Circuit of the America, Austin, Texas
When racing fans showed up at the Circuit of the Americas in early May to watch their favorite sports car makers go at it in the Advance Auto Parts Sportscar Showdown, some were surprised to find Lexus in the mix alongside Mercedes-AMG, Porsche and Ferrari.
And that’s OK, for now, said Lexus General Manager Jeff Bracken.
“I think there’s more surprise about Lexus racing than there is a fan base,” said Bracken, who stood near the pit in a show of support as the brand’s two RC F GT3 race cars took on the best from Europe and Japan in the team’s freshman season in the GTD sports car class.
For Bracken, moving into motorsports is an important part of casting Lexus as a more performance-oriented brand.
Lexus has enjoyed a sterling reputation as a luxury car maker from its founding in 1989, “but it’s just not enough” anymore, Bracken told Automotive News. Along with newer performance-oriented street models such as the RC F and the new LC 500, he said, the automaker needs a serious presence in motorsports to develop sports car credibility and draw younger buyers.
“Our focus is, let’s get a competitive race car out there with a great team and get on the podium and start winning, and then we have a credible story to tell,” he said. “We’re all in, if it takes us two years, three years, five years.”
The brand’s first global racing effort also includes teams driving the RC F race car in Japan and Europe.
“We’re doing it to show the public that we can have a racing heritage and it can lead to great product in our lineup,” Bracken said in an interview.
Lexus has participated in select racing events since 2002, but hasn’t had the sustained effort of its rivals, particularly the Europeans that it competes with on the showroom floor.
The Lexus racing team signs autographs in Austin, Texas. Photo credit: JAMES W. LIETZ
Ups and downs
Its maiden season in the International Motor Sports Association’s WeatherTech SportsCar Championship series has had its ups and downs. In its four races so far, there have been two top-10 finishes, but also some car problems and mistakes along the way.
“We had a pretty rough Daytona,” said veteran racer Scott Pruett, 57, who will be inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame this summer. “Both our cars ran consistently top-10 in Sebring before we had some issues, [and] I finished sixth in Long Beach,” he said in an interview.
Pruett, who shares driving duties with 22-year-old Sage Karam, came in ninth in this month’s Austin race. Teammates Jack Hawksworth and Robert Alon were four spots behind in the other RC F.
Paul Gentilozzi, a former racer who runs 3GT Racing, which is partnering with Lexus, said the team is preparing the foundation for future wins. “We haven’t had great karma, but we’ve shown competitiveness certainly, and that’s our objective initially,” he said.
David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, acknowledged that turning the Lexus team into a serious contender is going to take some time, not unlike Toyota’s move into NASCAR a decade ago.
“Generally, it takes a little bit of time for us to get our feet underneath us,” he said during an interview at the Austin race. “I tried to make sure that everybody understood that we’re going to battle with brands that have been racing for decades. Let’s moderate our expectations.”
The battle on the track wasn’t the only competition at the Circuit of the Americas. High up a hill, the automakers were also battling for future car buyers.
At the so-called activation area, exhibit trailers offered resting areas, virtual reality car racing, phone chargers and a few select production models to look at, such as the street version of the RC F.
Outside the garage of each team before the race, fans were able to approach the cars and the drivers who would soon battle on the 3.4-mile track.
“It’s all about fan engagement, getting closer to the cars,” said Mark Egger, Lexus Motorsports manager. “When you see all these other brands, they’ve been doing it for many years. We’re the new kids on the block; we recognize that.”