Takuma Sato Won’t Be Idle – Indianapolis Monthly
TAkuma Sato could be the most modest racing superstar in the world. He started out with racing bikes – like pedal bikes – and didn’t get behind the wheel of a racing car until he was 19. But in the decades that followed, Sato won with the best machines in the industry, racing for Formula 1 and then IndyCar. He has worked for some of the sport’s greatest legends (Rahal, Foyt and Andretti) and has been behind the wheel with others (Dario Franchitti, Helio Castroneves and Scott Dixon). And in May, as fans return to the Speedway, Sato will look to repeat as the 500 champion and solidify his own place in racing tradition with a third Borg-Warner victory.
Growing up in Japan, how are you getting into the race?
The very first race I watched on TV was the Indy 500. I must have been 6 or 7 years old – that was when the TV still had the rotary knob to turn the channel. I remember the fast passes and all the high speed turns, no hairpin turns.
When I was 10, my father took me to the 1987 Japanese Grand Prix in Suzuka. It was my first experience on a track, watching the cars go by. It was a sensation. From that moment on I was a big fan of all races. I wanted to start karting. But my parents just had no idea of the race. There was the financial difficulty. All I had were two wheels on a metal frame – a push bike. I jumped on the bike and started competing in this world.
You asked for a kart and you have A bike. How did that respond to your desire to run?
Cycling is fun. You feel the sensation of speed and mechanics beneath you. When I was 16, I was competing in the All-Japan Championship, which I eventually won. The years have passed. By the time I went to college, I was still cycling.
But from the start, I had read racing magazines, gaining more and more knowledge about how the industry worked. A magazine published an article about the Suzuka Racing School founded by Honda. I applied and got a scholarship. Without it, I wouldn’t have been able to get into car racing.
Even take the wheel of a kart had to be a different world from the motorcycle.
I was just delighted every moment. I started karting, then the racing school used a small junior formula.
The goal at this stage is Formula 1?
Yes. But to get to F1, I needed to go to British Formula 3. And to do this, I needed to learn English. I went to a private language school. In British Formula 3 I also stayed with an English family to learn the language. It took two to three years to understand the culture, the language and the race.
I will say. In two years, you have won the Formula 3 championship.
It was a hell of a trip. I won pole positions and the fastest laps. But during the race, I was winning or crashing. But because there was raw speed they could see, I got the attention of the right people in F1.
I was lucky to have Eddie Jordan [the famous Irish F1 team owner who’d given Michael Schumacher his first ride in the series] give me the opportunity to test his F1 car at the end of my first year in Formula 3. In F1, the teams and equipment are very different from others. As a driver, you are only a small part of it. They spend over $ 300 million a year on R&D with 700 people working on two cars. It’s enormous. It’s like a project at NASA. The pilots are all exceptionally good – it’s an incredibly competitive world. And it really is a question of equipment. The first row at the back of the grid is a matter of seconds.
You say “win or crash”. This all-or-nothing mentality followed you all the way to your IndyCar debut. Was it just a lack of experience?
It’s me, part of my makeup as a pilot. But I also lacked experience. You try to go too far to prove your speed and ability, but your base is not strong enough. The reaction to what is happening is not developed. Drivers who raced growing up learned time management and racing skills.
So, yes, I tried too much at first. Even today, I feel that I am still learning and taking a step forward. No one wants to crash. But sometimes you have to take the risk.
You spent seven seasons in F1. What brought you to IndyCar?
I was extremely in F1. But I was kicked out. In 2008, after the collapse of the global economy, the teams lost their sponsorships. They just couldn’t keep running. At that time, I was optimistic, but the places are so limited. There is politics involved. Anyone who could bring in a huge sponsorship had an advantage. In short, that did not happen to me.
I started to research IndyCar. I have traveled to the United States. My first in-person experience was Bump Day. Standing on the inside of Turn 1, I saw the cars screaming at 235 mph, without reducing speed in the turn. In fact, the driver increased the speed. I was like, “Holy shit, this is just shocking.” I wanted to do it.
In 2010, Jimmy Vasser gave you a chance to do just that for KV Races. Two years later you had a one-season contract with Rahal Letterman Lanigan. And this 2012 Indy 500 is when you really have arrived.
We looked strong in the race. The car was fast, but it was absolutely sharp. In the end, I was competing with the guys from Ganassi, Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti. I tried to pass them straight back on turn 3, but the tailwind was too strong. My car couldn’t hang up. But there was a headwind at Turn 4 pushing the front straight towards Turn 1. It was my only chance.
