Les Unger has served as its national motorsports manager, has been the company’s commitment to Long Beach.
Toyota started selling product in the United States in 1957. Long Beach was its initial port of entry, Unger told the Business Journal, and so the company has maintained a longstanding relationship with port and city officials. Over the years, Toyota expanded its local involvement by supporting the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, working with California State University, Long Beach and with TABC, Inc. – Toyota’s first North American manufacturing plant established in 1972.
Toyota first got involved in motorsports in 1975 by providing the official vehicle for a new street race in Long Beach. By 1980, the race was named the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach (TGPLB).
Three years before becoming the title sponsor, Toyota “added some pizazz to race weekend,” Unger said, by organizing and initiating title sponsorship of the first Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race – pitting celebrity drivers up against professional racers on the same course at the same time. Toyota provided its sportiest vehicle at the time – the Celica – as the official car of the new competition.
Throughout the years, the Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race, which turns 37 in 2013, has been the second most popular event of race weekend, Unger said.
Unger, a resident of Long Beach since 1989, said this year’s Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race offers fans a look at the new Scion FR-S sports coupe. The rear-wheel drive vehicle debuted at the Chicago Auto Show in summer 2012.
Unger was hired by Toyota into is corporate marketing department in 1980. “I was with Ford Motor Company for 13 years. I worked for a Ford dealership leasing company for a while and then came to work for Toyota back in 1980.”
Toyota established its motorsports department between 1982 and 1983. By 1984, Unger was appointed manager of the new department. “The company wanted to enhance its image in performance, and motorsports was the way to do it,” Unger said.
He pointed out that Toyota has a reputation as a “conservative company,” with a focus on designing and building trusted, reliable, fuel-efficient vehicles, he said. Performance was an afterthought, if a thought at all in the early days of production. Toyota was behind the curve; the company did not begin producing multi-valve, performance engines until the mid-1980s, more than 30 years after “The Detroit Three” (Ford, Chevrolet, Dodge) began to produce race engines for competition.
Though Unger did not have prior experience in motorsports, he jumped right in and took the wheel. In his new role, Unger was involved in brand development, marketing and public relations of Toyota’s new high-performance vehicles and competition participation, in addition to overseeing the sponsorship of and participation in the TGPLB.
“Here at Toyota Motor Sales, we are all about the marketing, promotion, the advertising, PR, so on and so forth,” Unger said. “You can call it the software side of racing. But Toyota has a subsidiary called Toyota Racing Development (TRD) USA and they are located down in Orange County. As a matter of fact, one of their facilities butts up to one of the runways of John Wayne Airport. They have 180 associates there. . . . They are the hardware side.”
Toyota entered professional motorsports competition in sports cars and off-road stadium and desert truck racing, according to Unger. In 1994, Toyota entered Pike’s Peak International Hill Climb and captured the unlimited class championship, as it did again from 1996 to 1999. The automaker transitioned from sports cars to Indy Car in 1995, winning the Indy 500 and the manufacturer’s championship in 2003.
By 2004, Toyota ventured into the granddaddy of auto racing in the U.S. – the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR). “We have a satellite TRD facility in Charlotte,” Unger said, “because in the Charlotte area is basically where all of the NASCAR teams are headquartered. TRD are the ones that design and build all of our racing engines. They do maintenance, repair and all of that development in terms of the engines for our NASCAR program and a little bit of off-road racing.”
To its reputation of having some of the most loyal fans in sports, NASCAR’s corporate data shows more Fortune 500 companies participate in the organization’s events than any other sport. Toyota became the fourth automaker to race vehicles in NASCAR, alongside Chevrolet, Ford and Dodge.
“It is extremely popular,” Unger said of NASCAR. “We wanted to expand the involvement and enthusiasm among our associates across the country, not only in our sales areas but also in our manufacturing areas. NASCAR is huge.”
Toyota started in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, winning three driver titles and five manufacturer championships from 2006 to 2010. In 2007, Toyota entered the NASCAR Nationwide and Sprint Cup series. The Toyota Nationwide driver Kyle Busch won the season title in 2009 and Toyota won three consecutive manufacturers championships from 2008 to 2010.
While making its rounds in the NASCAR circuit, Toyota got involved in the National Hot Rod Association’s (NHRA) Top Fuel and Funny Car events in the mid-2000s, Unger said. Toyota provides the tow vehicle for Top Fuel drag race teams and its Toyota Racing Development division designed the Camry Funny Car body. Toyota is currently partnered with four Funny Car drivers and five Top Fuel drivers, winning three consecutive Top Fuel championships between 2010 and 2012.
Toyota conducts market research annually to determine success in a particular racing circuit and how much funding is allocated to those investments moving forward. According to Unger, the department currently devotes 75 percent of its funding to NASCAR, 20 percent to NHRA and 5 percent to other, including off-road competitions.
“I’m extremely pleased with the growth of Toyota’s commitment and involvement, starting off from scratch,” Unger said. “The constant of the last 30-plus years of my tenure has been the Toyota Grand Prix and the Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race, but at the same time there’s been tremendous growth in terms of our involvement at the highest levels of motorsports.”