DiZinno: Sato wins an Indy 500 for Japan, tenacity, and the ‘nice guy’

1 Comment

INDIANAPOLIS – Between winning with a team that’s quickly becoming one of the all-time greats at Indianapolis, fulfilling the hopes and dreams of a nation and writing his own personal redemption story, Takuma Sato entered into history on Sunday as one of the Indianapolis 500’s nicest, most tenacious and popular victors.

Sato tactfully, carefully flew under-the-radar all month as the perceived “fourth” of four Andretti Autosport full-season entries in the No. 26 Ruoff Home Mortgage Honda, even lower once you added in the star power of the McLaren, Honda and Andretti entry for two-time Formula 1 World Champion Fernando Alonso in the same team.

And he flew under-the-radar within Honda’s 18-car entry into the race, yet as a driver who’s been supported by them his entire career in both Formula 1 and IndyCar since 2002.

ON-TRACK SUCCESS THIS MONTH

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 28:  Fernando Alonso of Spain, driver of the #29 McLaren-Honda-Andretti Honda, waves during driver introductions alongside Takuma Sato of Japan, driver of the #26 Andretti Autosport Honda, ahead of the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Moto Speedway on May 28, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images).

After a month where Sato was a top-five or top-10 regular, the 40-year-old raised some eyebrows and some volume in the media center when he almost crashed twice on his Sunday qualifying run with a short track, dirt track-esque “slide job” off Turn 2. It was a sign of greater things to come.

Then in the race, the patient, calmer Sato that’s been present more often in 2017 through the first five races bided his time until it was “go time” in the final stint of the race, and the “no attack, no chance” style that has defined Sato’s career on the whole came back in the best way possible, as he beat Helio Castroneves in a straight fight for the victory.

“The entire month with my teammates saw us working extremely seamlessly well through the practice day, fantastic qualifying, and to a very strong start,” Sato said Sunday, praising his teammates. “At one stage I lost momentum, and it goes down to like P10. But I just get down in my job, believe in the car, and push in the pit stops.

“When the opportunity comes, I have to give 100 percent commitment. I knew I could do it. But just, you know, waiting for that moment. The last few laps, they were the moment.”

In tandem with engineer Garrett Mothershead, who he’d worked with previously at KV, Sato was determined to start higher so he wouldn’t need to fight through the field too much on race day. Sato has traditionally started 10th or worse at Indianapolis and until Sunday, hadn’t finished higher than 13th, which he did on two occasions.

Mothershead’s voice was struggling to be much above a whisper on Monday and for good reason – he’d almost lost it Sunday screaming after finally securing his own first ‘500 win after coming up short with Carlos Munoz last year.

“My voice is shot, which is the result of an urge to uncontrollably go, ‘woo!’ he laughed on Monday morning.

“Takuma knows so much more now. Back then (at KV) he was a rookie and he didn’t know the tracks or the style of racing.

“For us, winning three of four as a team is incredible and a testament to our organization and preparation. But breaking through here as a winner is special!”

From fourth on the grid, Sato delivered what was frequently a calmer drive, until he needed to unleash his inner beast.

Sato dropped to seventh from fourth on Lap 1 but stayed in the top 10 from there, entering the lead for the first time on Lap 65 passing Rossi before a caution flew for Conor Daly’s accident in Turn 3.

It took until Lap 84, a restart after the third caution of the race, for Sato to drop from the top-10 for the first time. Sato fell as low as 17th in this stint but was back to 10th by Lap 105.

On the pivotal caution that occurred when Charlie Kimball’s engine failed, Sato joined most of the field in making their final stops. He came out in fifth place overall, third among those that pitted, which set the stage for his amazing final 30 laps.

A two-in-one outside pass of Castroneves and Ed Jones into Turn 1 on Lap 179, a lap before Alonso’s engine blew, was the typical “DID YOU SEE THAT?!?” moment of brilliance we’ve come to expect from Sato over the years. The caution that followed almost meant Sato was in the catbird’s seat, sitting ahead of Castroneves and only with Max Chilton – untested in that situation – to get around.

