INDIANAPOLIS – Takuma Sato celebrated a special day on Feb. 19 as his second face was unveiled on the famed Borg-Warner Trophy as the winner of the 104th Indianapolis 500 on Aug. 23, 2020. The ceremony at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum kicked off the “100 Days until the 105th Indianapolis 500,” which this year is scheduled for May 30.
Later that night, the popular driver from Tokyo received a special gift at a dinner hosted by BorgWarner at Prime 47 Steakhouse in Indianapolis.
It was a 50-year-old Johnny Lightning Special Al Unser lunchbox in pristine condition autographed by Unser.
DOUBLE VISION: Takuma Sato’s second time on the Borg-Warner Trophy
Every year, Borg-Warner Trophy publicist Steve Shunck and NBC Sports reporter Robin Miller give the honoree of that year’s Indy 500 winner a special gift. It is typically a copy of the Carl Hungness Indianapolis 500 Yearbook featuring the winning driver’s autograph from the year the most recent Indy 500 winner was born.
In Sato’s case, that was 1977, the year AJ Foyt became the first four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500.
But what to give a multiple winner?
Rather than give a second copy of the same yearbook, Shunck and Miller decided to honor Unser for the 50th Anniversary of his first Indy 500 win in 1970 in the famed Johnny Lightning Special owned by Vel Miletich and the great Parnelli Jones.
It was the first of four Indy 500 victories for Unser. The spectacular blue-and-yellow Ford-powered Colt dominated the 1970 race, leading 190 laps of the 200-lap contest. Unser defeated Mark Donohue by 32.19 seconds.
Unser and the Johnny Lightning Special would go back-to-back with a victory in 1971. Unser scored his third Indy 500 win for Chaparral Racing in 1978 and became just the second four-time Indy 500 winner in 1987, driving for team owner Roger Penske.
In 1970, Unser’s team was sponsored by Johnny Lighting, a racing set owned by Topper Toys. It was similar to Hot Wheels that was owned by Mattel and made quite an impression as an IndyCar sponsor on the USAC Championship Trail.
I had a special gift today. A original lunchbox from 1970!! Commemorated with Al Unser Senior’s first #INDY500 win and his signature. One small connection to the greatest champion, 50 years apart.
Thank you @BorgTrophy for a great night and thanks @SHUNCK for a very nice gift. pic.twitter.com/gbHxAsjgIE
— Takuma Sato (@TakumaSatoRacer) February 20, 2021
The Johnny Lightning Special was so popular with the kids, that a special, limited edition lunchbox was made featuring Unser and the Indy 500 champion Colt/Ford.
Finding one in immaculate condition was the hard part, but Shunck and Miller were able to locate one through their vast network of Indy 500 memorabilia collectors.
“I never expected to have a lunchbox from 50 years ago,” Sato told NBCSports.com. “It’s a special gift, part of a small collection to Al Unser to commemorate his first Indy 500 win. It’s a really nice gift, and it’s autographed by Al. You can’t really find it by itself. It was a cute gift from Steve Shunck and Robin Miller. That’s really cool.”
Sato was born in 1977 when Foyt won the Indy 500 for the fourth time. When Sato won his second Indy 500 in 2020, it was 50 years since Unser won the first of his four Indy 500s.
The only drivers entered in the 2021 Indy 500 with multiple Indy 500 victories are Helio Castroneves (three) and Juan Pablo Montoya and Sato (two apiece).
Of course, there is still time for drivers such as Scott Dixon, Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Will Power and Simon Pagenaud to become multiple winners of the Indy 500.
“When you think of the history, it’s incredible,” Sato said. “Certainly, last year’s win gives me a great opportunity to go for four if the opportunities allow me to do. Hopefully, have a great car again in 2021.”
Sato has been in the United States since January when he tested at Sebring Raceway for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. He doesn’t have any immediate plans to return to Japan during the season aside from the Tokyo Olympics (which were postponed in 2020).
Sato was the center of attention when the Borg-Warner Trophy was unveiled at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum in a ceremony that was live-streamed and limited to team owners and sponsor reps only. Team owners Bobby Rahal and Michael Lanigan flew in from Chicago, and the team’s other co-owner, David Letterman, participated in the event via a recorded video message.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway and IndyCar owner Roger Penske stopped by to chat with Rahal, Lanigan and Sato before the presentation, which also included IMS President Doug Boles and BorgWarner Director, Global Marketing Michelle Collins.
“With a pandemic, we have to restrict the number of people, but it was great to see all of the people like Bobby Rahal and Michael Lanigan come in for it,” Sato said. “I really appreciate it. It was a very special day. A long day but a good day that ended up with a fun dinner when I got the lunchbox.
“At the moment, it will be on my desk. Maybe I’ll use it for a real lunch.”
Two of the proudest individuals at the unveiling were Rahal and Lanigan. Rahal is part of a very limited number of Indy 500 winners as both a driver and team owner – a list that includes Parnelli Jones and Foyt.
Rahal won the 1986 Indianapolis 500 as a driver. He won it as a team owner for the first time in 2004 with Buddy Rice as the driver and again last August with Sato in the race-winning Honda.
“It’s an extremely proud moment,” Rahal told NBCSports.com. “I’m very happy, very pleased with Takuma and very pleased for our team. We worked hard as a team since we came back full time in 2012 with Takuma, who came so close to winning the race in 2012. For him to go away, and then come back to us and then this win and finish third two years ago, I was really happy for the team and the guys.
