Takuma Sato, David Letterman, Bobby Rahal, Michael Lanigan cherishing their ‘Baby Borgs’

Rahal Sato Letterman BorgWarner
Mike Levitt/LAT Photo

INDIANAPOLIS – Takuma Sato is one of just three drivers entered in this year’s Indy 500 who have won the famed race more than one time. The other two include three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves and two-time winner Juan Pablo Montoya.

As Sato enters the 105th Indianapolis 500, his recent success at Indianapolis Motor Speedway should make him one of the drivers to watch as a serious contender for more Indy 500 glory.

Sato, along with Rahal Letterman Lanigan team owners Bobby Rahal, David Letterman and Michael Lanigan all received their “Baby Borg” Trophies from BorgWarner at last month’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Sato, Rahal and Lanigan were all in attendance at a ceremony at the team’s hospitality area on Friday evening, April 23.

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Letterman arrived Sunday morning, April 25 but still had a presence at the actual ceremony thanks to “David Letterman on a Stick.”

BorgWarner publicist Steve Shunck was able to do a life-size cutout of Letterman’s head and attached it to a stick so that when all the Baby Borg winners posed, Letterman was in the group shot.

David Letterman chats with Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Roger Penske before the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg (Bruce Martin).

Letterman, who hosted one of the more innovative TV shows in history when he starred on “Late Night with David Letterman” from 1982 to 1993 on NBC, always can appreciate a good joke.

It was the second time Letterman collected a “Baby Borg” Trophy (the mini-replica of the Borg-Warner Trophy for the Indy 500 winner) as a car owner. His first came in 2004 when Buddy Rice drove a Honda to victory. Sato’s win on Aug. 23 allowed the team to celebrate an Indy 500 win 16 years later.

NBCSports.com asked Letterman if the second Indy 500 win was as good as the first?

“Oh, for heaven’s sakes, of course, it keeps getting better and better,” Letterman told NBCSports.com. “But to get any recognition from this organization is a wonderful thing.

“I went to school in Muncie, and BorgWarner had a company up there making who knows what they make up there? Gearboxes, I don’t know.

“It’s very cool. It’s very exciting. I’m very proud and pleased. Again, it’s all the team. Thank God for all these men and women who have been so generous to me over the years. I’m thrilled to be a part of this.”

David Letterman and driver Graham Rahal share a moment before the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg (Bruce Martin).

Frederic Lissalde is president and CEO of BorgWarner understands why people who have spent their lives in front of the public for their whole career, such as Letterman, continue to get emotional over the presentation of the Baby Borg and the perpetual Borg-Warner Trophy that is on permanent display at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The winning driver is immortalized on the Borg-Warner Trophy, but the Baby Borg Trophies are smaller versions that the winning driver and team owners get to keep.

“These guys, that’s their whole life,” Lissalde told NBCSports.com “They are striving all year long to get this trophy, and to me, it’s a pleasure to give it away and give them what they have worked for.

“What we’ve done is let the drivers use the trophy. Takuma brought it to Japan. That’s absolutely part of their life.

Rahal Sato Letterman BorgWarner
Takuma Sato kisses the Baby Borg that he was presented with for winning the 2020 Indy 500 (Mike Levitt/LAT Photo).

“BorgWarner is associated with the Borg-Warner Trophy and the Borg-Warner Trophy is the Indianapolis 500 trophy. It’s been like that for decades. Our culture is also attached to this trophy. The culture of excellence and the culture of winning.

“We are very proud of that.”

Rahal has experienced victory in the Indianapolis 500 three times in his career. His first came as a driver in 1986 when he drove the late Jim Trueman’s entry to victory in a thrilling finish by passing race leader Kevin Cogan on a restart with two laps to go.

“We were able to take a tighter line off Turn 4, got the run on him and then it was just a matter of two laps and stay ahead of him,” Rahal recalled. “Both he and Rick Mears, probably the greatest Indy 500 driver there is, we were able to do that. We set the fastest lap of the race on the last lap of the race, so that was pretty cool.

“It was particularly special for us and our team because our team owner who brought us there would eventually die 10 days later from cancer. He was there to see the win.

“It’s not often you get to realize a dream for somebody else. Jim Trueman realized his dream that day and that was very special.”

As a team owner, Rahal has won the Indy 500 two more times with Rice in 2004 and Sato in 2020. But this is only his second Baby Borg Trophy.

“When I won the 500, I didn’t get a trophy, I got a plaque,” Rahal explained. “Now, here we are with the real thing.”

Sato won his first Indianapolis 500 in 2017 when he was driving a Honda for Andretti Autosport and outdueled Castroneves, in a Team Penske Chevrolet, at the end of the race. He returned to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing the following season, after coming close to winning the Indy 500 in 2012.