“When he went into Turn 1, I just sort of close my eyes half the time,” his strategist, Paul “Ziggy” Harcus, joked. “I’m afraid. I keep thinking, ‘Are we going to make it?’ But it’s great driving. I think he did a great job today of keeping his head about him and racing up the front.”

Sato’s new team boss, Michael Andretti, also was left in awe as Sato completed the pass.

“There was one move where he passed two cars on the outside in one, which was a very important move, because that gave him the track position of the top two guys in front of him,” Andretti said. “That was one of the moves of the race, in my opinion. When I saw that, I’m like, ‘Whoa, I think we’re going to win this thing.’ He didn’t let us down. He drove very, very well.”

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 28: Takuma Sato of Japan, driver of the #26 Andretti Autosport Honda, races ahead of Helio Castroneves of Brazil, driver of the #3 Shell Fuel Rewards Team Penske Chevrolet, on his way toward winning the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 28, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Sato was briefly eclipsed by Castroneves for position, but wasn’t going to let this opportunity slip away. He got back by on the outside of Turn 1 on Lap 195 in the ultimate winning move of the race. And with enough of a power advantage from there, Castroneves wasn’t able to come back to him.

“I know Helio is always come on charge. But he’s just such a gentleman with such a fair player. I believe him. We go side-by-side turn one… It was job done,” Sato said.

A POPULAR WIN FOR THE PADDOCK

The win stirred the soul for many in the IndyCar paddock, happy for one of the series’ most genuine and nicest guys, if one whose undoubted speed and promise in eight years and more than 100 starts has been consistently blighted by inconsistency. His only other win came with A.J. Foyt Racing at Long Beach in 2013, that in itself snapping an 11-year drought for Foyt since its last win in 2002.

Members from Sato’s old team visited him in victory lane – Foyt included – to wish him congratulations on the win.

His teammates were happy that he brought Michael Andretti his fifth win in the race, which now moves him ahead of Chip Ganassi (four) for second among active owners, trailing only Roger Penske’s seemingly unassailable 16. It didn’t fully alleviate the pain of Alonso and Ryan Hunter-Reay’s engine failures, nor Alexander Rossi’s fueling issue, but it helped.

“That’s why we had six bullets in the gun, right? Luckily one came through,” Andretti said.

Honda was particularly pleased. A driver that has been in their camp nearly two decades delivered the win for both cultures, the Honda of Japan and Honda of America (via Honda Performance Development), and atoned for a day when reliability woes were set to define its story.

“The one thing is one goal for the winning. It’s the Honda DNA, and that comes from, of course, Mr. Soichiro Honda, and that’s the way Honda Japan, American Honda, it really doesn’t matter,” Sato explained.

“Honda wanted to push absolute on the limit. I can see both ways very, very similar, not only for the Honda globally, but very specifically like HPD here, it is the same philosophy. As Honda, it is just one aim: it is winning, so I can see both ways.”

In talking to senior HPD officials Monday morning, it was strongly hinted that Honda determined to run its engines at max capacity, reducing rumors they’d plan to “turn the engines down” in order to save the reliability.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 27: Dario Franchitti (L) of Scotland, driver of the #50 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, races against Takuma Sato of Japan, driver of the #15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda, races during the IZOD IndyCar Series 96th running of the Indianpolis 500 mile race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 27, 2012 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

The win, of course, provided the redemption tale for Sato’s famous – or infamous – 2012 near-miss. That final lap lunge attempting to pass Dario Franchitti – Franchitti having delivered a bit of gamesmanship to leave just enough of a lane to coax Sato into going for it and making a mistake – stood in mind heading into this year’s race, as this year was always going to mark Sato’s best chance to win since. He reflected on that in a piece for Motorsport.com earlier this month, and then said it’s ancient history on Sunday afternoon.

“I do feel after 2012 I really needed to correct something I left over. Today I was so happy that I made it and won in a good move. I have to thank to Michael for that,” he said.

WHAT THIS MEANT FOR JAPAN

What was the happiest of takeaways for this happy driver – who didn’t look tired despite less than three hours of sleep and more than 30 interviews in the wake of winning Sunday afternoon through to his Monday morning media availability after two hours of photo taking – was what this win meant to his country, and his countrymen.

