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Today, “Gazoo Racing” is the umbrella name for all Toyota’s racing activities–including NASCAR and F1. But just over 15 years ago, Gazoo was the URL of a little-known car auction website. What happened in between? One of the most fascinating reinventions of an automobile company in recent history.

By the 2000s, Toyota had cancelled the Supra and had no new RWD sports car on the horizon. It still had an F1 and NASCAR team. But that technology was so far from the cars Toyota actually sold, that those teams were just a rapid badge delivery system.

One day, heir to Toyota and company Vice President, Akio Toyoda, was talking with the head test driver. Hiromu Naruse has more hours on the Nürburing than any other Japanese driver and the lofty title of Toyota Master Driver. He told Akio that he had no right making decision for a car company when he didn’t even know how to drive a car on a track. And he offered to teach the younger man.

The Gazoo Racing Toyota IS preparing for the 24 hours of nurburing.
Akio Toyoda Gazoo Racing | Clemens Bilan/AFP via Getty Images

After enough lessons, Akio entered a used Yaris in a race in Japan. And he finished third. He and Naruse found a core of motorsports enthusiasts inside Toyota, so Akio approached the board and asked about a “Toyota Factory Works” racing team. They said no.

This is where things get interesting. Akio and Hiromu Naruse flew to Germany, bought a pair of uses Lexus cars, and on a limited budget built them out as race cars. Then Akio entered the 24 Hours of Nürburing–under the alias Morizo Kinoshita. That’s right, they slapped together a used race car and entered one of the most difficult races on the planet–in secret.

So what about a sponsor? The board had forbid Akio from using the Toyota name or racing colors. So he did the cars up in black and white and plastered on the side.

See, was Akio’s side project. It was a used car sales website, and one of the early ones in Japan featuring images of every vehicle. “Gazo” is Japanese for “image,” and I imagine the url with just one “o” was already taken.

Toyota Vice President behind the wheel of a lexus during the 24 hours of nurburing.
Akio Toyoda Gazoo Racing | Clemens Bilan/AFP via Getty Images

So how did Gazoo Racing go from a ragtag, undercover outfit to all of Toyota racing? After Akio and Naruse managed to finish the 24 hour race on their first try, the company brass listened up. Toyota finally greenlit the Lexus LFA as its flagship RWD sports car. Gazoo racing took the LFA to the Nürburing every year from 2009 to 2012, using the endurance race to collect data and fine tune the production version.

In 2009, Akio became Toyota’s President. He pushed for more affordable RWD sports cars and we got the 86, then the reincarnated Supra. Special Editions carried the Gazoo Racing (GR) badge. And as enthusiasts became more familiar with Gazoo, it made sense to make it the umbrella for all of Toyota’s renewed racing efforts.

You can hear Akio describe his undercover Nürburing run in the video below: