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.”