Photo: Dan R. Boyd

Thanks to many, Sato’s smile shines brighter at Borg-Warner reveal

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INDIANAPOLIS – Takuma Sato seems to have a permanent smile even on his toughest days in a race car, but after his best one this May at the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, this one was beaming even brighter on Tuesday night.

A round of gratitude, humility and grace came over Sato as he made his acceptance speech following the reveal of his likeness on the Borg-Warner Trophy. Sato is the 104th face (all 101 winners, plus the two co-drivers that won in 1924 and 1941, plus Tony Hulman) to grace the trophy and is the 28th face sculpted by William Behrends in Tryon, N.C.

It was the people Sato had to thank that stood out, as he paid tribute to the No. 26 Andretti Autosport crew.

Although this winds up being just a one-year adventure – like past Indianapolis 500 winners the late Dan Wheldon (2005) and Dario Franchitti (2007), Sato will not defend his title with Andretti as he heads to another team – the people here helped keep him in the zone to win the 2017 race.

“To be standing here only comes because the entire team did a phenomenal job, from Garrett (Mothershead) my super engineer, and everyone else,” Sato said. “Will the sculptor did an incredible job. I’m so happy to see every single person here.”

For Sato’s race strategist, Paul “Ziggy” Harcus and Sato’s longtime spotter, past IndyCar driver Roger Yasukawa, the win was particularly special because of how they watched Sato – whose “no attack, no chance” style has made him a lot of fans but also occasionally ended in tears – drive so smart in the moment to understand how to win this year’s race.

“When you’re doing race strategy, you’re doing a huge part of the race,” Harcus told NBC Sports. “I was there with the guy, and he kept it all together. All the work that builds up to that point. I feel so proud. It was a great moment in my life.

“Roger Yasukawa, his spotter did a great job. We had a bad stop, got back a bit (to 17th place), and he was going faster than he should have… Roger told him to slow down, get guys one at a time, and rein him in for the end.”

Yasukawa with Sato. Photo: IndyCar

Yasukawa, who had a best finish of 10th in five Indianapolis 500 starts from 2003 through 2007, said Sato was in a special “zone” this race he hadn’t seen previously. The two have worked together for seven straight years with Yasukawa his eyes in the skies.

“He has matured as a driver. You hate to put it this way, but I think everyone knows he’s all or nothing, and still is!” Yasukawa told NBC Sports.

“But this year he was in this zone to know the boundaries of unnecessary risk. He went down to 17th and worked his way up methodically rather than all at once. It was great to see him that calm, and it was great to have the trust from him. We can’t help them win as a spotter, but if we make a small mistake, we could cost him.”

The relationship between the two of them is a special one and helped Sato stay focused during the race.

“What I try to work on is really a tempo within my voice, and try to relay that versus telling him something verbally. There’s a synergy we have innately,” Yasukawa said.

Sato has now had nearly five months since winning the race to go through the process of appreciating the win and seeing all that comes with it. The Borg-Warner Trophy face reveal is part of that process and being known around the world, and particularly in and for his home country of Japan, has added even more exposure to him and the race itself.

“I almost want to scream today because I’m so happy,” Sato said.

“When I crossed the finish line I wasn’t sure if I was Japanese or English, so I just decided to scream then! But today I had time to think about how amazing it was, and how Borg-Warner, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Museum do all they do. This is so amazing for the people and families that live in Japan.”

Sato only has two career wins but they’ve come at the series’ two biggest races – his maiden win, at Long Beach in 2013, snapped an 11-year dry spell for A.J. Foyt Enterprises and the street race is regarded as the most prominent road or street race on the calendar. Indy, however, is a level far beyond that.

“Every win should be equally special, but the Indy 500… there is nothing like it. This is weeks and weeks, months later, and this win will always be there in history.

“BorgWarner commits so much, and all their support. The face is something expected, because there’s 103 other faces. But truly, realistically, you see it and that creates an unbelievable feeling and experience. These people came for us today.”

Mothershead (background) set to stay with Andretti in 2018. Photo: IndyCar

Sato’s title defense in 2018 will be a different one as he’s back at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, where he famously came up short in 2012. He won’t have either Harcus or Mothershead going with him, as they’ll remain part of Andretti Autosport’s strategic and engineering roster. He will have Yasukawa though guiding him up top.

“It’s unfortunate we aren’t able to continue as a total package but both of us have run there, and have unfinished business from 2012! Of course we’ll come back to try to win again,” Yasukawa said.

“He’s a super guy. He’s very natural on how he talks and reacts. He’s become a fan favorite in the states. His English is great… and he’s got a bit of an English accent!

“But he’s done so much for the sport in Japan. The awareness in Japan has been spectacular. I have a lot of friends who I hadn’t heard from in 10-20 years; now with Taku’s success, they’re getting back in touch. I thank him for that as he’s helped us reunite.

“It was a great win. It’ll be part of history forever.”

