"I’d always been good with my hands and enjoyed off-roading. I spent my weekends modifying and fixing my own truck and my friends' trucks too," Mike recalls. "I was in my third year of business curriculum at college when my interests changed."
He decided to sign up for Toyota’s T-TEN technical engineering & technology program. Upon graduation, he took a role as a technician at a local dealership in the Midwest. After finding success there, he moved on to a role at Toyota corporate as a senior product engineer responsible for powertrain quality.
It was a dream job, and it became even better when Mike found a small group of people internally who supported off-road racing. He signed up for "whatever they would let me do" and he was off to the races—literally.
Within a year of leaving his dealership technician job, Mike was south of the border supporting Toyota's off-road racing program chasing, pitting and providing "hands-on" technical support for the Trophy Truck program."Those were special times - working with highly experienced, passionate people at Toyota and PPI in the top-tier of off-road racing while establishing the Toyota reputation for building the toughest trucks anywhere."
"Races like the Baja are opportunities for manufacturers to put their trucks to the test," Mike shares. "That’s one of the big reasons we race in the stock class - racing what we build everyday for our customers."
He joined Toyota in the height of the Toyota/PPI partnership of the 90’s. And he got to work with Ivan "Ironman" Stewart, a personal and career highlight. There were memorable races — winning the overall with both the Baja 500 and the Baja 1000 in 1998, racing with Lexus in 2010-2011 and completing the Mint 400 in 2017. All of which came with long days and nights bouncing over and crawling through some of the harshest terrain imaginable.
But one of the greatest moments came in 2014. Mike, along with a team of other Toyota racers, extreme sports celebrities and seasoned pit crews took on the Baja 1000 with a nearly stock TRD Pro Tundra. After 1,288 miles and almost 40 hours with little to no sleep, the team took the win in the Stock Full class.
"We had one goal: get that truck to the finish line," Mike says. "Being a co-driver - navigating, communicating with your driver, monitoring the course conditions and the truck’s systems, fixing anything that breaks with whatever we can carry in the truck...it’s a hard job but I love it. And the win makes it all worth it."
Fast forward ten years, and Mike still spends as much time as he can in the desert and in Baja. When he's not there, he leads a kind of "special-ops" quality assurance team for Toyota. When a problem arises, he takes action and investigates. "Our quality teams work to identify problems early before they have a chance to make it to our customers."
Once the issue has been identified, his teams work with R&D, Manufacturing, and Suppliers to determine the root cause. Mike makes sure that not only is THIS problem is fixed, but that it won’t be an issue with future cars down the road. "We want to make sure the experience for customers is what it should be," Mike states. "And we take that responsibility pretty seriously."
Genius. Take the guy with decades of experience breaking and fixing trucks, then put him in charge of figuring out when something isn’t working and how to make it right.
A lot of the guys from that original group of off-road racing junkies moved on to other roles. But Mike has recently come up with a way to inject that off-road excitement into the new generation of engineers and technicians —a complete restoration of the TRD Pro Tundra he won the Baja 1000 with in 2014. "I have an emotional connection to every vehicle I’ve ever raced or supported. Just seeing those trucks today evokes a very emotional response in me," Mike shares. "As soon as I see it, all those memories come flooding back."
The after-hours activity is completely voluntary. Thursdays are shop nights, and they use the same Toyota problem solving processes and procedures from their day job. The goal? Getting the truck ready to race compete again in 2020.
"It’s a great opportunity for younger engineers and technicians." Mike says. "You get to learn and have some fun at the same time, then transfer that into your work so you can build better products for our customers every day."