Eric Van Cleef Leading Toyota's Stockcar Charge

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Jan. 27, 2000) NASCAR has spent the last several off-seasons visiting Japan. The return visit is being made this season in the Goody's Dash Series, NASCAR Touring. Toyota has entered the fray of competition in American ...

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Jan. 27, 2000) NASCAR has spent the last several off-seasons visiting Japan. The return visit is being made this season in the Goody's Dash Series, NASCAR Touring.

Toyota has entered the fray of competition in American stock car competition via the Goody's Dash circuit, which opens its season on Feb. 12 at Daytona International Speedway with the Discount Auto Parts 200. Leading the charge for the Japanese manufacturer is experienced American road racer Eric Van Cleef.

Van Cleef, a South Florida driver, has been going to battle for Toyota for a long time now, so he's a logical choice in this program. On Thursday he was one of 44 drivers who got on the 2.5-mile speedway in the opening day of the final two-day test of the preseason at Daytona.

The test offered a typically unique difference of perspectives. On the one hand, defending DAP 200 winner Christian Elder posted the fastest speed of the day, a lap of 55.812 seconds, an average speed of 161.256 mph in his Pontiac.

On the other hand, Derrick Kelley, driver of the No. 21 Discount Auto Parts Chevrolet, arrived at Daytona Thursday for the test session only to find out his car is snowed-in at Conestee, S.C. Thus, Kelley, a 35-year-old Auburndale, Fla., resident spent time in the garage area learning from the teams that were turning laps at the "World Center of Racing."

"You can still learn here by watching what the teams are doing," Kelley said. "You watch what they're doing, watch what they're changing."

Several factors played into Kelley's machine-less visit to Daytona.

"We had broken the car down thinking we had enough time before the test to paint it," he said. "But then the storm hit and there was no electricity. Plus there was about a foot of snow. The combination led to the car being stuck in South Carolina."

Still Kelley feels confident that his team will be prepared for the Feb. 12 Discount Auto Parts 200.

"We've got a good team and they have a good track record. The most important thing is to get the car put back together and get everything right with it."

Van Cleef, for his part, had a full day of running in the factory-supported Toyota stock car.

"I got involved with Toyota 15 years ago, when my brother and I built a Toyota Corolla to go SCCA road racing," said Van Cleef. "We started winning right away. We continued road racing right up until two years ago. In '96 we won a professional championship for them in the IMSA endurance series. After that, our relationship just continued to build.

"As soon as I heard that they had some interest in NASCAR and this series, I stuck my neck out and tried to get involved the best I could. And Tom O'Connor, who works for Toyota Racing Development (TRD), the man behind the whole program, is the guy who I bugged the most."

O'Connor jokingly said it was more like mugged than bugged.

"He threw me on the ground and beat me up is what he did," he said, laughing.

Toyota will probably take a few lumps this year until it gets things figured out. Starting out is never an easy task, but at least it's being done in a more forgiving series as opposed to the top level of NASCAR.

"I think that we're both real pleased with where we're at right now," said Van Cleef of himself and O'Connor. "I've been road racing most of my career. We've won several races here. I own a lap qualifying record for the endurance-type series. We set the all-time fastest qualifying lap ever in a Toyota Supra Turbo here. So I've won a bunch of road races here - amateur and professional. I've raced in the 24 Hours of Daytona three times.

"I love road racing, but all along I've always loved NASCAR racing. The first car that I ever actually raced was a little Mini Stock on an oval track in Bradenton, Fla. I started my career oval track racing, and now we're back there."

Well, almost. Daytona is officially a trioval, but the point is Van Cleef is making only left-hand turns again, and he loves it.

"I just couldn't be happier working with a factory program like this with Toyota Racing Development," he said. "They do all of the engine development. It's a brand new 24-valve four-cam, V-6 engine in the car, which is revolutionary for NASCAR. I think it's the first one ever approved for NASCAR competition. To be in on the ground floor of this is just extremely exciting."

Van Cleef realizes that there are many that oppose a Japanese automaker competing in stock car racing. But he thinks the time has come to see it in a different light.

"A lot of the American cars have plenty of Japanese parts on 'em," he said. "Everybody knows that. And Japanese cars have a lot of American parts and most of them now have all plants in America. Camrys are being built in Tennessee. Honda has a plant down there. They're building a plant in Alabama.

"You look at the fans in the stands and you look at the cars parked in the parking lot at any Cup or Busch race, and there's hundreds of Toyotas. So many people have Toyotas parked in their driveways."

Maybe one day soon Van Cleef will have his parked in Victory Lane again.

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Drivers Christian Elder
Teams Toyota Racing