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RLL Stands Behind Sato After Widespread Critcism

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, August 23 2019
IndyCar team owner Bobby Rahal is standing behind driver Takuma Sato in the wake of last Sunday’s race in Pocono. (File photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing has rallied to the defense of NTT IndyCar Series veteran Takuma Sato in the aftermath of an opening-lap crash during last Sunday’s ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway.

The team fronted by 1986 Indianapolis 500 champion Bobby Rahal issued a statement in support of Sato, who was widely criticized during the NBC Sports Network telecast and on social media for his part in a five-car crash in Turn 2 of Pocono’s 2.5-mile “Tricky Triangle.” The accident involved the cars driven by championship contender Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay, James Hinchcliffe, rookie Felix Rosenqvist and Sato.

Former CART and Champ Car driver Paul Tracy was particularly critical of Sato and suggested the native of Tokyo might need to be parked by INDYCAR’s race stewards for over-aggressive driving.  Apologetic and sullen during his post-race comments, Sato was penalized on-site for avoidable contact. While INDYCAR also announced Sunday that Sato’s conduct was subject to post-event review, no penalty was issued by the sanctioning body during the week.

That led to this unattributed statement from RLL, whose co-owners include Rahal, former late-night TV host David Letterman and Chicago businessman Mike Lanigan:

“Following the events on Lap 1 of Sunday’s INDYCAR race at Pocono Raceway, we are relieved that all drivers emerged unhurt from the crash. Normally in a situation of this nature it is not necessary for a team to comment but following the accusations levied at Takuma Sato, and after reviewing Takuma’s onboard data and camera, we feel that a clarification is necessary. The data and video clearly shows that Takuma did not turn down the track into Alexander in this incident and in fact the first steering wheel movement made by Takuma was to the right, as he tried to correct his car after the initial contact.

Things went bad in Turn 2 at Pocono last weekend.

“This sort of accident is part and parcel of this type of racing and with track position being vital at every stage of each race is, in our view, a part of the sport.  It’s a racing incident and we as a team wish to publicly state that we stand behind our drivers and have absolute faith in their ability to race and perform at the highest level for RLL.

“This was a racing incident which unfortunately may have some championship implications. A crash at Pocono impacted our title aspirations in 2015 while second in the standings so we know the frustration drivers and teams experienced.  As always, we are thankful for the quick response of the AMR Safety Team.”

This is how the accident was described in RLL’s post-race release: As the field approached Turn 2 on the opening lap, Rossi made a slow start which led to Sato passing him on the high side and Hunter-Reay on the low side.  Rossi and Sato made contact, which collected Hunter-Reay.  The impact sent all three into the inside wall before the cars came back on the racing surface in Turn 2. Sato’s car then made contact with Rosenqvist and Hinchliffe hit the outside wall when he attempted to avoid the crash. All drivers were checked and cleared at the Medical Center but Rosenqvist was transported to a local hospital and later released.  A red flag came out to clean the track and the race restarted approximately 45 minutes later.

Here is the crash description as it was posted on RacinToday.com: Sato was racing three-wide and on the high-line alongside Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay only seconds after the start. Sato suddenly darted left and into Rossi’s car, which collected RHR’s to his left and sent all three into the spin cycle at over 200 mph.

Driver Takuma Sato was all smiles before Sunday’s race at Pocono. He was not smiling at all afterward.

Sato’s car rebounded onto and up the track, where it whacked the car of rookie Felix Rosenqvist _ lifting it onto the Safer Barrier wall. The Swede’s No. 10 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing Honda rode the white wall for several hundred yards before slamming to the tarmac right-side up. Sato’s No. 30 Mi-Jack/Panasonic Honda, however, landed upside down and resting on the wreckage of Hunter-Reay’s No. 28 DHL Honda. The melee also collected the No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda driven by James Hinchcliffe, who was attempting to slow down and avoid the unfolding mess.

Rossi, who took the green flag alongside point-leader (Josef) Newgarden in Row 1, admittedly did not make a good start in his No. 27 MilitaryToMotorsports.com Honda and blamed himself for sliding backward. “But we were three-wide; Ryan was on the inside, I was in the middle and Takuma was on the outside,” Rossi said. “I can’t even begin to understand how after last year Takuma thinks that any sort of driving like that is acceptable. To turn across two cars, at that speed, in that corner at a 500-mile race is disgraceful, upsetting and may have cost us a championship. It’s upsetting.