“Takuma did a super job last year in both qualifying, to be on the front row, and then to win the race.”
Sato won his first Indy 500 in 2017 when he was driving for Andretti Autosport. Last year’s race featured a tremendous battle between the two drivers with the best cars – Dixon and Sato.
“Takuma ran at the front for most of the race,” Rahal continued. “He might not have led, but he was P2, P3. At one point, he might have dropped back to P6 but didn’t stay there long. He was able to stay out of trouble and stay at the front. He and his engineer, Eddie Jones, did a super job building a car that was reactive to changes. We were lucky when Alexander Rossi hit us that it didn’t bend anything, but it was a trouble-free race.
“That is what you have to have when you win this race.”
It was 18 years between Rahal’s only Indy 500 win as a driver in 1986 and his first Indy 500 victory as a team owner in 2004. Sato’s win was 16 years since Rahal’s victory with Rice.
He has the unique accomplishment of having his face on the Borg-Warner Trophy as a winning driver and seeing two of his drivers featured on the trophy as Indy 500 winners.
“I don’t know about fatherly, but racing has been my life and here I am still at it in a different role than I have been in for many years,” Rahal, 68, said. “The level of enjoyment and satisfaction that comes with it is no less. I feel very fortunate that I am able to be where I am. To see Buddy Rice and Takuma Sato on that trophy, it’s nice to know that we helped those guys achieve something that is really like a dream. Who knows how many other drivers will be able to put those heads on that trophy?
“A goal of mine, I don’t know if I can catch up to Roger Penske in terms of team victories, but we are certainly going to try like hell.”
For Rahal Letterman Lanigan co-owner Michael Lanigan, Sato’s victory was his first as a team owner and the culmination of a lifelong goal of winning the Indy 500.
“It definitely is a lifetime dream,” Lanigan told NBCSports.com “There were times over the last 28 years I thought it would never come. We never gave up. Thanks to Takuma’s driving skill and the team doing a great job, I’m savoring the moment until the next 500.
“We both have a lot of respect for each other. We almost won in 2012 with Takuma when he was trying to pass Dario Franchitti. I never blamed him for that. There are no rules on the last lap. It was a thrill to get him back. The last two years, he’s come in third and first. He’s a classy young man with a lot of skill and he’s a great guy.”
In the 2012 Indy 500, Sato attempted to pass winner Dario Franchitti on the final lap when he dove low inside Turn 1. Sato’s bold move failed when Franchitti’s Honda pinched him low, one of his wheels hooked the apron, sending him into a spin into the Turn 1 wall.
“I don’t think Takuma threw it away in 2012; nobody on the team tried to blame him for trying to win it,” Lanigan said. “Was it a mistake? That’s out of my league. It tells you what kind of person he is. He felt very bad about crashing at the end. It was certainly the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. One moment; you think you are going to win it. The next minute, you are in the wall. That’s racing. That’s what it is all about. Go for the gusto and nobody remembers who finished second. I was proud of him that day.
“I was a lot prouder of him this past August, I’ll tell you that. This is something that will stay with me the rest of my life.”
BorgWarner continues an Indy 500 tradition started in 1936 when the Borg-Warner Trophy was made its first appearance in victory lane at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The face of every winning driver of each Indianapolis 500 is attached to the trophy.
Another face on the trophy base recognizes the late Tony Hulman, the man who saved the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indianapolis 500 from extinction when he purchased it from Eddie Rickenbacker in November 1945.
“It’s always amazing, even if it is a multiyear winner, the excitement and adrenaline of it never changes,” Collins told NBCSports.com at the unveiling. “A lot of people think if it is somebody that has won once before and have won a few years later, we would use the same face, but that’s not the case. It could be a back-to-back winner and we would still do what we do. It’s an important part of what we want to give the driver that experience. I don’t think they ever get tired of that. Even if they have done it before, we would still make it happen.”
Sato is one of just 20 drivers to win the Indianapolis 500 more than once in their careers. In 2017, he became the first driver from Japan to win the Indy 500.
“This one is a little shinier and the smile is better,” Sato said, comparing his two faces on the Borg Warner. “Two faces, I can’t believe how fortunate I am to be in this situation. I hope I’m fortunate enough to experience it a third time.
“It’s always a great honor to be here and feel the tremendous joy of excitement that comes from this fantastic event. With the pandemic, it’s a little different from the usual time, but it’s nice to see everybody here.
“I try to be better every time but working with the team all came together. Hopefully, we can continue this trend in 2021, too.”
In 2017, Sato experienced the joy of victory in front of a near-capacity crowd approaching 300,000 spectators at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Last year, however, the race was held without spectators as an estimated 2,000 people including race teams, IndyCar officials, limited sponsors, medical personnel, police, firefighters, safety crews and media were on site for the race.
It is expected that a limited number of fans will be allowed to attend the 105th Indianapolis 500 on May 30, but according to Penske Corporation President Bud Denker and IMS President Boles, that number has yet to be determined.
“Indy 500 is special to these fantastic people,” Sato said. “This is a great kickoff for us for the rest of the season and a boost of momentum for the team, too. Hopefully, we can have fans back for the Indy 500 and have an exciting Indy 500 again this year.”
One can only speculate on what the future of the Indianapolis 500 and everyday life will look like in 50 years, but if the latest tradition continues, the winner of the 2070 Indianapolis 500 will receive a memento honoring Sato’s charge to the Indy 500 win in 2020.
Who knows, maybe it will be a Takuma Sato lunchbox.