Photo: Dan R. Boyd

MRTI: Toronto digest

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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Last year’s visit to the streets of Toronto for the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires proved to be a pivotal point in the championship chase that year.

Kyle Kaiser swept both races in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, and doing so gave him firm control over the championship, and he all but clinched it ahead of the season finale at Watkins Glen – Kaiser needed to only start that event to wrap up the title.

And in the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda, while Parker Thompson swept the weekend, Oliver Askew was caught up in a crash in Race 2. Combine that with a second place finish from 2017 title rival Rinus VeeKay – VeeKay also finished third in Race 1 – and it kept the championship within reach of VeeKay, who took it all the way to the finale at The Glen.

The 2018 visit north of the border will likely be remembered for a similar impact on the MRTI championships, both in Indy Lights and USF2000 and, maybe most significantly, in the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires.

A look at big stories to emerge from a wild weekend on the streets of Toronto is below.

Indy Lights

Santi Urrutia scored a much needed win in Race 2 on the streets of Toronto. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • Santi Urrutia’s championship hopes were teetering entering the weekend – he was 49 points out of the lead and had been vastly overshadowed by title combatants Pato O’Ward and Colton Herta for most of the season. But, his Race 2 victory combined with a second place in Race 1 to close him to within 40 points of O’Ward for the championship lead. He’s still a bit of a long shot, but his chances look much brighter leaving Toronto than they did entering.
  • More significantly, Colton Herta’s title hopes may have taken an enormous hit. After crashing in Race 1 qualifying, just after grabbing the pole as well, Herta suffered a thumb fracture that he aggravated again after crashing during Race 1. It forced the team to recommend Herta essentially sit out Race 2 – he pulled off after running only a couple laps and finished sixth – and he dropped to 18 points behind O’Ward, who won Race 1 and finished second in Race 2. The margin is hardly a commanding one for O’Ward, but with the next stop at the ultra-physical Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, Herta’s injured hand could remain a factor in the coming races and allow O’Ward to widen the margin.
  • One can’t help but feel bad for Victor Franzoni. Coming off the high of winning his first Indy Lights Race at Road America, Franzoni’s season took a turn for the worse. He crashed in Race 1 and then pulled off in Race 2 in order to conserve finances and resources – Franzoni detailed afterward that the budget is tight for him this year and crash damage from Race 1 does him no good. It would be a genuine shame if Franzoni’s season was derailed by funding issues, as the likeable Brazilian has made great progress all year and has the potential to make it as a Verizon IndyCar Series driver. He just needs the backing to get there.

Pro Mazda

Rinus VeeKay now trails Parker Thompson by only seven points in the Pro Mazda championship. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • No Mazda Road to Indy Championship was shaken up as much as Pro Mazda. Parker Thompson entered the weekend with a sizeable lead of 46 points over Rinus VeeKay. He exits the weekend only seven points ahead after finishes of eighth in both races – he was involved in a crash in Race 1 and made an unscheduled pit stop after thinking he suffered suspension damage in Race 2. Meanwhile, VeeKay dominated the weekend, winning from the pole in both races. It all means that what was once looking like a possible runaway has been all but reset. And we might see a genuine duel between them all the way to the season finale at Portland International Raceway.
  • There are few words to describe the relief everyone felt in seeing Harrison Scott walk away unhurt after his frightening airborne crash in Race 1. This was the first major crash test in a race for the Tatuus PM-18, and it aced it. And big kudos should also be given to the AMR Safety Team, who were already tending to Scott barely a few seconds after his car had come to a rest. Scott did start Race 2, but pulled off with a mechanical problem…which seems minor in comparison to what could have happened in Race 1.
  • Oliver Askew had his best race of the year in Race 2, finishing second to VeeKay for his second podium of the season. It’s been a tough year for Askew and Cape Motorsports after winning last year’s USF2000 title, and getting a podium under their belt could be just what they needed heading into the season’s stretch run.

USF2000

Kyle Kirkwood continued his USF2000 dominance on the streets of Toronto. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • After another weekend sweep, Kyle Kirkwood has one hand on the USF2000 championship. He leads Kaylen Frederick by a staggering 131 points – that’s over four road course races worth of points. He may well leave Mid-Ohio as the USF2000 champion. And even if he doesn’t, it would take something unheard of to keep the championship from his grasp.
  • Kaylen Frederick sits second, only three points up on Igor Fraga. Fraga had his best race since Race 2 on the streets of St. Petersburg, when he finished second, and he nearly outdueled Kirkwood for the win in Race 2. Both he and Frederick have caught fire of late, and their battle for second is very evenly matched.
  • Don’t count out Rasmus Lindh in the battle for second in the championship either. The Swedish driver is seven points behind Frederick and scored his third podium of the year by finishing third in Race 2 at Toronto. Second is well within his reach.

The Mazda Road to Indy is off this weekend before heading to Mid-Ohio, where Indy Lights and USF2000 again have double headers, while Pro Mazda will enjoy a triple header.

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