There’s a small but dedicated contingent of Japanese reporters and photographers who cover the full IndyCar series and make frequent commutes back and forth to Japan along the way. They’re the voices and people that tell Sato’s story to that nation, one which was rocked by the 2011 tsunami and earthquake and one where Sato, via the “With You Japan” campaign, has been an active philanthropist.

Seeing their excitement as well as listening to the excitement of the Japanese TV feed was a sign of pure joy, and one Sato expanded upon in both his Sunday and Monday press conferences.

“There was a Japan program really started in 2011, immediately after the earthquake happened, and all the intention was helping the children from the devastated area,” Sato explained. “It’s a difficult life for them, lost friends and family, and lost home. As I repeat, 250,000 people still living in temporary houses today, so it’s suffering a lot. It is on the recovery, but it’s a long way.

“So I couldn’t put a big donation, but I can bring some energy through the motor racing, so always I invite 100, 150 kids from the devastated area, and we do a go-karting event in the last few years, and that’s spreading all over Japan now, and there is a few places to help, and we did some tournament system, and then end of the year last year in Suzuka, we had a great race, so it’s combined all Japan as well as devastated areas.

“It’s been — it’s great. I think it’s great support, everyone, and as long as I could do, I wanted to keep supporting the children until they become adults, and hopefully one of them becomes a professional race driver.”

Sato might be 40 years old now, but he doesn’t look the part, and now revitalized, the next step from here is taking the success he’s achieved at Indianapolis and translating in for the rest of the season. He now sits tied for second in points with the last two series champions, Simon Pagenaud and Scott Dixon, 11 back of Castroneves (245-234).

“Age is something for the athlete. Age 40 is something you have to consider how you going to perform well. I think we proved Helio still up there, me up there, T.K. (Tony Kanaan) up there. We train really hard to maintain it,” Sato said.

“There’s always just heart and the mental, the mental strength. You can keep on going. Someday I will have to retire, but now, I have a more competitive race I want to do.

“Yeah, it’s such a privilege to win here. So whether it was the first attempt or eighth attempt or you had a drama in the past, it doesn’t really matter. You winning today. It’s just superb. Just coming onto the top, nothing else.

“I’m so looking forward, particularly now, in championship standings, my standing is very high now, and certainly it is the real challenge for the championship. That’s the most exciting thing for my life right now. Let’s try and give it everything.”

And he’ll do so while smiling.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 28: Takuma Sato of Japan, driver of the #26 Andretti Autosport Honda, celebrates after winning the 101st Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 28, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

INDYCAR: What Drivers Are Saying about Sunday’s KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America

Helio Castroneves leads the field early at last year's IndyCar race at Road America. Photo: IndyCar.
Leave a comment

Here’s What Drivers Are Saying about this Sunday’s KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin (courtesy IndyCar Media Relations):

JOSEF NEWGARDEN (No. 1 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “I’m not shy on saying that Road America is probably my favorite track. I really love racing there. It’s a fun road course with a lot of great INDYCAR fans, so what’s not to love? These cars with the new aero kit have been super exciting on road courses and this weekend will be no different. The entire No. 1 Verizon Chevy team and I are pumped to get on track there. I thought we were strong at Texas after not living up to our standards at Detroit, but we just ran out of luck. Myself and the entire team are ready to really come back strong to gain more points to continue our hunt for another championship.”

MATHEUS LEIST (No. 4 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “Road America is a pretty cool track. It is one of my favorite tracks in the world and my favorite track in the U.S. Last year, I had a great weekend there in Indy Lights, winning the first race as well as the pole position. Each time we work together as a team, we are developing the car and getting quicker. I think we might have a great car for this weekend and I’m looking forward to it.”

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE (No. 5 Arrow Electronics SPM Honda): “Road America is one of the coolest tracks in North America. It’s the kind of track that lets you really stretch an Indy car’s legs and really push it. We had a solid test in the Arrow Electronics car there last week, but testing is one thing and racing a whole other, so I’m excited to get there and see what we’ve got.”

ROBERT WICKENS (No. 6 Lucas Oil SPM Honda): “I’m really looking forward to Road America. I think, in the last few races, we’ve shown our potential. We’ve shown that we’re quick. Now we need to try to get back on the podium. Road America is always a fun track, and it’s where I got my first taste of INDYCAR with SPM so I can’t wait to actually race the Lucas Oil car here.”