When he won the Indy 500 on August 23, it was in front of an empty grandstand as fans were not allowed to attend the famed race because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Because the grandstands are empty, there is a movement among fans and drivers to give Sato his post-race “Victory Lap” in the pace car before this year’s race to make up for the win he didn’t get to share with the fans in 2020.

“That’s very nice of the fans for starting that conversation,” Sato said. “I’m super happy with the support of the loyal fans and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. If the circumstances allow me to do so, I would be more happy to take that victory lap.

“Regardless of when, if I have such an opportunity, I’ll be more than happy to do that. For sure, last year, with a victory lap alone, it was a little sad. It would be nice to do it in front of fans.”

Rahal is solidly behind the effort to give his driver the accolade he was denied last August so the popular driver can share it with the fans.

“I would love to see Takuma be recognized by those in attendance because that is a special thing,” Rahal recalled. “I remember when I won, it was me, my wife Debbi at the time and Jim Trueman. Jim would die 10 days after the race. We went around in the pace car after the race and that was a special moment. I really hope the Speedway would honor Takuma because I think he deserves that acclaim that he has worked so hard for.

“They do the lap for all the previous winners. I have to believe they could sneak Takuma in there. I don’t know how he feels, but I think he deserves it. I hope the Speedway will do that.

“He did such a great job last year. I think he deserves the accolades.

“We didn’t get our victory banquet the year I won back in 1986. We did it at the back of the Brickyard Crossing with me and Rick Mears and maybe 30 people. It was a little like that last year.

“Maybe we aren’t meant to celebrate like others. As long as we win. There weren’t people in the stands last year, but it was a great race. You take what you get.”

(Mike Levitt/LAT Photo)

Rahal’s third Indy 500 win, and Sato’s second win the 500 was a first for the team’s third owner, Lanigan. The industrialist from the South Side of Chicago owns one of the largest heavy equipment and crane companies in the world. He also owns the Panama Canal Railroad, one of the most important shipping passages in the world.

Lanigan’s Indy 500 dream began in 1973 when he had an apartment near the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“My dream back then when I first went to the Speedway was to try to figure out how to get a suite in Turn 2 because those were the only suites back then,” Lanigan recalled. “After about five or six years, the dream got bigger in trying to win the 500. We tried a number of times and we got it done.

“It’s something you always dream about but it’s reality today and hopefully something I get to do again.

“This definitely does hit me. I never dreamed of being able to bring one of these home. We came close a couple of times over the years but never got it done. We got it. We got it done. Now, I’m getting a little spoiled and hope we can do it again a couple more times.

“I’m going to put this one in my office for a while.”

Lanigan and Sato have become very close friends. When Sato left the team the first time, he vowed that one day he would return and take the team to victory in the Indy 500.

He lived up to that promise last August.

“This team did an unbelievable job with a very challenging 2020. We achieved an unbelievable result. I’m very happy,” Sato said. “I like this ‘Baby Borg’ just like the first. It’s a different face and this face is even happier.

“Second time around, it looks even better.

“It’s an unbelievable achievement. The Borg-Warner Trophy creates one for us that we get to keep, and this has a special meaning. The Baby Borg will travel all over the place, but one day it will be nicely displayed in my house, or even in the museum, too.

“Maybe one day there will be a Takuma Sato Museum. It isn’t planned at the moment, but we will see.”

As practice begins for the 105th Indianapolis 500, Sato is ready to take his place as one of the speed demons at the Speedway. If successful in winning another Indianapolis 500 in 2021, he would become the first back-to-back Indy 500 winner since Castroneves in 2001-2002.

“We are challenging for that, but the competitors will be extremely keen to take over from last year, but we have a good baseline,” Sato explained. “Hopefully, we still have a great car.”

It could also add to the winner’s check.

BorgWarner’s $380,000 Rolling Jackpot is available to a driver if he wins back-to-back Indy 500s.

Rahal Sato Letterman BorgWarner
If Takuma Sato can deliver another Indy 500 victory to team owner Bobby Rahal this year, it’ll bring an extra six-figure payday from BorgWarner (Mike Levitt/LAT Photo).

It’s a prize that has been in existence since 1995 and Castroneves is the only driver to have ever won the jackpot in 2002 when he won his second straight Indy 500.

BorgWarner’s prize fund increases by $20,000 a year and rolls over to the following Indy 500 if no driver wins the race two years in a row. Because it’s been 17 years since a driver claimed the prize, it is now at $380,000, or in Sato’s case, 41,300,000 Japanese Yen.

“The Indianapolis 500 is a cherished pastime for our company and the rolling jackpot, on top of the coveted Borg-Warner Trophy, brings an added level of excitement to the race,” said Frédéric Lissalde, President and CEO, BorgWarner Inc. “We are delighted to have accumulated this sizeable reward and eager to witness the next back-to-back victor claim the prize for their remarkable accomplishment.”

