The Power of Social Media Helped This Unattainable GR Yaris Find a Home in the United States

Photography: Brandon Cody

  • Gazoo Racing was founded in 2007 to compete in the Nürburgring 24-hour race, but the name has become synonymous with Toyota’s high-performance models.
  • The GR Yaris harnesses the spirit of a World Rally Championship (WRC) race car in a turn-key product that modern enthusiasts can enjoy every day.
  • The GR Yaris is powered by a three-cylinder 1.6-liter turbo engine and AWD drivetrain, the same ones found in its larger brethren (the GR Corolla).
  • Todd Lewis, the man behind Motor Car Collective, is the first and only US resident able to tout ownership of the GR Yaris, a car that was never destined for our shores.

Until the last few years, Toyota has been completely out of the sports car game. They knew it. We knew it. However, the absence of the brand’s most notable monikers created an opportunity: Gazoo Racing.

Gazoo Racing was founded in 2007 to compete in the Nürburgring 24-hour race. The epithet was a workaround. Toyota didn’t want the racing program to be associated with the main brand at the time, so much so that the two drivers competing in the race — Hiromi Naruse (Toyota test driver) and Akio Toyoda (vice president of Toyota) — were given racing nicknames: “Cap” and “Morizo” respectively. Over time that disassociation has eroded and today, the name “Gazoo Racing” has become proudly synonymous with Toyota’s high-performance models.

BRINGING IT BACK

The racing bug must’ve hit Toyoda hard because he became hell-bent on resurrecting the Toyota sports car for years. His ascent to President of the automaker gave him cart blanche to do exactly that — he was pivotal in bringing the 86 and Supra back from the dead — and with it, two big reasons for enthusiasts to care about Toyota again. But Toyoda still had unfinished business.

The two cars were essentially collaborations with other marques and Toyoda still wanted a sports car that “Toyota made with its own hands”. That sports car would need to encapsulate all of the technical advancements that the Japanese manufacturer had learned in WRC, but as a consumer product, it’d also have to balance usability with that motorsport spirit. The end result was the GR Yaris.

NO INVITE

Regardless of your individual propensities and tastes, enthusiasts in the United States are bound by one thing: being left out. The new GR Yaris was no exception. Even though it was one of the most highly anticipated cars in the last handful of years, its full global release was denied. For most of us, that announcement meant that we’d never have the chance to experience Toyota’s WRC special (for 25 years at least). But for Todd Lewis, the figurehead behind Motor Car Collective, it became a unique challenge.

SO META

That challenge led him to Facebook. There, the Toyota Mexico community page became his new favorite destination. Information trickled in about the car’s availability. Allegedly, a total of 300 cars were inbound and destined for prospective owners, but with one caveat: if the owner doesn’t take delivery, the car would be eligible for sale.

A handful of gut-wrenching months went by and the page became a clutter of “Another Delivered” posts with ear-to-ear smiles. Until one fateful day in August when one black GR Yaris became available to the first buyer…as long as they were a Mexico resident. Lewis’s optimism kicked into gear. “If social media worked to find the vehicle, then one more effort could be used to find friends and family in Mexico that could drop $5,000 USD on a vehicle for someone they haven’t ever met before. Yeah, that will work.”

SOUTH OF THE BORDER

As luck would have it, it did. Despite that win, the rest of the story wasn’t as smooth and triumphant. Lewis would have to put a lot of faith in strangers in his journey to Los Angeles and across the border to Tijuana, between someone he anonymously referred to as “The Accountant”, to transport drivers, and the border patrol officers that could make all that honest effort vanish in an instant. I was having heart palpitations just hearing the story and likely would’ve fainted at the border, but Lewis’s cool confidence paid off.

Since the car is technically not street legal in the United States, another transport driver met Lewis near San Diego to complete its stateside leg back to Todd’s garage. 

#284

Of the 300 allotted, Lewis’s car is #284. While the number itself bears no special significance, he certainly had started his journey with the GR Yaris on a blockbusting note. The drama soon settled and Lewis, with the help of Evasive Motorsports, sought to quickly make the GR Yaris his own. The vision for the build was entrusted to Gordon Ting, a serial Toyota and Lexus loyalist, who would be responsible for two things: making the car track-worthy and ensuring it had a wow factor for debut at SEMA which was, as luck would have it, in 30 days.

As a veteran of the industry, Ting pulled all the right strings, and the car in its final form was touched by some of the aftermarket’s finest: Turn 14 Distribution, Titan 7, Michelin, Tein, Motul, and Pagid. The livery, which plays off Gazoo Racing’s own geometric logo, was designed by none other than Jon Sibal. The icing on the cake? The engine cover was signed by the Master Driver himself, Akio Toyoda.

FOR THE STORY

If you haven’t gotten this impression by now, the stories are important to Todd, and rightfully so. Stories create memories which in turn create sentiment. Motor Car Collective was created to tell these stories, attend some of the most coveted events around the world, and give enthusiasts the opportunity to experience the wonders of the automotive industry, even from afar.

His mom was largely responsible for Lewis’s automotive fervor. “My mom took me to the track as a kid, so I was a follower of Formula 1, Indy Car, and sports cars at an early age,” said Lewis. “I am aware of the best car events and museums around the world, so each year I try to cross one off my list.” Aside from track visits, she shared car magazines and books and even taught Todd how to drive a manual transmission when he was 12 years old. He recounts memories of riding with his mom on weekend road trips, which were opportunities to exercise her German, enthusiast cars.

The bug stuck and his portfolio of cars over the years has been a reflection of his mom’s influence and his own penchant for hot hatches. The projects in the queue on Motor Car Collective continue the trend: an E36 M3, a 4.5-liter 981 Spyder, and a 1971 El Camino 454, the latter of which belongs to his best friend and has been garage-dormant since high school.

ABOVE ALL ELSE

Despite everything that Lewis has experienced so far, there is one memory that ranks above the rest. Lewis and his daughter recently made a trip to Austin’s playground, the Circuit of the Americas, to watch the GT4 America and GR Cup races. The occasion became even more special as the pair got to drive the track themselves in the GR Yaris. Lewis confesses that they took the opportunity to test the car in “Track Mode” for this no-holds-barred sprint.

Indeed, Todd is paying forward a very similar childhood experience to his own, one that is much more special than any family heirloom. His generosity in telling this story will do the same for countless others — Lewis’s GR Yaris has been the latest resident inside Turn 14 Distribution’s lobby and has allowed hundreds of fellow enthusiasts and our own social media audience the opportunity to admire a very special car as our own collective car story continues.


 

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