Takuma Sato thrilled to join Ganassi at Indy, ovals: ‘An unbelievable lifetime opportunity’

Takuma Sato Ganassi Indy
Justin Casterline/Getty Images for SiriusXM

Takuma Sato has spent 13 seasons in the NTT IndyCar Series battling with Chip Ganassi Racing, particularly at the Indy 500.

Though he suffered a wheel-to-wheel defeat to Dario Franchitti in Turn 1 on the final lap of a 2012 thriller at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Sato has been on the other side, too — outdueling Scott Dixon in 2020 for his second Indy 500 victory..

So he’s lost to Ganassi’s champions. He’s beaten them.

And now he’s joining them.

“I always have been competing and trying to beat Chip Ganassi Racing all this time,” Sato told NBC Sports with a laugh about the news that he will drive Ganassi’s No. 11 Dallara-Honda at oval races during the 2023 IndyCar season. “And now I have an unbelievable lifetime opportunity to join with them. Just to be part of the entire Chip Ganassi Racing organization is just such a proud moment, too. I’m just so much looking forward to working with all the team members who won the championships and the 500s.

“This is just an amazing opportunity, an incredible moment. Now I’m in the team that I was always chasing. I don’t know how to express my feelings, but I can’t wait to get started.”

Sato, who turns 46 later this month, will have to wait a little longer than usual.

His first of five races for Ganassi this year will be the second on the 2023 schedule, April 2 at Texas Motor Speedway. His absence from the grid for the March 5 opener at St. Petersburg, Florida, will snap a streak of having attempted 216 consecutive races in IndyCar.

Aside from the 2020 race at Texas (which Sato missed after a crash in qualifying), he has been on the starting grid of every IndyCar race since his debut in the 2010 season opener at Brazil.

Though Sato concedes it’s “a new chapter” that he never expected, he also equates the chance to win the Indy 500 for Ganassi (which dominated last May at the Brickyard in qualifying and on race day) with contending for a full-season championship.

“You always dream about going racing in the best possible environment, but Chip Ganassi Racing is always the top job in the business,” Sato said. “That’s just no doubt. It has been 30 years always like this. It’s just life is full of surprises, but this is such an opportunity.

“Yes, I probably will miss the feeling of going to different places race by race and visit the variety of street racing, road racing, short ovals, superspeedways. This is the attractive part of IndyCar racing, which probably I will miss a lot. But then on the different side is just knowing that going to every single (oval race), you’re going to have the opportunity to be at the highest level. I’m sure we have to work so hard, too, but I can’t wait to join the team properly and so much am looking forward to working together. It seems we are starting some of the engineering projects already. It’s just an incredible opportunity. I’m so excited.”

After becoming the first Japanese driver to win the Indy 500 in 2017, Sato will have another shot at IMS history by joining a prestigious club of Indy legends.

After Indy 500 victories with Andretti Autosport and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, Sato now has a serious shot with Ganassi, which is coming off its fifth Indy 500 victory.

Ten drivers have won at least three Indy 500s, and only three have won Indy with three different teams: Al Unser, Bobby Unser and A.J. Foyt. Sato could become the fourth.

“They’ve always been the toughest competitor in the field, but recently, especially last year, the dominance of what they’ve shown in the Indy 500 was simply more than impressive,” Sato said of Ganassi, which has 14 IndyCar championships (including nine in the past 15 seasons). “They’re always on top of the game, and I think that’s a strength of the team. Not just a single element but all the details and working together.”

Sato is looking forward to collaborating with his new teammates. He has yet to meet Marcus Armstrong, who will drive their shared No. 11 on street and road courses, but Sato has strong relationships with 2022 Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson and 2021 series champion Alex Palou.

And then there’s Dixon, who is a bit of a contemporary at 42 despite having 153 more career starts than Sato,

“I’m just so grateful to be part of the team and working with such a teammate like Dixie,” Sato said. “We have such a respect for a long, long time, but we always have a tight competition out there because we are not on the same team. Now even though a healthy competition is always still there, it’ll be driver to driver to bring us to the next level for the entire team.”

After earning six victories, 14 podium finishes and 10 pole positions over 13 seasons in IndyCar, Sato has high expectations with Ganassi beyond Indy.

He believes he can challenge for wins in the other four races at Texas (where he qualified third last year), the Iowa Speedway doubleheader (the site of his first career pole in 2011) and World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway (where he scored a memorable win in 2019 and a second in 2020).

“I’m certainly confident we can be up to the speed very quickly with Chip Ganassi’s organization,” he said. “Every single (oval) race, I have some great memories. So it would be fantastic to challenge for all of them.”

His future could depend on it. Sato’s contract is through 2023, but he isn’t ready to say this season will be his last in IndyCar.

“It’s undecided and wide open,” Sato said. “I don’t want to talk about too much in the future, but certainly 2023 is absolutely a new challenge. I don’t have a contract for 2024. But if this program certainly opened the door for another new opportunity, I’d consider it heavily. I’d love to keep racing as much as I can if I feel it’s an appropriate environment, and this is more than what you dream of, an incredible opportunity. I like to thank everyone involved who made this happen.”

