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.”

Tony Kanaan at peace with IndyCar career end: ‘I’ll always be an Indianapolis 500 winner’


INDIANAPOLIS – Few drivers in Indy 500 history have been as popular as Tony Kanaan.

Throughout his career at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway that began with his first Indy 500 in 2002, the fans loved his aggressiveness on the track and his engaging personality with the fans.

The Brazilian always got the loudest cheers from the fans during driver introductions before the Indy 500.

Sunday’s 107th Indianapolis 500 would be his last time to walk up the steps for driver introductions. Kanaan announced earlier this year that it would be his final race of his IndyCar career, but not the final race as a race driver.

He will continue to compete in stock cars in Brazil and in Tony Stewart’s summer series known as the “Superstar Racing Experience” – an IROC-type series that competes at legendary short tracks around the country beginning in June.

Kanaan was the extra driver at Arrow McLaren for this year’s Indy 500 joining NTT IndyCar Series regulars Pato O’Ward of Mexico, Felix Rosenqvist of Sweden, and Alexander Rossi of northern California.

He had a sporty ride, the No. 66 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet that paid homage to McLaren’s first Indianapolis 500 victory by the late Mark Donohue for Team Penske in 1972.

Because Kanaan has meant so much to the Indianapolis 500 and the NTT IndyCar Series, the 2013 Indy 500 winner was honored before the start of the race with a special video.

It featured Kanaan sitting in the Grandstand A seats writing a love letter to the fans of this great event. Kanaan narrated the video, reciting the words in the letter and it finished with the driver putting it in an envelope and leaving it at the Yard of Bricks.

Lauren Kanaan with daughter Nina before the 107th Indy 500 (Bruce Martin Photo).

Many in the huge crowd of 330,000 fans watched the video on the large screens around the speedway. On the starting grid, Kanaan’s wife, Lauren, who bears a striking resemblance to actress Kate Beckinsale, watched with their four children.

Kanaan’s wife is an Indiana girl who was a high school basketball star in Cambridge City, Indiana.

Kanaan proposed to Lauren in 2010, and after a three-year engagement, they were married in 2013 – the year he won his only Indianapolis 500.

She has been Kanaan’s rock, and this was a moment for the family to share.

After receiving an ovation and the accolades from the crowd, Kanaan walked to his car on the starting grid and exchanged hugs with people who were important in his career.

One of those was Takuma Sato’s engineer at Chip Ganassi Racing, Eric Cowdin.

Tony Kanaan shares a moment with former engineer Eric Cowdin (Bruce Martin Photo).

Kanaan and Cowdin shared a longtime relationship dating all the way back to the Andretti Green Racing days when Kanaan was a series champion in 2004. This combination stayed together when Kanaan moved to KV Racing in 2011, then Chip Ganassi Racing from 2014-2018 followed by two years at AJ Foyt Racing.

Kanaan returned to run the four oval races for Chip Ganassi Racing in 2021 in the No. 48 Honda that was shared with seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson.

In 2022, Johnson ran the full IndyCar Series schedule, and Kanaan drove the No. 1 American Legion entry to a third-place finish in his only IndyCar race of the season.

Kanaan knew that 2023 would be his last Indy 500 and properly prepared himself mentally and emotionally for his long goodbye.

But one could sense the heartfelt love, gratitude, and most of all respect for this tenacious driver in the moments leading up to the start of the race.

Tony Kanaan gets emotional during an interview after the Indy 500 (Mykal McEldowney/IndyStar/ USA TODAY Sports Images Network).

“The emotions are just there,” Kanaan said. “I cried 400 times. This guy came to hug me, and I made Rocket (IndyCar Technical Director Kevin Blanch) cry. I mean, that is something.

“Yeah, it was emotional.”

Kanaan started ninth and finished 18th in a race that was very clean for the first two thirds of the race before ending in disjointed fashion with three red flags to stop the race over the final 15 laps.

“Yellows breed yellows and when you are talking about the Indianapolis 500 and a field that is so tough to pass, that happens,” Kanaan said. “It’s the Indy 500. Come on. We’ve got to leave it out there.

“Every red flag, everybody goes, I’m going to pass everybody. It’s tough to pass. It’s the toughest field, the tightest field we ever had here. It was going to happen. We knew it was going to happen.

“I wouldn’t want it any different. We left it all out there. Everybody that was out left it out.”

