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Sato Paid Off A Lingering Debt At Indianapolis

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, August 26 2020

Driver Takuma Sato made a return visit to Victory Circle at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday. (Photos courtesy of NASCAR)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Between them, Takuma Sato and Bobby Rahal have experienced the thrill of winning the Indianapolis 500 a combined five times. Still, there is the memory of the one that got away from both on May 27, 2012.

Sato’s trademark aggressiveness betrayed him during the race’s 96th running when he spun trying to pass Dario Franchitti, flat-out, heading into Turn 1 on the final lap. Franchitti went on to record his third Indy 500 win, while Sato slammed the outside wall at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and slipped to 17th in the final standings.

Sato’s ensuing four-year stint at A.J. Foyt Racing produced victory at the Long Beach Grand Prix in 2013. Sato moved to Andretti Autosport in 2017, scoring his first Indy 500 win for team-owner Michael Andretti. Reunited with Rahal and his partners at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing since 2018, Sato said his second Indy 500 victory on Sunday repaid an overdue debt. And at age 43, it was good for the soul.

“Just a mission completed,” a milk-stained Sato said during his post-race presser. “My personal ambition was achieved in 2017 with Michael. Of course, you have something back your mind is always pulled in that way: ‘You got to get it right in 2012. You got to fix it.’ I messed up, whatever. Whatever there is, there is a lot of science behind why I can win, but it’s no point to talking about that. Now I know how to do it, right?”

Franchitti, who had won the Indy 500 in 2007 and 2010, arguably was at the top of his game with Chip Ganassi Racing in 2012. The popular, glamorous Scotsman was hellbent on joining the elite list of three-time winners at IMS. Sato, who led 31 laps that day, was looking to change the perception that he was a reckless open-wheel journeyman from Japan, fueled by corporate money from Honda Racing.

Andretti’s one-year deal with Sato in ‘17 paid an unexpected dividend when “Taku” outdueled three-time Indy 500 champion Helio Castroneves of Team Penske for the victory at IMS. Rahal, the 1986 Indy 500 champion, re-hired Sato to team with son Graham with the idea of raising the games of both.

Sato’s win Sunday under caution over 2008 Indy 500 champ Scott Dixon, and Graham’s career-best matching third-place result, is evidence the team co-owned by the elder Rahal, comedian and former late-night talk show host David Letterman and Midwest businessman Mike Lanigan is on the right track. 

The Rahal Letterman Lanigan pit crew goes to work on the Honda of Takuma Sato.

I just wanted to have Bobby and Mike _ because Mike helped me a lot _ of course David as well, that I just wanted to give them back what they have and they felt on that particular moment,” said Sato, again referencing 2012. “I disappointed them. I just wanted to fix it. It took eight years, to be honest. I couldn’t believe still I drive. I just simply wanted to appreciate the team owners’ commitment they put me in a No. 30 car.

“I know they wanted Graham to win so badly. I’m pleased the team did 1-3. I’m sorry for Graham I won. But I still feel this is the moment mission completed that I really wanted, waiting for eight years for my team owners to give it back.”

Sato’s victory was worth $1,370,500 from an overall purse of $7,502,500. The Indy 500 purse consisted of Indianapolis Motor Speedway and NTT IndyCar Series awards, plus other designated and special awards.

In addition to his win while driving for the late Jim Trueman in the rain-delayed 1986 Indy 500, Rahal won the rain-shortened (180-lap) race in 2004 with Buddy Rice.

“I’ve got to tell you, that race in ’12, Takuma was doing something with a car that should not have been able to be done,” Rahal said during his presser alongside Letterman. “That car was not anywhere near as good as the car we had today, yet there he was. In fact, I remember he and Dixon and Franchitti came out of Turn 4 (in 2012), and Takuma put a pass on Dixon that was just unbelievable. Of course he tried to do it again on Franchitti on the last lap. I think Dario made the track a little narrower than it was intended to be. Nevertheless, we lost control and crashed.

“That’s Takuma. If he sees it, smells it, he’s going to go for it. He’s all fight. He’s not a guy that’s going to give up. I think we saw that today. Obviously, I’m really pleased Takuma won a 500 with us. But for Takuma, my God, I can’t imagine what they’re doing in Japan right now. I mean, he’s a rock star there.

“It’s a big deal for Takuma. I’ve always said this about Takuma _ he shows up and is ready to go. There’s no 80 percent, 85 percent, 90 percent; it’s 100 percent every time he gets in the car. That’s what I love about him. He’s a very simple guy to understand. He just wants to go out and do the best job he possibly can. All day long he was in the top two or three pretty much. Really a threat to win at any stage of the race. A deserving winner.

