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Takuma Sato enjoying return to Rahal, Letterman, Lanigan; already thinking of Indy 500 encore

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The countdown to the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500 has begun.

But for defending 500 winner Takuma Sato, the countdown began the day after he won the world’s biggest race last May, and has continued on during the offseason and into the new 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

“Every driver’s dream is to win the Indy 500, no matter who you are or where you are,” Sato told MotorSportsTalk recently. “You think of it a lot. Every month, there is some event for the 500 and I’ve really enjoyed promoting it. It was the biggest time in my life and I almost can’t believe it’s less than 60 days now for the 2018 Indy 500. It’s just an unbelievable thing.”

Sato won last year’s 500 with virtually no pressure on his shoulders coming into the race. As the checkered flag drew close, he wound up in the right place at the right time to become the first Japanese driver to win at the legendary Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

But it’ll be a totally different feeling coming into this year’s race on May 27th.

“I’ve been in situations where there’s been a lot of pressure, and of course being an international driver, there’s a lot of pressure with that, too,” Sato said. “All in all, I think I enjoy it. But obviously, this year, the Indy 500 will be a completely different situation for me.

“Can you imagine 300,000 people coming to the track holding a ticket with your face on it? I just can’t imagine how it’s going to be like. And every time you go through Gate 2 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, there’s a massive picture of me promoting the race. That’s the biggest picture of me I’ve ever seen. It just makes me smile and makes me happy.

“I feel it’s going to be an incredible event, as usual, and for me personally, I think it’s an unbelievable experience and I just want to enjoy it.”

Sato is not with the same team he won last year’s Greatest Spectacle in Racing. He left Andretti Autosport after last season and has returned to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, who he raced one season for in 2012.

“Sure, even though the team expanded massively from the first time I was here, still the key persons are still there,” he said. “It feels very comfortable. The reason to go there was to have success for the new season. Everybody’s really pumped up and yeah, I feel really comfortable and happy.”

While there are still four other races (Phoenix, Long Beach, Birmingham and the Indy Grand Prix) before the 500, Sato is also looking forward to how RLL will fare together as an expanded team at Indianapolis.

“The team has such great engineering and now, working with Graham (Rahal) and my good friend Oriol Servia is joining the team (for the 500), the three of us working together, hopefully we have a competitive advantage and I’m certainly looking forward to it,” Sato said.

RLL got off to a strong start to 2018 with Rahal shaking off a last-place qualifying start to finish runner-up in the season-opening race at St. Petersburg on March 11. Sato, who qualified fifth, had an equally strong race as his teammate going until Scott Dixon went airborne late and punted Sato, who ultimately finished 12th.

“I was disappointed at St. Pete because it was just an unlucky race,” Sato said. “As a team, we really finishing strong with Graham, we learned tons of stuff and fans observed that it’s going to be an exciting season with the new package.

“It was a quite exciting race and for me to go through the incredibly busy and unbelievable off-season, getting used to the new team and doing winter tests and then St. Pete, really the last couple months were compressed, but I was really happy for everything. It’s fascinating to have a brand new car and I’m excited to make the car go fast.”

Speaking of the new car, it already is a big success among IndyCar drivers like Sato and fans.

“It looks so cool,” Sato said. “It looks so nice and low and wide. It’s kind of retro style, kind of like the old CART car. It’s just a great formula car and I love it.

“From the cockpit point of view, it doesn’t matter. Even last year’s package, like when we went to Road America, we ran a pretty low downforce package and that’s pretty much what we have with the new car, definitely less downforce than what we had last year.

“At St. Pete, we experienced it, cars really moving a lot and quite difficult to get good grip, but that’s the name of the sport and at least everybody’s in the same boat. We just try to make the best package from amongst the various things people are trying. From an engineering point of view, it’s a big challenge, but I really love racing this car.”

Next up for the series is back-to-back races, this Saturday night in Phoenix at ISM Raceway and on April 15 with the iconic Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, which Sato won in 2013.

“I had a really great race back in 2013 with A.J. (Foyt Racing),” Sato said. “Phoenix, honestly, I didn’t have necessarily a good record in history. Before, it wasn’t necessarily one of my favorite tracks, but we had a very successful test there in February.

“The last couple of years, we weren’t in the best of shape on short ovals, but at least with the new car and new package and everybody equal, it seems like we have quite a bit of good speed in testing. I’m very keen and excited to go back to Phoenix

“I’m really looking forward to having a good situation at Phoenix and of course Long Beach is one of the most iconic street courses in IndyCar. I hope we have a very strong race at both tracks this year.”

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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.”