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Takuma Sato looking forward to start of season, return of A.J. Foyt to track

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There’s something about the street course for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg that seems to bring out the best in Takuma Sato.

In the six years he’s raced on the temporary street circuit, Sato has had more success than bad luck. In 2011, he finished a then-career-best fifth (since bettered by his win at Long Beach in 2013).

In 2013, he started second and finished eighth. The following year, he started from the pole and finished seventh.

And now, with team owner A.J. Foyt to make his first appearance at a race since last July (and first appearance at St. Pete since 2014 when health issues kept him sidelined for the first four races in 2015), Sato has plenty of inspiration to do well in Sunday’s 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season opener.

“It’s in Florida! Who could complain about that?” Sato said when asked about this weekend’s event, via the team’s pre-race release. “I think St. Pete is a great venue for opening the season.

“The fans are very enthusiastic, the restaurants have great food, and normally it’s warm good weather. Also, the racing is very exciting, the street course is unique, technical, and has a few places with great overtaking opportunities.”

Getting to the front has proven difficult at times for Sato, although he did lead 11 laps in the 2012 race and 33 in 2014.

“As with all street circuits, their bumpy nature requires the car to be compliant, and it increases the amount of importance on tire contact patch,” Sato said. “We have a good idea of what to expect and will aim to develop and fine tune throughout the weekend to optimize the car setup for both qualifying and the race.”

Some strong results in recent testing at Sebring have the Japanese driver even more optimistic about a strong finish this Sunday.

“We had an extremely successful test in Sebring,” Sato said. “The ABC Supply crew did a fantastic job with the car preparation and we had a problem-free day.

“This allowed us to work methodically through our test plan and we discovered some useful information heading into the 2016 season. The pace of the car came easy and for the first time we were able to accomplish everything we set out to do during the day.

“We were able to manage a number of good test items and successfully gathered very valuable data. I felt good about the car but it was equally important to work closely together with all of the engineers as we are now a larger, new group. It felt very positive so I am happy.”

While Sebring is a closed course, it is still a track that is comparable to St. Petersburg in terms of setup and preparation.

“Sebring is a good track for us because it is the closest circuit we run where we can replicate a street-course in terms of bumpiness and a couple of tight corners,” Sato said. “However, Sebring’s grip level can be too high compared to a street-course so we have to be a little careful that we don’t chase the track too much.

“Also another important point is that Firestone provided street-course tires for this test which is a different construction and compound from road-course tires, so we can evaluate the car properly. Testing in Sebring is a good preparation for St. Pete.”

It was also a good venue to try out the new aero kit package for Honda in 2016.

The car feels more stable aerodynamically, so the new aero kit gives better consistency,” Sato said.

“Ultimately, the performance gain looks to come from the new engine.

“It’s a lot more powerful than last year’s engine, and it has improved a lot in its drivability.”

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Indy 500 analyst role part of looking forward for Danica Patrick

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It’s been 10 months since Danica Patrick last competed in an auto racing event and she is completely fine with that.

Patrick was last seen in a cockpit in last May’s Indianapolis 500, part of her mini-retirement tour from racing that also included a run in the Daytona 500.

Now she’ll be back at the track, serving as an analyst for NBC’s broadcast of the 103rd Indy 500 on May 26.

It will be an interlude to her post-racing career.

“I really don’t miss racing,” Patrick said during a teleconference Wednesday.  “I’m really happy. I selfishly set out (with) the intention I wanted to travel a lot. I’ve definitely done that. Also working on my other businesses.”

Without racing, Patrick is able to look over her “Warrior” clothing line and her Somnium wine. She’s also been a host of ESPN’s Espy Awards show.

“I’m not a look-back kind of person, I’m a look-forward (person),” Patrick said. “This is something that’s part of looking forward. This is something totally new and different for me. It’s coming at a place where I have a lot of history, but it hasn’t been my job, which is why I’m going to work really hard to make sure I’m ready, like anything else I do that’s different.

Since retiring, Patrick said she watches racing “when I can.”

“I’m not going to lie, I’m happy doing what I’m doing,” Patrick said. “It’s allowed me new opportunities like this.”

This won’t be the first time Patrick has served in an analyst role for a race. She did the same for some Xfinity Series race broadcasts in the last few years of her NASCAR career.

“It’s very good to have had that experience,” Patrick said. “Obviously I was giving my driving experience sort of perspective and that insight, which is something I’m going to be doing again. But it was a guest spot.

“This is firm and established, part of a small team of two with Mike (Tirico) and I. I think there’s going to be a lot more preparation involved, I’m going to need to know a lot more information.”

Patrick said there will be one difference in her Indy 500 experience this year compared to the eight times she competed in the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

“I didn’t purposely look at the buildup of the day,” Patrick said. “I didn’t want to see the fans rolling in, all the pomp and circumstance. I really liked to keep it quiet. I wanted to just walk out there and have it be the event, not let myself get built up too much in my head with nerves, just the platform, the iconic event that it was, the millions of people. I just wanted to stay focused and go do it.

“This time, I’m sure I will see the buildup. I’m sure I’ll see the place fill in and turn from a quiet, peaceful, magical place, (and) at the shot of a cannon it’s going to start unraveling. That will be a cool perspective for me that I purposely haven’t really watched closely.”

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