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

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

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Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Formula One embrace the United States

Verstappen Perez United States
Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images
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Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed their new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with US-based Ford Motors in a press event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Team Principle Christian Horner. They are the only Formula 1 team to launch in the United States, but even that small move of the needle reflects a major shift in the attitude of both F1’s management and their teams – and the extent to which the American audience has fully embraced the sport.

“It’s something fantastic and unique, for the sport to be able to break it into the U.S,” Perez told NBC Sports. “The market is huge and it’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved, for the drivers, for the team. It’s always a huge market.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Sergio Perez finished fourth in the Unites States Grand Prix, but he was first with the fans.  – Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In 2023, Formula 1 will race three times in the United States and five times in North America. The Circuit of the Americas will host their 11th consecutive race in October before heading south to Mexico City. Miami returns for a second time in May on a temporary street course around the Hard Rock cafe and the third addition is in downtown Las Vegas in November.

With the Canadian Grand Prix on the schedule for June and the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, American fans are now in the ballpark of Europeans, who have eight events on the continent and one in England.

In 2022, Verstappen won every race in North America. He was kept from sweeping the hemisphere only by George Russell, who won in Brazil. That fact is less remarkable when one considers that Verstappen won 15 times in the season – nearly two-thirds of the races on the schedule.

By the time Formula arrived in Austin for Round 20 of 23, Verstappen had already wrapped up his second consecutive championship.

“Sometimes it can be hard to replicate the season, but I think it’s the same as with the car, right? You always try to improve it,” Verstappen told NBC Sports. “And I always look at the little details that even when you have had a good race, you could have done better. And then of course you also learn from the bad races. So we always try to look for these little improvements and general experience you gain year after year.

“You try to do better, but of course it also depends a lot on the package you have.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Max Verstappen United States Grand Prix win was one of 15 for the drivers and 17 for Red Bull.
(Gongora / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Now Verstappen’s thoughts will inevitably turn to establishing a dynasty – and America will again play a pivotal role.

“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” Verstappen said.  “After the years in Formula One, when you have to be on top of your game and you gain a lot on your experience – in that sense nothing really can get to you anymore. Every year you just try to do the best you can. But a lot depends on the material around you. It’s always a bit of a guess. Start the season as fit as you can be and be well prepared. But if you don’t have the car, you’re not going to win the championship.”

Perez added two wins to Red Bull’s total, at Monaco and the Marina Bay Street course. With two of the US 2023 races on street courses, Perez hopes to close the gap on Verstappen and potentially be his principle rival for the championship.

“The strategy is clear; it is to maximize the potential of the car – and we believe we have a good car, but how good?,” Perez said “We don’t know what the competition is doing. We just give our best in building this car and we hope that it’s good enough to get us to win races.

“I think we have to work together as a team. At the same time. We both want to win the championship. It’s just having good compromise. The competition will be really strong out there, so we really need everything we possibly can get from each other.”

Formula One returns to the United States for Round 6 and the Miami Grand Prix on May 7.