After Braun and Hernandez debacles, more fans should view racers as role models

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The notion of professional athlete as role model is a romantic one, born to children at the moment they watch their first home run, first touchdown, first three-point buzzer beater or first slapshot goal.

The heroes are those they see as infallible, who bring joy by their efforts on the battlefield. There is no notion, initially, of these athletes as thugs, criminals, or cheaters.

And then you have the last month in sports, where two of the best at their respective disciplines are going away for a while because they screwed up.

Ryan Braun cheated, which isn’t new and doesn’t particularly sting. But he did lie, he did throw a guy under the bus, and he did dupe an entire team and entire city – my hometown of Milwaukee – into believing he was the golden boy who could save baseball in Beertown. Instead, we all feel like drunks who had too much in the moment, enjoying his efforts on the field but now have awoke with a hangover the size of Bernie Brewer’s head.

Meanwhile Aaron Hernandez has been charged with first-degree murder. He starred on the field for the New England Patriots for three years, and was a key part of a generation of new tight ends who were changing the NFL in a way it hasn’t been given the increased passing attacks. Now, the aftermath and fallout has turned his name and his image completely toxic.

It’s with these two recent examples – the latest in the long line of stick-and-ball athletes who find a way to throw it away – that I wish more sports fans would look to racing drivers as their professional role models.

From an access standpoint, racing drivers in North America are far more reachable to the common fan than any in the four major sports. Think for a minute that you, as a fan, have the opportunity to walk the grid of the Indianapolis 500 – the single largest one-day sporting event – mere hours before the 33 drivers take the green flag. And throughout the month of May, or at any IZOD IndyCar Series event, you can brush shoulders with them at any moment in the paddock.

From a professional obligation standpoint, racing drivers have to be clean. Drivers so infrequently get arrested, have DUIs, or do lascivious acts away from their discipline that when you do, it’s a shock to the system. As for their jobs, they are racing inches apart from each other at 200 mph for two to three hours. It takes trust in the entirety of the field that they are all clean, not performance enhancing, to be able to make races safe, clean and enjoyable for the fans.

Now, granted, there is plenty of cheating that occurs in racing. But it’s not inherent in the drivers; it’s more performed by the crews. There are two old adages in racing: “If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying,” and also, “It’s our job to cheat, and it’s their job to catch us.”

In a homogenized and increased spec-car era of racing that permeates most levels of motorsports, the window for innovation is so small that performance gains have to be pursued in such tight areas. In NASCAR, it’s splitters and spoilers. In IndyCar, it’s dampers. In Formula One, it’s about finding aero tricks given the tight regulations. Go mere millimeters outside the regulations, and it’s penalties out the wazoo for you.

So in that respect, racing does have its link to stick-and-ball sports in that someone, somewhere is always trying to create a performance advantage. And sanctioning bodies make sure to crack down where possible.

But in terms of the participants themselves, most drivers have such an edge on most stick-and-ball sport athletes, it’s not even funny. Drivers take the time to appreciate their fans, via autograph sessions, fan forums, random moments and conversations and now, engaging via social media. They have to be clean to do their jobs accurately and safely.

They are still real people beyond the stereotype of being a standard, blasé corporate mouthpiece for whatever sponsor it is that supports them.

They are definitely greater role models for kids to look up to.

Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato welcomes ‘Baby Borg’ to the family

Photos: Michael L. Leavitt
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Takuma Sato cast a big shadow on the world of IndyCar racing last May when he became the first Japanese driver to win the Indianapolis 500.

But there was another shadow of sorts cast along with Sato’s Indy 500 win: he and the prestigious Borg-Warner Trophy, given to each year’s winner of the Greatest Spectacle In Racing, are virtually identical in size.

The Trophy is the same height as Sato, 5 feet, 5 ¾ inches tall. And the respective weight of both the Trophy and Sato are the same: approximately 113 pounds.

Try putting that on a mantle in your house.

