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Sato impresses on return to Rahal Letterman Lanigan in Phoenix test

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Takuma Sato’s original tenure with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in 2012 showed promise, the combination scoring two podiums together that year, but was marred by several crashes, most infamously a last-lap crash at the Indianapolis 500 as Sato battled for the win with Dario Franchitti.

Sato’s return to RLL may also prove to be memorable, but if the Verizon IndyCar Series’ open test at ISM Raceway at Phoenix is any indication, it may be memorable for much better reasons.

Put simply, Sato was in dominant form during testing, going fastest in three of four sessions completed between Friday and Saturday, along with turning the fastest lap of the weekend at an average speed of 189.855 mph.

While acknowledging there remains a lot to learn, Sato was very upbeat about his debut performance with the team.

“The open test was very successful, I would say,” Sato revealed. “There were a lot of things to do, and lots of things to be tried. I think over the course of two days we learned a lot. The new car is great, definitely more exercise for the drivers, definitely busier with low downforce. We did qualifying simulations and race traffic runs. I think the Rahal Letterman Lanigan team is really strong, so I’m really looking forward to two more road course tests and hopefully we’ll be ready for (the season opener) in St. Petersburg.”

Teammate Graham Rahal, who was also very quick and was fastest during the Friday night session, was equally upbeat about Sato’s performance, especially as it relates to improving the entire program.

“I think it’s already helping,” Rahal asserted in an interview with NBCSN pit reporter Katie Hargitt during streaming coverage for the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network. “Our comments are very similar to one another, which is good. He’s got Eddie Jones over there, who’s been my engineer the last few years and Eddie’s an amazing guy and a great engineer and I think he’s really going to help Takuma a lot, as he did (with) me.”

Rahal added that Sato has remained close with the Rahals even after departing the team in 2012, and that close relationship has helped them immediately gel back together.

“My Dad and Takuma always had a very close relationship. And even when he left, even before last year when he went to Andretti Autosport, he was trying to put a deal together to come back to Dad. So, they’ve been very, very close. Steve Fusek, who manages Taku, he’s a great friends of ours. It was the right fit for us.”

Further, Rahal asserted that Sato’s positive spirit is a perfect fit within the team and adds to the strong working relationship that already exists within the team.

“Takuma is such a happy spirit, he’s a guy who’s always smiling, a guy that I think can really rally the troops around him. And that’s important for the fit of our team,” Rahal finished. “Our guys are all really relaxed. Everybody has fun here. I think that’s why we’ve had success. And whoever slotted into that second car needed to fit that mold. And I think we’ve been fortunate that it has worked.”

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing has two more tests, at Barber Motorsports Park and Sebring International Raceway, before the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 11.

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Oliver Askew: ‘I was starting to lose confidence’ after ‘hardest hit I’ve had’

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Oliver Askew knew something was medically wrong in the days after concussion-like symptoms began from “the hardest hit I’ve ever had” in the Indianapolis 500. He’d been evaluated and cleared to race after the Aug. 23 crash, but he just didn’t feel right.

The IndyCar rookie told The Associated Press on Thursday he has been experiencing dizziness, sleeping difficulties, irritability, headaches and confusion since he crashed in the Aug. 23 race. He continued to race in four more events as he tried to “play through it” until friends and family encouraged him to seek medical treatment.

He since has been diagnosed with a concussion and is working on a recovery plan with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s sports medicine concussion program, the same place NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt Jr. received care after concussions in 2012 and ’16. Askew will not compete in next weekend’s doubleheader on the road course at Indianapolis, and Arrow McLaren SP will put three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves in the No. 7 Chevrolet.

“This is all I’ve worked for,” the 23-year-old told AP. “I don’t come from money, and I’ve worked my way up and have finally gotten my shot in a good car. And then all of a sudden, the results just weren’t there in a car I knew should be performing. And I just didn’t feel like myself, you know?

“So initially I felt like I needed to stay in the car and continue to improve. And then I didn’t feel like I could do that with my condition and what was going on. I was starting to lose confidence in myself.”

Earnhardt praised Askew for going to Pittsburgh to see Dr. Micky Collins.

“Oliver is in the best hands when it comes to taking care of this problem and getting back on the racetrack. It was very smart of him to get in front of Micky so that he could understand the seriousness of the situation and begin the process of getting well,” Earnhardt said. “You can absolutely heal from this but not without taking the step of getting help. Often that’s the most difficult step.”

Athletes often hide injuries to continue competing, and even Earnhardt admittedly masked concussions during his driving career. Askew didn’t know what was wrong with him but was frightened to get out of the car.

He is a paid driver who brings no sponsorship money to the team (but did bring a $1 million scholarship for winning last year’s Indy Lights championship), and owner Sam Schmidt holds the option on his contract.

As he tried to race on, his performance suffered. Askew had finished third and sixth at Iowa — the previous two races before Indianapolis. After the crash, he was part of a multicar accident the next week at Gateway and has not finished higher than 14th in the four races since Indy.

A year after winning seven Indy Lights races, Askew has fallen from 12th to 18th in the standings and slipped considerably off the pace. He said he struggled in team debriefs, had difficulty giving feedback and has gone through a personality change that was noticeable to those close to Askew.

Spire Sports + Entertainment, which represents Askew and was among those who pushed the driver to see a doctor, noted Arrow McLaren SP did not reveal that Askew was suffering from a concussion in its Thursday announcement he would miss next week’s race.

“Oliver clearly demonstrated his talent until Lap 91 of the Indianapolis 500, and I hope this does not become another case study of why athletes do not tell their teams they are injured,” said agent Jeff Dickerson. “The reason they do that is because more often times than not they are replaced. In motorsports, there is always somebody to replace you, and whether it was Dale Jr. or Oliver Askew, there is always another driver available.

“I hope this is not a barrier to progress for other drivers — especially young drivers afraid of losing their job — to notify their teams they are hurt. I hope the team proves me wrong because the good news is, the kid has had a head injury for the past month and has still run 14th in IndyCar.”

After finally seeking medical treatment, Askew said he was relieved to learn there was something wrong. He said doctors told him the injury has a “100% recovery rate” and he believes he will be able to race in the IndyCar season finale next month at St. Petersburg. He’s been rehabilitating with exercises and tasks that strain the brain such as deliberately going to grocery stores and the airport.

“Honestly, you know, if I had not gone to see medical professionals I would probably stay in the car,” Askew said. “But now after hearing what’s wrong and that it could get worse, God forbid I have another hit, I know I did the right thing. I think I can be an example for young drivers now in stepping up and saying something is wrong, I need to have this checked out.”