SCOTT DIXON (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “Obviously I’m happy with where the team has been running these past few weekends, but we’ve been there the whole season. We just haven’t shown the results for one reason or another. While most had the weekend off, we had the opportunity to compete again at Le Mans, which is a very special deal. So now we’re back, and after a few short days at home, it’s Road America. We had a great car here last year picking up the win for the No. 9 team, and I’m hoping we can do it again this weekend with the PNC Bank car.”

ED JONES (No. 10 First Data Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “I’m really looking forward to Road America. It’s one of my favorite tracks on the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule. It’s been a great last few races for the team, and it shows we have the speed in the cars we need in order to win and compete at the front. I hope we can keep up the momentum this weekend with the First Data car. It was nice having a weekend off in the schedule, and the team will be refreshed and ready to attack at Road America.”

WILL POWER (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “It was awesome to have some time off after the long stretch – especially to spend time with my wife and son on Father’s Day. It was really great for me and the rest of the team. It has been quite a whirlwind for everyone since Indianapolis, so it is nice to have the schedule calm down a bit. Texas was a tough one for myself and the No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet team. It was disappointing but we are ready to bounce back. Road courses are always so much fun and this is definitely one of the most beautiful tracks on the circuit. The fans at Road America are such great INDYCAR fans and I really enjoy meeting them when we’re there. I always look forward to this race and am ready to get back on track there.”

TONY KANAAN (No. 14 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “I love going to Road America for a number of reasons. It’s a very cool, fast and challenging track. The fan experience is one of the best in America and it’s the closest INDYCAR race to ABC Supply’s headquarters, so I’m expecting to have a lot of support during the weekend.”

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 GEHL Honda): “We tested at Road America and it went well in the end. We didn’t start off the best, but I do think we found a few things that can really help us as we go forward. I am excited for this aero package on a long track like Road America. I think the passing will be great, the cars will look awesome and will be fast! I have spent a ton of time at Road America in my lifetime and just find it to be the best track in this country. I am excited to join my dad and all of my family up there this weekend to enjoy the races just like we always have done growing up! I have always enjoyed the race there and I think that’s why I have had some success. Having said that, a win would mean a ton to me. I would love to get it for my GEHL team this weekend! With GEHL and Manitowoc being so close by, it’s a huge race weekend for us too. I have high hopes for the next eight races. We have had a solid start to the season but no wins. We need wins, we need podiums, and I hope we can make that happen here very soon.”

ZACHARY CLAMAN DE MELO (No. 19 Paysafe Honda): “Road America is one of my favorite tracks on the schedule. I have great memories racing there as it’s where I won my first Indy Lights race last season and it’s a circuit I’ve always done well at. We’ve made some great progress so far this year, but have not yet had the chance to show it with a good result aboard our No. 19 Paysafe car. Hopefully, we can change that this weekend and give the No. 19 Dale Coyne Racing crew the top result that they deserve.”

JORDAN KING (No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet): “I’ve been on the simulator twice now learning Road America, which was good as I learned what way everything goes. It looks like it might be quite a tough circuit. There are a couple of blind corners that will be difficult and also some elevation changes. Those always add another element of difficulty into the mix as you have to judge your distance by things other than being able to see where you’re going. It will be nice to get back on a road course after a bumpy street course. Overall, I’m looking forward to Road America. It should be a good challenge.”

SPENCER PIGOT (No. 21 Direct Supply Chevrolet): “Road America is always a track I look forward to going to. It’s one of the best venues on our schedule, for sure! I’ve always enjoyed it, ever since I started racing there in Skip Barber, and it’s a great place to drive an Indy car around. It’s the hometown race for our partner Direct Supply and we’re really excited to have them on board. Hopefully, we can get a good finish for them and the whole ECR team.”

SIMON PAGENAUD (No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet): “We had a nice little break but now I’m fully focused and ready to head to Road America. After having a really great finish at Texas, the entire No. 22 Menards Chevrolet team and I are pumped to go to Road America. It’s one of the most beautiful tracks we get to visit and the racing is also great. I just love road courses. It’s also always great to see so many of our friends from Menards up there, so I’m looking forward to saying hello to a lot of folks. The fans at Road America are some of the best, and I know we’re going to put on a great show there.”