2018 BorgWarner Baby Borg Presentation to 2017 Indianapolis 500 winner Takuma Sato and team owner Michael Andretti. 17 January, 2018, Detroit, Michigan, USA.
©2018, Michael L. Levitt

That’s why Sato was so happy to receive the Baby Borg Trophy — a miniature version of the Borg-Warner Trophy — Wednesday night in Detroit. It’s much more manageable for the mantle in his house: 18 inches tall and five pounds.

“It’s such an honor to win the Baby Borg finally, eight months after the race, it’s been an unbelievable journey,” Sato told NBC Sports. “It’s an unbelievable feeling to win the 500 and it has just gone on and on. It’s just a significant moment in my life. It’s been fantastic.

“Right now, I haven’t really decided yet (where he’ll put the coveted Baby Borg). It’s going to my home in Indiana right now. But of course, everybody wants to see it. After that, I haven’t decided, but I’m sure it’ll get a special place.”

Even though the Baby Borg is a pint-sized version of the real trophy that was presented to Sato in victory lane in Indianapolis last May, it also has the same meaning as the big trophy and served to get Sato’s excitement pumping to where he’s already counting down the days to the 2018 Indy 500.

And even more important, it will be the first time he returns to Indianapolis as the defending champion.

“(Winning the 500) has changed my life,” Sato told NBC Sports. “But what I do is exactly the same, to try and be as fast as possible when racing.

“But all the environment, the people, all the cheering and being called an Indy 500 champion, I never imagined how deep and how far it goes, just the power and energy that the Indy 500 had.

“I just never realized how much the tradition and the prestigiousness of it. It’s been fantastic and I’m sure when I go back there to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in four months as the defending champion, it’ll be a whole other dimension. I’m sure it’s going to be a whole lot of pressure, but I’m sure to enjoy the moment.”

Sato, who turns 41 on January 28, will return to the 500 this year, but with a new team. He left Andretti Autosport after last season and returned to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, for whom he previously raced for in 2012.

Now that he’s won one Indy 500, Sato wants to make it two in a row.

“It’s a huge, another task and a new dream,” he said. “I’m excited for the new season and to go for another 500 (win), it’s another completely new dimension. Like Michael (Andretti, who he drove for last season) said, obviously, we’ll be competing against each other in the new season, but tonight we celebrated together. I think it’s going to be a real good season for me. I’d love to get another win there, of course.”

2018 BorgWarner Baby Borg Presentation to 2017 Indianapolis 500 winner Takuma Sato and team owner Michael Andretti. 17 January, 2018, Detroit, Michigan, USA.
Michael Andretti celebrates his 5 Indy 500 wins as a team owner, and Takuma Sato celebrates his first Indy 500 win
©2018, Michael L. Levitt

But not if Andretti has anything to say about it.

“He’s not allowed to win again,” Andretti laughed while also speaking to NBC Sports.

Sato enjoyed a victory lap of another sort last month when he accompanied the Borg-Warner Trophy to his native Japan for a two-plus week tour of the nation.

It marked the first time in the Trophy’s 82-year existence that it has ever been outside the U.S.

Everywhere Sato and the Trophy went drew large crowds, from Honda Racing “Thanks Day” at the Twin Rings track at Motegi to a visit to Mount Fuji, a meeting with 850 members of Sato’s fan club, and also included a two-day run in the atrium of Honda’s World Headquarters in Tokyo that had fans lined up for hours to see the Trophy and take photos of it and Sato.

“The reaction was just massive,” Sato said. “For myself, it was a dream come true, but at the same time, for a country with that history, it was an unbelievable moment, particularly the first time when Hiro Matsushita did it (drove in the Indy 500 in the 1990s) so many years ago.

“So many Japanese drivers have tried to win such a historic race, I was just so proud to be part of it. The people were really excited. The passion, I’m really particularly happy to bring it to Japan.

“To go to Japan was a massive commitment by from Borg Warner and Honda. So many Japanese fans were able to see it physically and now they’re really looking forward to this year’s Indy 500 again. It was a great moment to us.”