On lap 196 I passed Tony [Kanaan]. On lap 198, I passed Dixie. I knew that the 199th lap, in turn 1, was my first and only chance to pass Dario. My closing speed was faster than I expected. Dario knew it. He moved inside to defend himself. I was surprised he didn’t go high. Our entry angle was incredibly shallow. I was almost at the bottom. We braked, descended at two speeds. We’re both at the limit. Unfortunately, the last thing I wanted to do was make contact. He’s a champion. I am only a challenger. Before I knew it, I was on the white line, losing speed and crashing. Dario didn’t do anything wrong. He ran hard. And I wasn’t prepared enough to do it.
Even though you couldn’t complete this run and not be able to continue with Rahal Letterman back then, it was a huge moment for you.
A few drivers came after and said it was fantastic. One in particular, and I won’t name it because it would be unfair, asked me, “Why did you avoid Dario?” Back then, there was an unwritten rule that you don’t force another car down to the white line. It was a violation of this rule. Of course, on the last lap of the Indy 500, who cares about the rules? Again, Dario hasn’t done anything wrong, as far as I’m concerned. I wanted to avoid it – but it would be different next time.
After your one-year contract with Rahal, AJ Foyt came to call. That’s pretty high praise.
AJ is just crazy in a perfectly positive way. First, I did not understand a word of what he was saying. I spoke English, but not AJ’s English. Just smile and say “yes”. His charisma is incredible and what he achieved is a legend. He always jokes, still talks about past races and still talks about food. And of course, I don’t think he’s ever seen anyone eat sushi before. We were born in completely opposite parts of the world, with completely different cultures and completely different generations. The only thing in common is that we want to go fast.
But you both like to win. And in 2013, you brought him his first victory in over a decade.
Winning with a one-car team – beating three Ganassi cars, three Penske cars, and three Andretti cars – at Long Beach was huge. I was so proud. It was an unforgettable day. My only regret was that A J was not physically there. He had undergone an operation. We spoke on the phone. He was very happy and proud. I wish we had staged another win for him. Again, unfinished business.
When I won the 500 race for Andretti Autosport in 2017, A J actually came to Victory Lane. And A J won’t come to Victory Lane for another team’s driver unless he hits someone. I’m joking. But seriously, I don’t think I ever saw him come to Victory Lane for a driver unless it was his. He was so proud. Our friendship is as strong as it was when I was driving for him. He also congratulated me in 2020. And he said to me, “There are only two more left.”
Tell me about 2017. Once again, the 500 arrives on the last lap, this time with Helio Castroneves. But unlike 2012 with Dario, this was different.
First, my 2017 car was very, very different. I knew before the start of the race that I had a car that could run ahead and compete until the finish. Andretti Autosport had the advantage that day. But Helio had five balls, five cars – he was the one to beat.
I respected Helio as much as Dario, but I was more experienced this time, I knew I had to run my race. I decided to go ahead with five laps to go. My engineer thought it was too early, but for me, I thought I had to go. I knew what it took to win. And we held on.
What was the reaction in Japan?
It was a huge success. All the media in Japan, all the networks, reported the happy news. I have received thousands of messages from Japan – greetings and incredible support. And at the end of this year, we took the Borg-Warner Trophy to Japan – the first time in trophy history that he had ever left the United States The level of support for this historic moment I got felt so lucky to share it with the Japanese Fans.
What was 2020 like before the race, not knowing when or if Was that never going to happen?
Most years during the season, I travel back and forth between Japan and the United States. Obviously, 2020 was not possible with the restrictions. There were a lot of unknowns for April and May so I had to be here in the US and ready. It was my longest stay away from Japan. Sure, I missed family and friends, but that’s little compared to people with COVID-19. We have FaceTime and Zoom. In two seconds you can see your children.
As riders we had the chance to race last year. Many athletes have lost the opportunity to compete. It’s sad that we don’t have fans and sad that we can’t see the family. But that’s nothing compared to other athletes who couldn’t do anything.
What was it like to win again?
Winning a second time is obviously special. Plus, we beat Dixon and Ganassi on their best day – he wasn’t wrestling. He dominated the entire race. And it was particularly satisfying to win for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, where I left some business unfinished in 2012. I was so proud to come back to the team and get the job done. It only took eight years.
So what’s the next step?
It’s simple: win again.