IndyCar

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

Takuma Sato Ganassi Indy
Justin Casterline/Getty Images for SiriusXM
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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.”