“I think the guy deserves to be highly respected for his abilities, particularly on the ovals. I think a place like Indianapolis kind of suits his skills because he’s very smooth, obviously he’s quite brave.”

Takuma Sato lives it up in Victory Circle.

Not even his full-length white beard could hide Letterman’s smile in Victory Lane and during the presser.

“It’s like we’ve been struck by lightning,” said Letterman, who purchased a share in the team in 1996. “Let me just say if somebody said to me this morning at the end of the Indianapolis 500, Takuma Sato and Scott Dixon and Graham Rahal would be racing for the lead, I would say, ‘Well, that’s a dream. That’s a dream come true.’ I woke up and it turned out that we won the Indianapolis 500.

“To even be here, to be in the field, to be in the pits, to be any part of this activity. Anybody who grows up in Indianapolis, this is some DNA we’re talking about. We were always as kids looking outside-in. Now inside enjoying it, winning the race. For me it’s a thrill. I said to my son last night when he was going to bed, I said, ‘When I see you tomorrow, we may be Indy 500 champions.’ He kind of rolled his eyes and went to bed. So I have leverage over the kid now.”

Sato is one of the oldest fulltime drivers in the NTT IndyCar Series, while Graham Rahal is 31. “We had a pep rally in our garage (Sunday) morning,” Bobby Rahal said. “I said I’ve never been as pleased with where the team stands as it does right now. The people we have on-board, everybody working together.

“My partners and I, we’ve committed ourselves to really investing in the team and bringing good people in. We brought Piers Phillips in a little over a year ago, we brought young engineers into it. We kind of had a youth movement in our mechanics because frankly in INDYCAR racing a lot of mechanics are not my age (67), but not that far away from it. We’re trying to build for the future. It’s been working out.

“This just gives all those young people, everybody, a huge buzz to have this happen. For the young guys especially, all that hard work all of a sudden seems worth it, doesn’t it? So this gives our team a huge boost because of course we went out, went toe-to-toe with the Andretti team, which is obviously a great team, Ganassi, great team, the McLaren team. This was a tough crowd this year, I think, maybe tougher than normal. We were able to compete and win. Tremendous sense of pride for the team.”

Rahal said he often is asked to explain the difference between winning the Indy 500 as a driver and as a team-owner. “I think when you’re a team-owner you have a much better appreciation for everything that goes into it,” Rahal said. “It’s really hard, especially when you’re going up against teams, as I said, like Ganassi, Andretti and others, Penske obviously.

“I mean, I guess as a car-owner, you’re watching all this go on, you can’t help but be very impressed by what you see these people that you’ve brought together do. So I just feel a great sense of pride of them and for them. You win under conditions like this where you’re going hammer-and-tongs all race long, that gives a team a lot of confidence.

“For sure, going into the next race and also into the remainder of the season, I’m not sure where Graham is on points (fourth). But he scored a lot today, a lot of guys didn’t that were ahead of him. In terms of the championship, that might put us in fairly good stead to be in the hunt at the end.”

Team co-owner David Letterman is living his dream.

Rahal added, however, nothing matches the notoriety that comes with winning “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” and the world’s largest single-day sporting event as a driver.

“The best way I describe it to people is I’m never introduced as three-time INDYCAR champion,” said Rahal, who won his titles under sanction of the Championship Auto Racing Teams banner. “I’m always introduced as the 1986 Indy 500 champion. And, oh, yeah, by the way, he won three INDYCAR championships.

“Indy is Indy. There’s a lot of great races around, but there’s nothing like Indianapolis. When you win it, it just does tremendous things for you personally and professionally. For our team I think it does great things because it shows we belong in the conversation of who are the best teams out there. I take great pride in that.

“Yeah, as an owner, you just know how hard it is to put an organization together to be able to do all this. When it happens, it’s like, ‘Wow, that’s awesome. Let’s do that again.’ It felt that good.”

By design, Letterman, 73, largely has faded from public view since exiting his Late Night with David Letterman gig at CBS in May 2015. “It’s interesting, to Bobby’s point, how he’s introduced,” Letterman said. “I’m typically introduced as television has-been. For me this is a delight. I’ll tell you, if we had never won a race beginning to end, to be associated with Bobby and his team and Graham, there’s not a better driver on the grid than Graham and Takuma, Spencer (Pigot) showing tremendous promise for a kid.”

