The video opens showing a bespectacled Akio Toyoda in a charcoal suit and tie, waving to the cameras. Then suddenly, he is in a red and black racing jump suit, helmet on, climbing behind the wheel of a psychedelic Camry sedan at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. A cockpit-mounted camera displays the 56-year-old corporate chief shifting into high gear as the bass thunders on the car’s sound system.
Racing With Akio Toyoda
President and CEO of Toyota Motor Corp. Akio Toyoda listened as a technician spoke to him in the pit during a practice session ahead of a race at the Nuerburgring circuit in Germany on Oct. 14, 2011.
“How do you reinvent the best-selling car in America?” a voice intones in the TV ad aired in the U.S. last fall. “From behind the wheel. Akio Toyoda: race car driver and president of Toyota Motor TM +0.84% Corporation.”
It isn’t just the Camry being reinvented, but Mr. Toyoda himself. As he tries to turn around the auto giant from years of what many call bland design, an embarrassing 2009 recall and the effects of the 2011 earthquake, he is grabbing the wheel and playing the role of personal pitchman.
Mr. Toyoda isn’t the first auto executive to do so. Chrysler Chief Executive Lee Iacocca did it on a factory floor. Ford Motor Co. F +1.53% Chairman Bill Ford Jr. has done it from behind a desk. And “Dr. Z” Dieter Zetsche did it for DaimlerChrysler in a Dodge Challenger.
But none was shown climbing 31-degree banks at the Daytona International Speedway, let alone appearing at racing events flanked by a pair of leather-clad female chaperones holding parasols. (The Gazoo Ladies, named after Toyota’s Gazoo Racing motor sports team, are part of Mr. Toyoda’s racing entourage and draw a big following in Japan.)
That rock star persona reflects the unusual way Mr. Toyoda has defined the job he took over in 2009. He has become both the company’s de facto chief marketing officer and chief test driver. He has vowed to vet as many vehicles as possible, especially muscle cars like the $24,000 Scion FR-S coupe and $375,000 Lexus LFA super car.
It is a remarkable evolution for a man who first stayed largely behind the scenes when he took over the company founded by his grandfather. Thrust into the spotlight during Toyota’s acceleration-pedal recall in late 2009, his initial public comments seemed awkward. But he found his voice during U.S. congressional testimony in early 2010, telling lawmakers: “My name is on every car.” (The corporate name was changed to Toyota in 1936 because it sounds snappier in Japanese.)
Company officials say that the campaign featuring Mr. Toyoda as a cockpit jockey helps the company turn the page on its recent mishaps and provides a sportier image for the brand. The current marketing effort was built around the launch of the latest-generation Camry, a humdrum people-mover that has been the best-selling car in the U.S. all but of the one of the past 15 years.
Mr. Toyoda says he honed his driving skills in the 1980s driving a used Porsche in Manhattan, where he was working as an investment banker. He bought it after someone stole his Toyota Celica. The Porsche is long gone, but Mr. Toyoda likes to show off his Porsche ballpoint pen clad in the steel mesh used to protect wiring under the hood. “Look at this,” he told a reporter Thursday. “It’s just like an auto part.”
His daredevil activities are raising his profile in a way that few of his button-down predecessors sought. The company’s last president, Katsuaki Watanabe, tried to keep out of the limelight during his stint, spending his leisure time singing in a men’s choir.
Mr. Toyoda’s approach carries risks, not least of which is the possibility of the type of high-speed accident that killed Toyota’s chief test car driver in 2010. That was one year after Mr. Toyoda drove for the third year in a row in an annual 24-hour race on a Grand Prix track in Nürburg, Germany. The company says he hasn’t been in a competitive race since then—a decision prompted in part by pressure from Toyota’s board, according to a person familiar with the matter. But he hasn’t quit his habit of racing solo at top speeds on closed courses.
At a news conference in March, Mr. Toyoda appeared alongside three Toyota test drivers and made the case for keeping the keys. “Ten years ago, I was once chewed out by our chief test driver for not knowing how to put a car through its paces, something they risk their lives to do everyday,” he said. “Now, I see myself as a bridge who can talk to both racing pros and average car owners.”
Mr. Toyoda has cut back on other pastimes such as golf to spend more hours at the test track. That shift from the back nine to starting line came, he says, after a journalist chided him by saying that most Toyota executives’ appreciation of “handling” is limited to golf clubs.
He regularly shows up at events wearing a tailor-made Nomex fireproof red and white racing suit—featuring a shoulder patch with a cartoon of his dog, Morizo. While many CEOs hand out business cards, Mr. Toyoda’s chief calling cards are stacks of stickers with that dog patch design.
In an effort to energize some 1,100 dispirited Toyota dealers and employees attending a company conference in Las Vegas last November, he bounded to the stage in his racing suit.
Agence France-Presse/Getty ImagesAkio Toyoda walks with journalists while at the Toyota Gazoo Racing Festival at the Fuji Speedway in Shizuoka prefecture.
In the midst of a pep talk, he led the crowd in chanting “WAKU-DOKI, WAKU-DOKI, WAKU-DOKI,” a term loosely translated as “heart-pounding excitement.”
Mr. Toyoda often uses that phrase to illustrate the passion needed in his company’s vehicles, the design of which he told reporters in April was “too Democratic” to inspire.
Mr. Toyoda has taken a deep interest in product development. During the development of the FR-S sports car, which began in 2008, he drove prototypes at least once a month and offered sometimes blistering feedback on everything from the suspension to the design of the exterior badge.
“Mr. Toyoda’s comments can be quite harsh. At one point, we were at a crossroads in development and he said the car wasn’t talking to him at all, which was his way of letting us know it wasn’t anything special,” recalled Tetsuya Tada, the FR-S’s chief engineer. “I don’t remember that ever happening with past presidents.”
By Chester Dawson – The Wall Street Journal