Sato and team co-owner Bobby Rahal celebrate Sunday's win. Photo: IndyCar

In any language, Sato’s Portland win is big for him, his team — and likely his future

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Takuma Sato could have used any word – be it in American or Japanese – to help propel him through the final laps of Sunday’s Grand Prix of Portland.

But he chose a word from his native tongue that he kept repeating to himself as he drove through the closing laps around Portland International Raceway.

That word was “Ganbare,” which in Japanese means both “good luck” and “hang in there.”

Even with Ryan Hunter-Reay knocking on Sato’s back door, particularly on the final two laps, good luck was on Sato’s side as he indeed hung in there to earn his third career IndyCar win.

Sato wasn’t even on the radar to win Sunday’s race. He qualified 20th out of 25 entrants, but that didn’t deter him.

Sato felt he had as good a chance as anyone to get a top 10, maybe even a top 5.

And that’s exactly what happened for the only Japanese driver to ever win the Indianapolis 500 (2017).

“It’s a fantastic weekend for all of us,” Sato said after the race. “Who won, I don’t care. Obviously I wanted to win. I won a street course (2013 Long Beach), won a superspeedway (Indy 500), very close to (winning on a) short oval, but my first career win on a road course means a lot. Obviously it’s important.

“Number of wins, I always wanted to have more. I think three wins from Long Beach, Indy 500, such a history in Portland in this fashion, I’m really, really happy today.”

Sato was the star for RLL Sunday as teammate Graham Rahal was collected in a big first lap crash, came back on the track briefly before calling it a day and finishing 23rd out of 25 entrants.

Sato picked up the torch for Team RLL and ran with it – well, actually, drove with it – through the final 25 laps of the 105-lap event in IndyCar’s return to Portland after an 11-year absence.

Granted, Sato’s win Sunday was nowhere near as big as his triumph at Indy last year. But to be able to travel to Portland for the first time, to meet and see a number of Japanese race fans and then become front page news once again in his homeland meant the world to Sato.

“It means a lot,” Sato said. “Firstly, thank everyone for all the support for IndyCar, to come back to Portland. I was very excited.

“I knew nothing about Portland. Obviously, I knew the history (of PIR), such an important place for North American racing. The fans are so educated. Generation by generation, so much a great place.”

Portland has a large Asian community, as well as Asian racing fans from Seattle-Tacoma, and northern California. It’s also an easy flight from his native Japan for fans who wanted to watch him race.

“Here is a very easy (for fans both from the west coast as well as Japan to travel to),” Sato said. “All the West Coast is very easy for Japan to come for the travel.

“We have a very enthusiastic fans from Japan. Also, the Portland community here is a great Asian community, including Japanese, a lot of business, too. We can hear a lot of Japanese cheering on the parade lap. That was great.

“Winning in front of such an enthusiastic crowd in Portland was something I expected, but this was more than expected. I think the people genuinely here are so enthusiastic (and) very happy that IndyCar came back here.”

Given that Portland was the second-to-last race on the schedule, Sunday’s win also potentially helped Sato leave town perhaps feeling a bit more secure about his future, as well.

Even with his win in the Indy 500, Sato surprisingly left Andretti Autosport after last season to rejoin RLL – for which he raced in 2012 – for a one-year deal for 2018 and with an option for 2019.

But options are never guaranteed until they’re picked up – that is, if they’re picked up.

So now, as this season is close to its end, it would be natural to wonder if Sato will return to RLL in 2019.

He even said so after Sunday’s race.

“The future is at the moment uncertain,” he said. “Hopefully this is a boosting to the talk to (return) next year.

“But most important (is) my passion and (I) wanted to win for the team, That’s really come all together. It’s very helping for the situation.”

Indeed it is. A team spokesperson told MotorSportsTalk a few hours after the race that, “We are in the process of extending (Sato’s) contract.”

That’s a good reward for a good job done Sunday.

Or more precisely, it was a day that ended in good luck for Sato because he hung in there all the way to take the checkered flag.

Yep, Sato couldn’t have said it better: “Ganbare!”

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Supercross points leader Eli Tomac finds silver linings in interruption

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Though his Monster Energy AMA Supercross championship charge was put on hold, the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic had a silver lining for Eli Tomac.

Off the road while the season was postponed for nearly three months, the points leader was able to be present as his girlfriend, Jessica, gave birth to their daughter, Lev, on April 26

“A huge blessing for us there,” Tomac told host Mike Tirico during a “Lunch Talk Live” interview (click on the video above) in which he also joked about becoming a pro at busting off diaper changes. “That was one good blessing for us as we had our daughter on a Sunday, that would have been on a travel day coming back from the race in Las Vegas.

NBCSN

“That was probably the only positive out of all this mess was being able to be there for the birth.”

But there also could be more good fortune for Tomac as the series resumes Sunday at Salt Lake City, Utah (3-4 p.m. ET on NBCSN, 4-6 p.m. on NBC).

The final seven events will be held over 22 days in Rice-Eccles Stadium, which sits at just over 4,000 feet.

The elevation could favor Tomac, who was born and lives in Colorado and is accustomed to riding and training at altitude, which is a departure for many Supercross riders (many of whom hail from California and Florida).

COVID-19 TESTING REQUIRED: Supercross outlines protocols for last seven races

“That’s going to be the test for us,” said the Kawasaki rider, who five of the first 10 races this season. “We’re at elevation in Salt Lake, so when you’re on a motorcycle, you have a little bit of a loss of power. That’s just what happens when you come up in elevation. And a lot of guys train at sea level, and we’re at 4,000 to 5,000 feet, so cardio-wise, we’ll be pushed to the limit.

“Most of our races are Saturday nights and back to back weeks, but this go around it’s Sunday and Wednesday, so recovery is going to be key.”

Supercross will race Sunday and Wednesday for the next three weeks, capping the season with the June 21 finale, which also will be shown on NBCSN from 3-4:30 p.m. ET and NBC from 4:30-6 p.m. ET.

Tomac, who holds a three-point lead over Ken Roczen (who also recently visited “Lunch Talk Live”), told Tirico he had been riding for 90 minutes Thursday morning on a track outside Salt Lake City.

“Most of us we can rely on our past riding pretty well,” Tomac said. “The question is if you can go the distance. That’s what a lot of guys have to train on is going the distance. We go 20 minutes plus a lap. That’s what you’ve got to keep sharp is your general muscles. Within two to three days, your brain starts warming up more if you take a few weeks off the motorcycle.”

Here is the schedule and TV information for the rest of the season:

  • Sunday, May 31 (3-4 p.m. ET, NBCSN; 4-6 p.m. ET, NBC);
  • Wednesday, June 3 ( 10:00 pm – 1:00 am ET, NBCSN);
  • Sunday, June 7 (5-8:00 p.m. ET, NBCSN);
  • Wednesday, June 10 (7–10 p.m. ET, NBCSN);
  • Sunday, June 14 (7-10 p.m. ET, NBCSN);
  • Wednesday, June 17 (7-10 p.m. ET, NBCSN);
  • Sunday, June 21 (3-4:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN; 4:30 – 6:00 p.m. ET, NBC).
Eli Tomac rides his No. 3 Kawasaki in the Feb. 29 race at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia (Charles Mitchell/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images).