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NASCAR greats visit Toyota plant

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Georgetown News-Graphic

 In theory, both groups do the same thing — produce and drive industry leading Toyota Camrys.

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But the scope is drastically different, and that’s what captured the imagination of drivers, owners and other members of Toyota’s NASCAR teams on Wednesday when they got a unique look at the production at Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky.

“It’s a whole lot to say grace over I know,” said NASCAR legend Michael Waltrip, a driver in the Sprint Cup Series and team co-owner of JTG-D Racing. “I have a little NASCAR team back in North Carolina and it drives me crazy. I can’t imagine the headaches this place could cause.

“But when you look at the record of safety and the cars they turn out and the precision of those vehicles — they do an amazing job.”

Waltrip was just one of a collection of some of the biggest names in NASCAR to visit the Georgetown automaker on Wednesday in a one-of-a-kind event before the racing season kicks off Feb. 24 with the Daytona 500.

Among those on hand were Waltrip’s older brother, Darrell Waltrip, team owner and former NFL coach Joe Gibbs and drivers Kyle Bush, Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth, Elliott Sadler, Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr., Brian Vickers and Bobby Labonte.

All the drivers pilot a Camry on the race track and Bowyer, who finished as series runner-up last year,  and Hamlin each drove a car off the assembly line after it the TMMK team members finished their work on it.

“I was in California when Toyota unveiled the 2012 Camry,” said Hamlin, who finished sixth in the 2012 Spring Cup standings. “I remembered they showed a video of it being rolled off the line. And now I got to actually drive a car off the line. That was a great feeling.”

Hamlin said seeing the machinery and equipment in the plant gave him a charge during the tour.

“I’m more fascinated by the machines and welders and dies and all the stuff that actually builds these cars,” he said. “To me, it’s awesome.”

The efficiency and speed of the process stuck out to Bush.

“It’s so much to take in, in such a short period of time,” he said. “But the idea of a car starting from just a piece of sheet metal and coming off the line in 20 hours is just amazing.

The fact that the Camry progresses from sheet metal to show-room ready in a matter of hours also captived the imagination of Darrell Waltrip.

“It’s hard to believe that, under one roof, though it’s a huge roof, actually, that they build a car from scratch,” he said. “It’s a lot like going in these race shops and there is a bin full of pipes and tubes and sheet metal and in four or five days, you have a race car.

“I tell you, the thing that really captured my attention is they take the doors off. The car goes one way and the doors go another and they go right back on the same car. ... If me and (fellow broadcaster Jeff) Hammond were doing that we’d say, ‘Well, they’re red doors, they go on that car,’ and we’d have it all messed up.”

Gibbs, who led the Washington Redskins to three Super Bowl wins, and Joe Gibbs Racing to Cup Series championships, marveled at the organization of the production process.

“What sticks out in my mind is, I don’t know how you coordinated all that,” he said. “There is so much stuff in there, and so many people. I told them I couldn’t control 50 football players and you’ve got 7,000 people running around here.”

He also said the productivity of TMMK team members could be a lesson to the workers at Joe Gibbs Racing.

“They are painting 740 cars a day. That blew my mind,” he laughed. “We’ve got five guys in our race shop and they can’t paint one.”

They soon head to Florida, as the 2013 Sprint Cup season begins with the Daytona Shootout on Feb. 16.

Before the tour, the owners and drivers enjoyed lunch with plant officials and some lucky TMMK team members. Following a media event, they participated in a question and answer session for the plant’s team members with Darrell Waltrip acting as emcee.