He also thanked Dale Coyne and Rick Ware, the co-owners of the No. 51 Dallara-Honda the he drove for the 2022 season. Coyne had said in multiple reports that the team wanted to keep Sato, who indicated he had mulled a full season for 2023 as well as staying with Coyne and Ware.

Sato said the funding and sponsorship package made more sense with Ganassi than returning to Dale Coyne Racing, which traditionally has punched above its weight in IndyCar by outperforming teams with more money.

“I entirely enjoyed going out with them and trying to squeeze performance out of such limited resources,” said Sato, who had a season-best fifth while ranking 19th in the 2022 points standings (his worst showing since his rookie year). “They did a fantastic job the entire season, but the end result is not what we wanted. I only appreciated what they’ve done for me and what we achieve as well.

“For me the full-season entry, we’d love to have the opportunity, but again, in business, it’s so difficult to put all this together. I had to choose what is the next chapter for me and joining Chip Ganassi Racing is no doubt one of the most exciting moments in my racing career.”

Ware also owns a NASCAR team and told the SiriusXM NASCAR channel recently that he wants to field Sato in a Cup Series race now that his racing schedule has opened up. Motorsport.com also has reported that IMSA races were considered for Sato.

Sato told NBC Sports that a NASCAR race with Ware is possible, and he also plans on moving into a driver mentor role.

“I think the opportunity is again just wide open,” Sato said. “Like this announcement as well, life is full of surprise, too. Things happen that you never expected. For sure, I won’t think about too much for other things because I want to really concentrate 100 percent with what we’re doing in this opportunity and program.

“But again my future will be absolutely open. And one of the things I’m looking forward to is working with the new generation of young Japanese drivers to bring to the IndyCar series. That’s ultimately what we need. If I could become the bridge between the two, that would be fantastic. But before that, I need to get done my job, too. It will be a fantastic opportunity to work with Chip Ganassi Racing.”

Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi bring their storied rivalry to a new level at Rolex 24

Ganassi Penske Rolex 24
Chris Owens/Penske Entertainment

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – To measure the impact of Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi squaring off for the first time in overall sports car wins (starting at the Rolex 24), look at the auto racing titans’ lineups.

There are 12 combined drivers across four entries representing Chip Ganassi Racing (competing as Cadillac Racing) and Team Penske (as Porsche Penske Motorsport) in the 61st Rolex 24 at Daytona.

And with the possible exception of six-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon, none of those behind the wheel is as famous and accomplished as the U.S. motorsports icons who will be sitting atop the pit stands at Daytona International Speedway.

In the NTT IndyCar Series, Penske and Ganassi are synonymous with success, having combined for 23 Indy 500 victories and 30 championships. They also competed in the NASCAR Cup Series for two decades with several signature wins for each.

DETAILS FOR THE 61ST ROLEX 24How to watch, entry lists, schedules for the IMSA season opener

FIVE THINGS TO WATCH IN GTPRolex 24 at Daytona kicks off new golden era for sports cars

Until now, the rivalry never extended to the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, where they competed in different classes from 2018-19 and have competed in the top category in differing times over the years.

But the 2023 season opener at Daytona will mark the beginning of a new era in which Ganassi and Penske will compete for sports car overall victories on two continents. A Ganassi Cadillac Racing V-LMDh and Porsche Penske Motorsports Penske 963 will run full time in both the premier prototype divisions of IMSA and the European-based World Endurance Championship – whose crown jewel is the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Having two of the world’s biggest sports car races welcome the Ganassi-Penske battle seems only fitting in a season in which IMSA’s new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) class is expected to introduce a stiffer level of competition.

“We obviously like beating each other,” Ganassi told NBC Sports. “I think if you beat Penske, you know you’ve beaten someone. You’ve accomplished something great. It’s going to be the same as always. Just another platform at another track, but the rivalry will be just as heated I’m sure.

“On one hand, he’s always the first guy to call us out for a penalty or something. On the other hand, he’s also the first guy to congratulate me on a win, so I think it’s a healthy rivalry, but we certainly pound each other’s heads into the ground on race day. Monday through Friday it switches to more of a good relationship.”

After starting his career in sports cars, Penske also is looking forward to having a new arena to race Ganassi.

“There is a lot of anticipation and excitement about the Rolex 24 and the upcoming sports car season overall,” Penske said in a statement to NBC Sports statement. “With the new hybrid prototype formula ready to make its debut, and some great competition expected on the track between teams, drivers and manufacturers, there is a lot of momentum building right now. Porsche Penske Motorsport is excited to compete in both the IMSA WeatherTech Championship, as well as the FIA World Endurance Championship, this season and I can’t wait to see the No. 6 and No. 7 Porsche 963s in action at Daytona this weekend. We also look forward to bringing some new rivalries and storylines to the sport.

Roger Penske confers with Chip Ganassi before the 2013 Honda Indy Toronto (Andrew Weber/USA TODAY Sports Images).