“This team works too hard to have something like that happen. The whole team worked tirelessly to get the No. 27 car back on track. Once we got out there, the car just didn’t have the handling we needed so we held on to make up as many points as we could. Unfortunately, the weather came and the race was called one lap before we could gain another spot. We have a couple days to rebound and go for race wins now _ that’s all that matters.” 

Rossi finished 18th in the 22-car field after sitting through a 10-lap pit box penalty for unapproved work conducted by his Andretti Autosport crew under the red flag before returning to the fray.

Sato expressed concern for Rosenqvist, then added, “I am sorry for all the guys fighting for the championship. Ryan and I were obviously racing at the exit of Turn 1 and it looks like Alexander had a slow start. We both went right and left (of Rossi) and I thought it was all clear. All the (track) seams also are putting the car really easy to get the lane change and everybody gets close. Unfortunately, it looks like we made contact for that.”

Rosenqvist was transported to Lehigh Valley Hospital for evaluation of non-life-threatening injuries. Tests proved negative and Rosenqvist later was released. Rosenqvist completed a medical re-evaluation Tuesday with Dr. Terry Trammell and has been cleared to resume racing activities, beginning with today’s schedule for the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway in Madison, Ill., near St. Louis.

Despite finishing 22nd and last at Pocono, Rosenqvist maintained his lead in the Rookie of the Year standings. Rosenqvist, however, had his lead narrowed from 37 to 13 points over Dale Coyne Racing’s Santino Ferrucci in the No. 19 Cly-Del Manufacturing Honda. Ferrucci posted a fourth-place finish at Pocono, matching his career-best effort at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth in June.

The IndyCar field headed to the green flag at the start of last weekend’s race in good shape. (Photos courtesy of INDYCAR)

Team Penske’s Will Power was crowned Sunday’s winner after completion of 128 of the scheduled 200 laps in the rain-shortened event. Power was joined by runnerup Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing and third-place Simon Pagenaud of Team Penske during impromptu ceremonies in the infield Media Center.

Power’s first win of 2019 in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet extended his streak of consecutive IndyCar Series seasons with at least one victory to 13 in a row, a run dating to the 2007 Champ Car World Series schedule. Power’s 13-year streak is second only to Dixon, the five-time/reigning series champion who has won NTT IndyCar Series races in 15 consecutive seasons. Victory also gave Power sole possession of seventh place in career victories with 36, breaking a tie with Team Penske-ex Bobby Unser.

Power took the lead from Dixon on Lap 115 and pushed his advantage to 6.1-seconds before the caution waved for lightning and the impending downpour. Dixon, driver of the No. 9 PNC Bank Honda, methodically has logged finishes of second, second, first and second over the past month to resurrect his shot at a sixth championship. Dixon’s finish in Long Pond, Pa., coupled with Newgarden’s fifth-place result re-tightened a title chase featuring four drivers within 52 points heading into the final three races.

Newgarden _ who started on-pole in the No. 2 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet via entrant points after qualifying was rained-out Saturday _ extended his championship lead from 16 to 35 points (535-500) over Rossi. Eight drivers remain mathematically eligible for the 2019 championship _ Newgarden, Rossi, Simon Pagenaud, Dixon, Power, Hunter-Reay, Graham Rahal and Sato. Any driver who trails the point- leader by 159 points or more following the race will be eliminated from contention.

Friday’s schedule includes a one-hour practice at 1 p.m. (EDT) followed by qualifying for the NTT P1 Award, scheduled live on NBCSN at 6 p.m. A final practice is set for 8:15 p.m. NBCSN will re-air qualifying at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, followed by the live race-day telecast at 8 p.m. Green flag for the 248-lap/310- miler around the 1.25-mile Gateway oval is scheduled for 8:45 p.m.

Portland International Raceway’s 1.964-mile/12-turn street course will host the series on Sept. 1, the second year of INDYCAR’s return to the Pacific Northwest. The season-ender is booked for WeatherTech Raceway-Laguna Seca’s 2.258-mile/11-turn layout in Monterey, Calif., on Sept. 22.

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NTT IndyCar Series point standings _1, Joseph Newgarden, Team Penske, 535; 2, Alexander Rossi, Andretti Autosport, 500; 3, Simon Pagenaud, Team Penske, 495; 4, Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing, 483; 5, Will Power, Team Penske, 407; 6, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti Autosport, 344; 7, Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, 334; 8, Takuma Sato, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, 331; 9, Felix Rosenqvist, Chip Ganassi Racing, 304; 10, Sebastien Bourdais, Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan, 300.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, August 23 2019
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