Celebrating 40 years of Toyota Racing Development USA

These days TRD USA’s primary focus is with NASCAR and dressing up some trucks, but back in the 80s and 90s, it was a Toyotaku’s dream come true.  Founded in 1979, it’s celebrating its 40th anniversary and looking back at some of its humble origins. “It’s the story about this quirky, little, aftermarket, southern California speed shop for Toyotas,” says current TRD USA president David Wilson. “Literally a couple of lifts out back, and, instead of hot-rodding Mustangs and Camaros, it was Celicas and Supras.”

As described in the video TRD USA was not, at the time of its founding, a part of Toyota USA, which was a sales and marketing arm of the Toyota Motor Corporation mothership in Japan. Instead, TRD USA was a direct subsidiary of TRD in Japan, and had access to all their technological know-how and parts catalog.

As such, they were able to operate with a good deal of independence. They were able to get all the best tuning parts from Japan, for cars like the Celica, Supra, MR2, AE86, and more. In addition, they also developed parts for use in US-specific applications and models that had, say, different engine displacements or unique emissions requirements.

The video makes it sound like pure coincidence that the original building was located on Western Avenue in Torrance, California, a block north of Toyota USA’s headquarters. That was by design, and the surrounding area was home to countless Japanese business supporting Toyota USA and nearby American Honda — making everything from performance parts to English-language service manuals.

The video also neglects to mention that TRD’s location put them squarely at the epicenter of southern California’s underground street racing scene decades before The Fast and The Furious was even a dollar sign swirling round in a movie producer’s head. In fact, one of the key meeting places before racers went off into the night was at a Mexican restaurant directly across the street from the old TRD USA HQ.

The goal, as Wilson states, was “embracing motorsports as a vehicle to help Americanize the Toyota brand,” and you couldn’t get much more American than racing a pickup truck.

For all its abilities, TRD was still largely a west coast phenomenon. It didn’t really make it into the mainstream consciousness until 1983, when Toyota began competing in off-road desert and stadium racing with Ivan “Ironman” Stewart. The hugely popular Off-Road video game, which starred Stewart and a bunch of nitrous-powered Toyotas, bringing the notion of leaping Toyota trucks to video arcades across America.

Stewart had already been successful in what he calls “Mickey Thompson racing” (named after the founder of SCORE, or Southern California Off Road Enthusiasts and the MTEG, or Mickey Thompson Entertainment Group for stadium races) in a single-seat V8 rig. So, somewhat amusingly, when asked if he’d like to drive for Toyota, Stewart recalls his initial response as, “No, not really. Why would I?”

His explanation reveals what much of the country thought of Japanese cars, even as late as the early 1980s. “It’s a small company, probably — little Toyota Corporation — they make little cars and little trucks. Why would I want to go race one of those?”

What followed was 11 Baja 500 and 2 Baja 1000 wins, two SCORE world championships, a record 17 MTEG stadium wins, and three MTEG driver’s championships. “In hindsight, it was the decision I ever made,” Stewart said.

In the end, TRD USA was perhaps, too successful in Americanizing. Today, it is part of the Toyota USA juggernaut, and, car-wiae basically makes a few dress-up kits for US-market models likely the Camry and Avalon. At least trucks such as the 4Runner, Tacoma, Sequoia, and Tundra TRD Pro still carry on some of the true performance heritage.



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4 Responses to Celebrating 40 years of Toyota Racing Development USA

  1. Steven says:

    Growing up in Gardena, I remember stumbling upon TRD USA in 1980. I had just returned from a trip to Japan, where i learned about TRD, and then to come home and see the shop was exciting.

    The original TRD building was actually a small, cramped brick building, across the street and half a block south of the building shown in the first picture. There were only a handful of people that I could see, from Japan.

    It was great to be able to order real TRD race parts for my Celica. Just like anyone could order Nissan racing parts over the counter at Gardena Datsun.

    TRD opened a storefront in the Union Bank strip mall just north of the building in the first picture. I spent many afternoons hanging out there.

    It was a sad day for me when they announced their move to Irvine, CA (is TRD still there?) and even more sadness when they split TRD into a marketing division (dress up kits for cars and trucks) and a pure race division, open only to race teams. As such, I never went to visit their new digs.

    I still have TRD race springs and shocks on my Celica as well as their 3-spoke steering wheel…

  2. I still dont get why Toyota didn’t re-accelerate the TRD brand with the new sports programmes etc and racing efforts and instead went with a hugely unknown and new “Gazoo racing” brand for all the new “sporty” stuff. when they could rely on the trusty old TRD brand instead, that many people know from watching rallye cars (old castrol liveried corollas or celicas, anyone?) during their youth years…

  3. Brian Hasty says:

    Mike Kojima of MotoIQ fame worked there when he got out of college with a Mechanical Engineering degree, you should talk to him about all the things he tested and worked on.

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