“In the new IMSA GTP class, there should be a good competitive balance between Porsche, Cadillac, Acura and BMW. We have seen how the rivalry between Team Penske and Ganassi Racing has developed in the NTT IndyCar Series in recent years, and that could certainly extend to sports cars as our teams and drivers continue to develop the new formula and push the production on track in both IMSA and WEC. We will see how the competition plays out, starting this weekend, as we always enjoy racing against Chip and his teams.”

Though there have been some fiery moments over the years (Dario Franchitti vs. Will Power, anyone?), Ganassi vs. Penske mostly has been a story of respect between two organizations whose main strengths are people.

“It’s just the depth of the organizations going up against each other,” Ganassi said. “It’s not just he and I. It’s at every level of the organization.

“We’re smaller. I’d like to think we’re a little more nimble. This is all I do is race cars. I don’t have 200 car dealerships or a truck rental company or a transportation company. I just have racing is all I have.”

Heading into Saturday’s Rolex 24 at Daytona, here are the thoughts of Ganassi and Penske drivers in the Rolex 24 at Daytona:

Earl Bamber, No. 02 Ganassi Cadillac: “When I grew up as a kid, I remember watching Chip Ganassi Racing and Penske battle each other for many years, obviously following Scott Dixon and his career in IndyCar (Bamber is a New Zealand native like Dixon). And when the opportunity came up to come and race for Chip, it’s a no-brainer. It’s one of those teams you want to drive for in the world. It’s one of the biggest and most successful teams in the world. And then we’ve got Porsche, where I used to drive, with Penske. It’s going to be a phenomenal rivalry over the next couple of years and that rivalry continues between two absolute legends of our sport. Two people who have been the most successful. I hope we can get Cadillac and Chip their first Le Mans win. That’s obviously the ultimate goal for us and beat his old rival, Roger.

“Those two powerhouses of the sport, they definitely raise the bar. You’ve seen it in IndyCar for years and years. One finds something and the next pushes it forward and forward. You’ll see the same in sports car racing. We all saw what Chip Ganassi Racing did back in the day with the GT program. So no doubt we can do the same again. It’s the ultimate highest level of motorsport when it comes to sports car racing, and there’ll be no stone unturned to make sure that we’re winning these races. It will be a really great fight, great for the fans and great for the sport, because both of them love winning.”

Dane Cameron, No. 6 Porsche Penske: “I think anytime you have Chip and Roger come to town to start fighting for wins, it raises the profile of the whole thing. Hopefully it brings a few more eyes to everything. Certainly brings a lot of expectation with it as well, and I also think it reflects really strongly on the championship to show how competitive it is. They respect the championship and challenge, but when they come to town, they come to win for sure.”

Scott Dixon, No. 01 Ganassi Cadillac: “The battle between Chip Ganassi Racing and Penske is always a fierce one. I obviously know it well from the IndyCar side. But I think it’s a lot more than that. It’s impressive to see a lot of the manufacturers that have come in for this battle. I imagine if it’s not from the first race but during the season that Penske and Ganassi will fight it out pretty hard.

“I think the rivalry between Chip Ganassi racing and Penske has always been strong and in a good way. There’s been some battles and the 2010s for me and other drivers when it gets fierce. Some disagreements here and there. But it’s always been a great pure battle, which is what I think these championships are made of and what brings the fans to the track. So I’d sum it up as a very healthy rivalry.”

Alex Lynn, No. 02 Ganassi Cadillac: “Even as a little boy (growing up in England), you knew exactly who Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi were. You knew what their teams represented. For me to represent Chip and his team is a huge honor. I’m extremely motivated to try to add to his legacy and be part of the fabric of this team. I think having the battle between Penske and Ganassi is iconic. Also Porsche and Cadillac as brands, respectively, just adds to the occasion. Makes me smile even thinking about it knowing what we get to represent when the flag drops.”

Felipe Nasr, No. 7 Porsche Penske: “I think it’s fantastic especially because we’re merging the IMSA and WEC Series and giving the opportunity for teams like Penske and Ganassi to fight for overall victories. You look at the history of those teams, they’ve been on top. We always hear it from the IndyCar guys or the NASCAR side, you’re talking two big names in motorsports. You expect nothing but them fighting for wins. For sure Ganassi has strengths, and we have strengths as well. I’m pretty glad I have the opportunity to be representing Team Penske and continue to write history with them and Porsche is a great opportunity.”

Richard Westbrook, No. 02 Ganassi Cadillac: “The chance for the two most famous teams in America to go head to head in the Daytona 24 Hours and also the Le Mans 24 Hours. I expect that rivalry to keep going up more notches.”

Renger van der Zande, No. 01 Ganassi Cadillac: “Obviously, it’s such the big houses of racing in the U.S. Penske and Ganassi are taking it at each other. The rivalry is big. The best of the best. The most famous ones in the U.S.

“Ganassi is part of Cadillac. We’re the race team that runs the factory program for Cadillac. Penske is running it for Porsche, obviously a high brand as well. Those teams have their little rivalry, but they’re working for a bigger company, a bigger brand, which is Cadillac and Porsche. So those two premium brands taking on each other and then two of the best teams in America taking on each other. It’s very simple: Cadillac got the best team in the U.S. and Porsche got the best team in the U.S. So let’s see what happens. It’s going to be a cool fight.”