In soccer, many professional clubs, including the Philadelphia Union, run youth academies. Major League Baseball teams have had minor-league clubs for generations. The purpose is to identify young talent and develop it to the point that some might contribute at the highest level.
In 2012, Toyota asked itself why the same idea could not apply to NASCAR.
A year earlier, the manufacturer knew it had dropped the ball. Its scouts had recognized the potential of Kyle Larson, a 19-year-old driver who was burning up the midget- and sprint-car circuit. Toyota was helping Larson's team but balked at signing him to a development deal, even though many predicted he was destined for NASCAR stardom.
Toyota's stance was that it was not prepared financially or philosophically to promote the development of individual drivers. It just wasn't the way things were done.
Larson jumped to Earnhardt Ganassi racing, and by 2014 he was a full-time driver in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. He was the rookie of the year and has won five races in his young career driving Chevrolets for Chip Ganassi Racing.
Toyota recognized its mistake with Larson and did a 180-degree turn in its approach with Toyota Racing Development (TRD).
There are a lot of lower levels in racing before Monster Energy, and Toyota decided it would place a hand in many of them. TRD has been signing promising prospects, placing them with ownership teams that drive Toyotas, and providing the tools and racing experiences to help them reach their potential.
TRD includes drivers in NASCAR, regional stock-car racing (ARCA, NASCAR K&N, and late models) and dirt midget racing. Toyota wants a corps of drivers racing Toyotas to championships at all levels. As they improve and move up, the hope is that they will stay loyal to Toyota cars.
It's difficult to argue against the initial test case.
In 2013, Toyota signed its first recruit — Erik Jones, a 16-year-old wunderkind from Michigan. In less than five years, Jones became the first driver to be Rookie of the Year in the NASCAR Truck series (2015), Xfinity Series (2016), and Monster Energy Cup (2017). Last month, Jones got his first Monster Energy victory at the Coke Zero Sugar 400, driving the No. 20 Toyota Camry. The win automatically qualifies him for the 16-driver playoffs and a chance to become Cup champion.
He's a Monster Energy teammate of Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, and Daniel Suarez, with Joe Gibbs Racing, which leads the owner standings.
"It's really neat to be the first guy to come through that program to make it to the Cup Series," Jones said. "Obviously, there are only a limited number of spots on the Cup Series. … It's not easy to break into NASCAR, and to have a manufacturer create a development program that reached out to help young drivers was a huge shift in things."
The 2018 Xfinity Series points leader, Christopher Bell, who has won four races, is a TDR member, as is Noah Gragson, who is in second place in the Camping World Truck Series.
Some younger hot prospects in the program include K&N drivers Todd Gilliland and Hailie Deegan and dirt midget racer Logan Seavey.
Toyota "has a great pipeline of young drivers who have great opportunities to become good drivers in the Cup Series," Jones said. "I think [programs such as Toyota Racing Development] is the future of the sport. Toyota has hedged its bet on the sport by hedging bets on the potential future of young drivers."