GAMAGORI, Japan -- With steely stares and clenched hands, the drivers peer from their crash helmets as the race marshal slowly raises the green flag. Then the flag drops.
And they're off! But with deafening silence and snaillike lethargy. The field of Prius hybrids inches from the line to start the race.
No roaring engines, no squealing tires -- and no wonder. The so-called Prius Cup pits Japan's Toyota dealerships against one another in a contest of gas mileage and crew service -- not speed.
The circuit is Toyota Motor Corp.'s latest tool for promoting its popular hybrid, sharpening dealer familiarity with the product and creating buzz before the new-generation Prius debuts this year. The sixth running of the Prius Cup, outside Nagoya in December, drew 22 dealer teams from central Japan.
"Through this race, our teammates will understand exactly how these cars work, and I think this will benefit all my associates," says Kazuo Oguri, executive vice president of Nagoya Toyopet Corp., one of Japan's biggest Toyota dealers with 70 stores in Aichi prefecture.
Dealers don't have to participate in the Prius Cup, but most want to.
"It's better than playing golf," Oguri says.
The Prius Cup was started in December 2007 as a way to showcase the hybrid vehicle's excellent fuel efficiency.
The event encompasses a series of races held in different regions of Japan. The winner of the race in Gamagori logged an average fuel consumption rate of 29.46 kilometers per liter (69.3 mpg) over the 20-lap event.
But this year's race series is also about setting the stage for a nationwide marketing blitz.
Starting this year, dealers and media reports say, Toyota will start selling the Prius through all four of its domestic sales channels instead of just two, as is done today. Indeed, most of the teams in December's race were dealers that don't even handle the Prius.
But in 2009, they all hope to stock the redesigned third generation.
"I wanted to prepare for next year," Mikinori Tsuzuki, owner of Netz Toyota Chubu, said at the December event. "I don't know how many new Priuses I'll sell. But if I hit 1,000 a year, I'll be happy."
Because Tsuzuki doesn't yet sell the Prius, he had to rent one for the race. He wanted to take part to give his mechanics and sales staff exposure to the car before it reaches his showrooms.
The Prius is expected to have stiff competition this year, when archrival Honda Motor Co. unveils its Insight hybrid. The Insight is expected to cost less than the Prius and be the toughest competitor to date.
The Prius Cup has a service and race portion. During the service leg, teams are clocked on how fast and accurately they service their car, from checking the engine to rotating the tires.
Testing on the track
During the race, three drivers take turns piloting the car around the track. They are penalized for going too fast or too slow and strive to keep the car going on as little gasoline as possible.
The service and race scores are combined to determine the overall winner.
A key strategy is accelerating slowly at the green flag and after pit stops, letting the hybrid vehicle's electric motor do most of the work.
Fuel burn is chronicled on the Prius' midconsole monitor. And team managers lean over the pit wall with message boards instructing drivers to either speed up or slow down to avoid penalties and boost efficiency.
Unlike in the United States, where Prius sales have slumped on tight supply, global sales for the world's best-selling hybrid grew 3.5 percent to 269,200 units through November.
Sales here climbed 23.1 percent to 67,200 cars in the first 11 months. The Prius got a big boost from soaring gasoline prices.
Hot seller, cold market
The Prius' success is welcome relief for Japanese dealers, who have been hammered in recent years by a relentless slide in domestic sales. In 2008, total light-vehicle sales were down 4.8 percent to 4.9 million units.
The Toyota Group fared slightly worse, down 2.2 percent to 1.7 million vehicles.
Dealers blame the decline on everything from Japan's fumbling economy to the urbanization of young people, who increasingly shun car purchases or turn to low-priced 660cc minicars.
"People are losing their jobs and don't have money to buy cars," Oguri says. "And young people don't want to own cars. They spend their money on mobile phones and video games."
In the 1990s, dealer Oguri's Nagoya Toyopet booked annual sales of 60,000 units. But he moved only 40,000 cars last year and is looking at sales closer to 33,000 this year.
"Only Prius sales are getting better," says Oguri. "Everything else has a head wind."