At one point in the second half of the race, Kanaan passed Team Penske’s Scott McLaughlin by driving through the grass on the backstretch.

“That was OK, right?” Kanaan said. “That is one thing I have not done in 22 years here. Even (team owner) Sam Schmidt came to me and said, ‘That was a good one.’

“That was a farewell move.”

On the final lap, it was Kanaan battling his boyhood friend from Brazil, four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves, for a mid-pack finish.

“Helio and I battling for 15th and 16th on the last lap like we’re going for the lead,” Kanaan said. “It was like, who’s playing pranks with us.

“We both went side by side on the backstretch after the checker and we saluted with each other, and I just told him actually I dropped a tear because of that, and he said, ‘I did, too.’

“We went side by side like twice. A lot of memories came to my mind, and I even said how ironic it is that we started it together and I get to battle him on the last lap of my last race.

Tony Kanaan is embraced by his wife, Lauren, after finishing 16th in the 107th Indianapolis 500 ((Mykal McEldowney/IndyStar/ USA TODAY Sports Images Network).

“It’s pretty neat. It’s a pretty cool story. He’s a great friend. My reference, a guy that I love and hate a lot throughout my career, and like he just told me — I was coming up here and he just said, who am I going to look on the time sheet when I come into the pits now, because we always said that it didn’t matter if I was — if I was 22nd and he was 23rd, my day was okay. And vice versa.

“It was a good day for me, man. What can I say? We cried on the grid.

“Not the result that we wanted. I went really aggressive on the downforce to start the race. It was wrong. Then I added downforce towards the end of the race, and it was wrong. It was just one of those days.”

After the race was over, Kanaan drove his No. 66 Honda back to the Arrow McLaren pit area and climbed out of the car to cheers of the fans that could see him. Others were focused on Josef Newgarden’s wild celebration after the Team Penske driver had won his first Indianapolis 500.

There were no tears, though, only smiles from Kanaan who closes an IndyCar career with 389 starts, 17 wins including the 2013 Indianapolis 500, 79 podiums, 13 poles, and 4,077 laps led in a 26-year career.

Kanaan came, he raced, and he raced hard.

“That’s what we did, we raced as hard as we could,” Kanaan told NBC Sports.com. “It wasn’t enough.

“The win was the only thing that mattered. If we were second or 16th, we were going to celebrate regardless.

“In a way, being 16th will stop people wondering if I’m going to come back.

“I’m ready to go. I’m ready to enjoy the time with my family, with my team and doing other things as well.”

Kanaan’s face will forever be part of the Borg-Warner Trophy as the winner of the Indianapolis 500.

“I won one and that is there, and it will always be there,” Kanaan said. “It was an awesome day.

“The way this crowd made me feel was unbelievable. I don’t regret a bit.”

Tony Kanaan hugs his son Max before the Indy 500 (Grace Hollars/IndyStar/USA TODAY Sports Images Network).

Kanaan actually announced the 2020 Indianapolis 500 would be TK’s last ride because he wanted to say goodbye to the fans.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 hit, the Indianapolis 500 was moved from Memorial Day Weekend to August 23 and because of COVID restrictions, fans were not allowed to attend the Indianapolis 500.

Three years later, Kanaan was finally able to say goodbye to this fans that were part of the largest crowd to see the Indianapolis 500 since the sold-out gathering for 350,000 that attended the 100th running in 2016.

“That’s it, that’s what I wanted, and I got what I wanted,” Kanaan said. “This moment was so special; I don’t want to ever spoil it again.

Tony Kanaan kisses his daughter Nina before the 107th Indy 500 (Grace Hollars/IndyStar / USA TODAY Sports Images Network).

“We’ve been building and growing this series as much as we can. I’m really glad and proud that I was able to be part of building something big and this year’s race was one of the biggest ones.”

Kanaan walked off pit lane and rejoined his family. He will always be part of the glorious history of the Indianapolis 500 and fans will be talking about Tony Kanaan years from now, not by what he did, but the way he did it.

“This is what it is all about,” Kanaan said on pit lane. “Having kids, be a good person. Even if you don’t win, it’s fine if you don’t, as long as you make a difference.

“Hopefully, I made a difference in this sport.

“I will always be an IndyCar driver. I will always be an Indy 500 winner and I will always make people aware of IndyCar in the way it deserves.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

(Jenna Watson/IndyStar / USA TODAY Sports Images Network)