This tradition was started in 1995 as a way for BorgWarner to add more excitement to this already highly anticipated motorsport classic. The back-to-back win is a rare feat in this legendary race, with only five drivers ever accomplishing it since the race’s inception in 1911.

The noteworthy drivers include Wilbur Shaw (1939-1940), Mauri Rose (1947-1948), Bill Vukovich (1953-1954), Al Unser (1970-1971) and most recently, Helio Castroneves (2001-2002).

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New Chip Ganassi driver Marcus Armstrong will team with boyhood idol Scott Dixon

Marcus Armstrong Scott Dixon
Joe Portlock - Formula 1/Formula Motorsport Limited via Getty Images

Marcus Armstrong was a Scott Dixon fan his entire life, and when he was 8, the aspiring young racer asked his fellow New Zealander to autograph a helmet visor that he hung on his bedroom wall.

Next year, Armstrong will be Dixon’s teammate.

Armstrong was named Friday as the fourth IndyCar driver in the Chip Ganassi Racing lineup and will pilot the No. 11 next season on road and street courses.

A driver for the five oval races on the 17-race schedule will be named later.

The No. 11 is essentially the No. 48 that seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson drove the last two seasons, with Chip Ganassi making the change to run four cars numbered in sequential order. Indianapolis 500 winner Marcus Ericsson drives the No. 8, six-time champion Dixon drives the No. 9, and 2020 IndyCar champion Alex Palou drives the No. 10.

So just who is the second Kiwi in the Ganassi lineup?

A 22-year-old who spent the past three seasons in Formula One feeder series F2, a Ferrari development driver in 2021, and former roommate of Callum Illot and former teammate of Christian Lundgaard – both of whom just completed their rookie IndyCar seasons.

“I’ve always been attracted to the IndyCar championship because it’s one of those championships that’s been really well televised in New Zealand since I was young, mainly because of Scott and his success,” Armstrong told The Associated Press. “As time progressed, as I got closer to F1 and single-seaters, the attraction to IndyCar grew just because of how competitive the championship is – I like to challenge myself and the level of competition in IndyCar is remarkably high.”

Armstrong, from Christchurch, New Zealand, was set to travel from his current home in London to Indianapolis this weekend to meet his new team. He won’t need an introduction to Dixon, the 42-year-old considered the best IndyCar driver of his generation and Armstrong’s unequivocal childhood hero.

Last season, Dixon earned his 53rd career victory to pass Mario Andretti for second on the all-time list. Dixon has driven for Ganassi in all but 23 of his 345 career starts.

“For a long time I’ve been a Scott Dixon fan. I don’t want to make him cringe with our age difference,” Armstrong told the AP.

Despite the two-decade age difference, Armstrong never considered someday racing with Dixon a fantasy.

He convinced his father after winning five national karting championships to allow him to leave New Zealand for Italy at age 14, where he moved by himself to pursue a racing career. Armstrong said as soon as he’d received parental permission, he’d never look back.

Armstrong was in Formula 4 two years after his move to Italy and won that title in his first season. He won four races and four poles in F3 in the 2018 and 2019 seasons, then collected four wins and eight podiums in three seasons of F2.

“Maybe it’s a strength, or maybe it’s a weakness, but I always thought I was capable of doing great in the sport,” Armstrong told the AP. “I think you probably have to succeed in the sport, you need to believe in yourself. I always pictured myself being in IndyCar.

“As Scott’s teammate? I can’t specifically say I saw that. It’s an extraordinary chain of events.”

Armstrong becomes just the latest driver to leave Europe, where F1 is the pinnacle but has only 20 seats each year. Alexander Rossi began the trend in 2016 when the American left F1 and won the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie. He’s been followed by Ericsson, last season’s Indy 500 winner, Romain Grosjean, Illot, Lundgaard, and on Thursday three-time W Series champion and Williams F1 reserve driver Jamie Chadwick was announced as driver for Andretti Autosport in IndyCar’s second-tier development series.

Armstrong said he could have remained in F2 for a fourth season, but he’d been watching IndyCar for so long, and after conversations with Illot and Lundgaard, he decided to make the move to what he believes is the most balanced racing series in the world. He tested for Dale Coyne Racing at Sebring in October.

He doesn’t know if European racing is done for good, just that he wants to be in IndyCar right now.

“I don’t want to think too far into the future, I’m just grateful for this opportunity that is standing right in front of me,” Armstrong said. “I want to perform as well as I can in the near future and just consolidate myself in the fantastic chance that is IndyCar and just do my best.

“I’m not looking at F1 as a landing spot – I am looking at IndyCar, and that’s exactly why I am here.”