During the recent NHRA weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, assorted gearheads were gathered around a TV in the scoring tower watching NASCAR trucks run in circles at Martinsville, Virginia.
The one wearing a red Toyota golf shirt spoke complimentary words when Noah Gragson, the local youngster who drives a Tundra for fellow Las Vegan Kyle Busch, pulled into third place en route to finishing fourth — the best showing of the teenager’s fledgling career.
I think David Wilson also may have beamed with pride.
Wilson is president of Toyota Racing Development, which is as high as it gets in the administration building in Costa Mesa, California. He signs off on supporting young drivers such as Gragson through a Toyota driver development program that was started five years ago.
The program was designed to work as a major league baseball farm system does. Drivers are signed, supported, move up the ladder (or are released) at the appropriate time. The really promising ones eventually are called up to the Cup Series, stock car racing’s big leagues.
When Carl Edwards unexpectedly announced his retirement during the offseason, Daniel Suarez of Mexico was promoted from the Xfinity Series to replace him in the No. 19 Toyota at Joe Gibbs Racing. Wilson also had signed off on bringing Suarez into the Toyota fold, so that bodes well for 18-year-old Gragson’s NASCAR future — especially if he can continue to run up front when Mr. Big is watching on TV.
“Every story is different, but Noah grew up here in Las Vegas, running the same tracks the Busch brothers ran,” Wilson said at the drags. “He definitely caught the eye of Kyle, and we, Toyota, are very invested in driver development. We’re always on the lookout. There are certain people, certain drivers who have an eye for talent, and Kyle Busch is one of them.”
Toyota has a full-time driving scout, but Wilson said Busch first approached him about Gragson.
“It’s early,” Wilson said. “Noah is a young man, but he’s already impressing us. What he did in Martinsville is one data point, but that is a tough track for a rookie. He hung in there all day and ran top 5. That is an accomplishment all by itself.”