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).

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

Hunter Lawrence defends Haiden Deegan after controversial block pass at Detroit


Media and fan attention focused on a controversial run-in between Haiden Deegan and his Monster Energy Yamaha Star Racing teammate Jordon Smith during Round 10 of the Monster Energy Supercross race at Detroit, after which the 250 East points’ Hunter Lawrence defends the young rider in the postrace news conference.

Deegan took the early lead in Heat 1 of the round, but the mood swiftly changed when he became embroiled in a spirited battle with teammate Smith.

On Lap 3, Smith caught Deegan with a fast pass through the whoops. Smith briefly held the lead heading into a bowl turn but Deegan had the inside line and threw a block pass. In the next few turns, the action heated up until Smith eventually ran into the back of Deegan’s Yamaha and crashed.

One of the highlights of the battle seemed to include a moment when Deegan waited on Smith in order to throw a second block pass, adding fuel to the controversy.

After his initial crash, Smith fell to seventh on the next lap. He would crash twice more during the event, ultimately finishing four laps off the pace in 20th.

The topic was inevitably part of the postrace news conference.

“It was good racing; it was fun,” Deegan said at about the 27-minute mark in the video above. “I just had some fun doing it.”

Smith had more trouble in the Last Chance Qualifier. He stalled his bike in heavy traffic, worked his way into a battle for fourth with the checkers in sight, but crashed a few yards shy of the finish line and was credited with seventh. Smith earned zero points and fell to sixth in the standings.

Lawrence defends Deegan
Jordon Smith failed to make the Detroit Supercross Main and fell to sixth in the points. – Feld Motor Sports

“I think he’s like fifth in points,” Deegan said. “He’s a little out of it. Beside that it was good, I don’t know. I wasn’t really paying attention.”

Deegan jokingly deflected an earlier question with the response that he wasn’t paying attention during the incident.

“He’s my teammate, but he’s a veteran, he’s been in this sport for a while,” Deegan said. “I was up there just battling. I want to win as much as everybody else. It doesn’t matter if it’s a heat race or a main; I just want to win. I was just trying to push that.”

As Deegan and Smith battled, Jeremy Martin took the lead. Deegan finished second in the heat and backed up his performance with a solid third-place showing in the main, which was his second podium finish in a short six-race career. Deegan’s first podium was earned at Daytona, just two rounds ago.

But as Deegan struggled to find something meaningful to say, unsurprisingly for a 17-year-old rider who was not scheduled to run the full 250 schedule this year, it was the championship leader Lawrence who came to his defense.

Lawrence defends Deegan
A block pass by Haiden Deegan led to a series of events that eventually led to Jordon Smith failing to make the Main. – Feld Motor Sports

“I just want to point something out, which kind of amazes me,” Lawrence said during the conference. “So many of the people on social media, where everyone puts their expertise in, are saying the racing back in the ’80s, the early 90s, when me were men. They’re always talking about how gnarly it was and then anytime a block pass or something happens now, everyone cries about it.

“That’s just a little bit interesting. Pick one. You want the gnarly block passes from 10 years ago and then you get it, everyone makes a big song and dance about it.”

Pressed further, Lawrence defended not only the pass but the decision-making process that gets employed lap after lap in a Supercross race.

“It’s easy to point the finger,” Lawrence said. “We’re out there making decisions in a split millisecond. People have all month to pay their phone bill and they still can’t do that on time.

“We’re making decisions at such a fast reaction [time with] adrenaline. … I’m not just saying it for me or Haiden. I speak for all the guys. No one is perfect and we’re under a microscope out there. The media is really quick to point a finger when someone makes a mistake.”

The media is required to hold athletes accountable for their actions. They are also required to tell the complete story.