Getty Images

Takuma Sato ready to defend Indy 500 victory with new team

Leave a comment

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The fans lined up one by one in the most orderly fashion, waiting for their chance to take a photograph or snag an autograph from the first Japanese winner of the Indianapolis 500.

Good thing they were patient, too.

Takuma Sato spent time chatting with every single one of them.

The meet-and-greet came during a triumphant tour of Japan late last year, which included stops at the Twin Ring Motegi racetrack, Mt. Fuji and the Tokyo headquarters of Honda. Along for the ride was the massive Borg-Warner Trophy, with the face of Sato now molded into it alongside the rest of the Indy 500 champions, as it left the United States for the very first time.

“The fans were overwhelming,” recalled Scott Gallett, a vice president at BorgWarner Inc., who was on the trip as the trophy’s caretaker. “We had people that came to multiple events. They’d just follow us around. And it was something to see such an appreciation for Takuma and what he’d accomplished.”

The 41-year-old Sato may not carry the name recognition of Unser or Andretti even after winning last year’s race for Andretti Autosport. But with a quick smile, easy laugh and ebullient personality, he was nonetheless a popular champion, so much so that nobody seemed to care a whole lot that he denied perpetual fan-favorite Helio Castroneves from joining the hallowed club of four-time winners.

That was just in America, too. Sato was positively revered in Japan, where he first shot to stardom years ago driving in Formula One, far and away its most popular motorsports series.

When he first returned home last June to celebrate his win, hundreds of fans and media were on hand to greet him at Narita Airport. And during a four-day victory tour in the Japanese capital, he visited the world-famous Shibuya Cross intersection – Tokyo’s version of New York City’s Times Square – where the finish of the Indy 500 was shown on a giant video screen.

The love affair continued into this season, too.

Sato threw out ceremonial first pitches for Cubs and Angels games. He got to spend some time with baseball sensation Shohei Ohtani, bringing two of Japan’s most popular sports stars together.

“I’ve had so many different things and people I’ve met – Olympians, baseball plays. Yes, Shotani,” Sato said last week, shortly before surviving bump day to make the 33-car field for Sunday’s race.

“Baseball, you know, I like it but I never played in my life, so I never thought I’d get to throw out a first pitch,” he said. “Motor racing is big but baseball is the national sport.”

There are a few reasons why Sato has been in such high demand.

For one thing, he has a go-for-broke style that resonates among auto racing fans regardless of nationality. He’s willing to push the limit, even if it means crashing out in search of the win.

That was the case in 2012, when he challenged Dario Franchitti for the lead on the final lap. Sato was pushed low, lost control and the two cars clipped tires, sending him into the wall. Franchitti held on to win the race while Sato, despite his disappointment, was gracious in defeat.

That’s the other big reason he’s in demand: His personality is magnetic. He’s the kind of driver that fans can’t help but cheer for, and he returns their love for him in kind.

“Sometimes it’s tiring,” he said of the constant adoration, “but I really appreciate it.”

The Indy 500 victory was without question the biggest moment of Sato’s career. He’d only won one other IndyCar race, back in 2013, and managed one podium finish in 44 races in Formula One. Yet it showed once more how much different winning can be at the Brickyard.

There are no victory tours for winning elsewhere, no photo ops at Mt. Fuji, and Honda officials are less inclined to fete you at world headquarters.

Now the trick is to back up that victory.

Sato is driving for his third team in three years in Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, and recently ran in the top 10 at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. He’s now teammates with Graham Rahal and Oriol Servia with team owner and former Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal serving as his strategist when the green flag flies on Sunday.

“I think we’ve got as strong a group as any team out there,” Bobby Rahal said. “I think with the group we have, we have three pretty strong prospects for the 500, and I’m pretty excited about that.”

Who knows? Maybe the slight-as-a-pixie Sato can become the first repeat winner since Castroneves more than a decade ago, and embark on another triumphant tour of Japan.

One thing is certain: The fans would surely show up.

“He’s always been so fantastic to work with. Very humble, doesn’t ever think he deserves it,” Gallett said. “Of course, he does. He deserves everything he’s gotten.”

IMSA’s Bill Auberlen joins NASCAR America to discuss this weekend’s race at Lime Rock

Leave a comment

Turner Motorsport GTD driver Bill Auberlen joined NBC Sports’ Marty Snyder on NASCAR America Presents the Motorsports Hour Thursday to discuss a variety of topics, including Saturday’s IMSA WeatherTech Sports Car Championship race at Lime Rock Park.

Auberlen, alongside co-driver Robby Foley, enters Lime Rock with a great amount of momentum after finishing on the GTD podium at Watkins Glen and taking the GTD class honors in the most recent IMSA race at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park.

There’s also an extra incentive for the duo to win this weekend as well, as Auberlen is one win away from tying Scott Pruett for the most IMSA victories all-time.

Both drivers will have to be on their A-game this weekend, however, as Auberlen stated that Lime Rock is one of the tougher circuits on the IMSA calendar and compared the 1.5-mile Connecticut road course to a short track.

“It’s what we call the bullring of our season,” Auberlen said. “It is a 54-second lap and we’re going to go around it a million times before the end of the day. It’s going to be a hot one, and I think whoever survives this is going to be on the podium.”

Luckily for the GTD and GTLM teams, with no Protoype and LMP2 entries competing at Lime Rock this weekend, the worry of having to yield to entries from the faster classes is gone.

“These Protoypes are so fast now, that interacting with them, you can’t imagine,” Auberlen said. “We have radars in our car that can alert us when they are coming.

“They get on you so fast that if you’re not always looking or something is not telling you they’re coming, you could have a problem and catch into them. That’s gone. Now it’s going to be focus-forward. You’re going to be focused on everything ahead of you. You got GLTM in there at the same time, but they’re virtually the same speed as us – just a little bit faster.

“It’s going to be nice. When you stand on that podium you might be able to go for an overall victory.”

Follow Michael Eubanks on Twitter