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Toyota president takes to race track to learn even more about improving cars

Kyodo

Toyota Motor Corp. President Akio Toyoda occasionally takes the driver’s seat in car races to understand firsthand the quality of his company’s cars and how to produce better ones.

In May, the 57-year-old took part in the Nurburgring 24-hour endurance race in western Germany, with his team finishing second in the 10-car SP8 class.

It is rare for the head of a major automaker to compete in a car race of that size, but Toyoda said he does it simply to “make better cars.”

Toyoda has received training as a race car driver over the years.

“I feel tense in a car race as I have competitors to fight with,” he said after the German race. “This experience helps fine-tune my sensibilities necessary to develop good cars.”

Toyoda also drove in the race back in 2009 when he was vice president. That was just after the firm released earnings results showing it had fallen into the red in the wake of the Lehman Brothers global crisis.

It triggered a storm of criticism, such as “it’s just an indulgence by a scion (of a major company)” and “what’s he going to do if anything happens in the race?”

Four years into his presidency, however, an increasing number of people around him have shown understanding of his commitment to and enthusiasm about being a car producer, and that his racing is a part of this.

“If I buy golfing tools, for instance, I want to buy them from someone who likes golf, not from someone who has no interest in it,” said a senior official at a car dealership.

“It should be the same for cars, shouldn’t it?”

Toyota cars had often been described by customers and industry observers as being “too safe and lacking spice.”

But the leading automaker has recently been strengthening development of sports vehicles to change its image.

Industry observers say the Lexus brand, Toyota’s luxury line and what Toyoda drove in the German race, still lacks brand power as a racing car compared with its European competitors.