CHARLIE KIMBALL (No. 23 Tresiba Chevrolet): “It’s great to come back fully recharged and ready to get after it at the KOHLER Grand Prix. We had a couple of good results earlier this month, and I’m feeling really confident in how this Carlin team is progressing in its maiden Verizon IndyCar Series season. I’ve always enjoyed Road America, since my days in Formula Ford – from the challenges of the course to the camping and fan support, it’s just a classic event on our schedule. I’ve come away with a couple of top-10s here since INDYCAR’s return to the track, and I have full faith in the No. 23 Tresiba Chevrolet team that we’ll be racing up front on Sunday.”

ZACH VEACH (No. 26 Relay Group 1001 Honda): “Road America is a track that has been good to me in the past. My last time there was in 2016 in an Indy Lights car. We set a track record, won the first race and finished third in Race 2. I’m hoping that speed helps us out in the Indy car this weekend. The last two weekends have been good for us, as far as progress as a rookie. We were super competitive at Detroit and ran in the top three at one point in Texas. Hopefully, we can capitalize on that momentum and have a strong finish at Road America to start the second half of the season off strong.”

ALEXANDER ROSSI (No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda): “Road America is one of my favorite road courses in the world. I am very excited to be heading there this week as it is also the one track on the schedule that I have a huge amount of history and track time at. We have always had strong pace in Elkhart Lake, but never really gotten a result, so we will be looking to change that this weekend and hopefully close up the gap to the top of the points.”

RYAN HUNTER-REAY (No. 28 DHL Honda): “Road America has always been one of my favorite tracks on the INDYCAR schedule. The DHL team had a strong race here last year, so I’m looking forward to building on that and the momentum we’ve had as a team through the last several races.”

TAKUMA SATO (No. 30 Mi-Jack / Panasonic Honda): “We tested at Road America last week and I think the test went well. It was a little confusing as there were two specs of tires and the difference of each was more than expected, but we were able to cover multiple setups and found a good direction.  There were not enough teams to directly compare at the test but we made a good progress, so I believe we should be competitive at Road America. I enjoy driving there so much but I don’t have a strong history at the track. I had a good race in 2016, but an electrical problem blew our race. Road America has a couple of ultra-high-speed corners like the carousel, kink and unsighted Billy Mitchell Bend. They are definitely some of the most challenging corners. The track flows so well and has a combination of a tight bend with a long straight followed by big braking areas that makes a great overtaking opportunity, so the racing is always an exciting one there. That’s one of my favorite parts and the fans are so enthusiastic!  Driving this fast track is just huge fun. Road America is a beautiful, great race course.”

ALFONSO CELIS JR. (No. 32 Juncos Racing Chevrolet): “I am very excited for my first Verizon IndyCar Series race this weekend at Road America. We had a great test there last week. I was able to learn a lot about the car and the strong Chevy engine. I am looking forward to getting back in the car on Friday and seeing what we can do this weekend.”

MAX CHILTON (No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet): “After a much-needed break, I can’t wait to get back to Road America. It’s a track I’ve felt very comfortable with since I started in INDYCAR in 2016 and my results the last two years have shown it with two seventh-place qualifying runs and a top-10 finish last season. The whole Carlin team is really starting to gel and our results just keep improving every race weekend, so I’m hoping we can put together a good run this weekend for the No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet in Road America and get both cars into the top 10 for both qualifying and the race.”

GABBY CHAVES (No. 88 Harding Group Chevrolet): “Road America is a track I love racing at. I’ve had many race wins in other series there and it is one of my all-time favorite tracks. I’m really looking forward to getting to race there in an Indy car with Harding Racing and hope to have our best result of the year.”

MARCO ANDRETTI (No. 98 U.S. Concrete / Curb Honda): “Road America is one of my favorite road courses to drive. The fans there are great and it helps make for one of the greatest settings of the year. Each year, we have a team cookout with my crew where we can just relax after a busy month and a half and reset ourselves for the rest of the season. It would be great to walk out of this weekend with a podium finish for the U.S. Concrete team and continue our forward momentum.”