Pigot crashed hard in Turn 4 on Lap 195, setting up the ending under caution and securing Sato’s win over the 40-year-old Dixon, the five-time series champion and greatest driver of his generation.

Letterman said he is flattered by the attention he still draws from the INDYCAR community. “I think you probably know, I have very little to do with the daily functioning of this organization,” Letterman said. “All of this is reflected positively on me. When we won it in 2004, honest-to-God, it was like I’d been hooked up to some powerful electric generator. I thought that I will never experience this again in my life. For me, just a goon, it was a life-changing experience. Now here we are 2020, I get to go through this again all because of the kindness and the generosity and hard work of Bobby and his team.”

Sato’s international resume includes 90 starts in Formula One from 2002 to 2008 for the Honda-powered Jordan, British American Racing and Super Aguri F1 Team. Sato scored his lone F1 podium finish in the 2004 United States Grand Prix at IMS.

Sato, whose domestic open-wheel career began with KV Racing Technology in 2010, was asked if he ever envisioned himself as a two-time Indy 500 champion.

“No way. No way. I never, never even imagine the situation like today,” said Sato, driver of the No. 30 Honda. “Look, after 40-years-old, still driving, that is just living in a dream. People say 2012 was probably my peak and the best shot. Well, we’ll see. We kept on going.

“We had a second chance in life. I say just keep challenging, keep open the door, then you will get eventually the chance. But if you are in that chance, you have to grab it. It’s always living on edge is my kind of lifestyle, to be honest. Hopefully I can compete a little bit more longer.

“I’ve been so fortunate. I wasn’t born in racing family, so many people obviously know by this stage or might not, but I start racing when I was 20. Before that I only had steel-frame pedal bike, that was my only race car in life.

“I never dream even get to the Formula 1. I was so lucky I went to the Honda (Suzuka) Racing School, got scholarship. I was fortunate enough to compete British Formula 3. That eventually made me happen to the Formula 1. I was so lucky to be very competitive organization, it was difficult times. Formula 1 was beautiful, great memory.

“Then of course after that I had golden opportunity to come to the States, do INDYCAR. I never thought my racing life going on any longer than Formula 1. Now I’m competing here more than 10 years. That’s just simply amazing support from the fans, sponsors, and the team owner gave me fantastic opportunity.

“Answer your question _ no, never thought I would be winning a 500, but twice. Crazy.”

The next NTT IndyCar Series event is a doubleheader set for Saturday and Sunday, the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 on the World Wide Technology Raceway oval in Madison, Ill., outside St. Louis.

The 105th Indianapolis 500 is scheduled for May 30, 2021 _ an event IMS Chairman Roger Penske hopes will be run with fans in attendance. Sunday’s race was conducted without fans due to health concerns in Marion County related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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IndyCar Series point standings _ 1, Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing, 335; 2, Josef Newgarden, Team Penske, 251; 3, Pato O’Ward, Arrow McLaren SP, 218; 4, Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, 214; 5, Simon Pagenaud, Team Penske, 212; 6, Takuma Sato, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, 207; 7, Colton Herta, Andretti Harding Steinbrenner Autosport, 189; 8, Santino Ferrucci, Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser Sullivan, 189; 9, Will Power, Team Penske, 175; 10, Felix Rosenqvist, Chip Ganassi Racing, 157.

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UPDATED 2020 NTT INDYCAR SERIES SCHEDULE/RACE WINNER

Saturday, June 6 _ Texas Motor Speedway, Fort Worth (Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing)

Saturday, July 4 _ Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road-Course 1 (Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing)

Saturday, July 11 _ Road America Race 1, Elkhart Lake, Wis. (Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing)

Sunday, July 12 _ Road America Race 2, Elkhart Lake, Wis. (Felix Rosenqvist, Chip Ganassi Racing)

Friday, July 17 _Iowa Speedway Race 1, Newton (Simon Pagenaud, Team Penske)

Saturday, July 18 _ Iowa Speedway Race 2, Newton (Josef Newgarden, Team Penske)

Sunday, Aug. 23 _ Indianapolis 500-Mile Race (Takuma Sato, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing)

Saturday, Aug. 29 _ World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway Race 1, Madison, Ill.

Sunday, Aug. 30 _ World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway Race 2, Madison, Ill.

Friday, Oct. 2 _ Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road-Course Race 1

Saturday, Oct. 3 _ Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road-Course Race 2

Sunday, Oct. 25 _ Streets of St. Petersburg, Fla.

 

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, August 26 2020
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