Honda Driver Diary: Takuma Sato
BY BRUCE MARTIN, @BruceMartin_500
Takuma Sato's victory in the 101st Indianapolis 500 was a "career in the making" accomplishment that began as a small boy in Tokyo watching a race on television that was unlike anything he had ever seen before. But it was not what Sato dreamed of when he decided to become a race driver.
"To be honest, no," Sato said. "It's a long story to make short. This is no secret that I was aiming for Formula 1, only because that was my first race to see it with my father was Formula 1 in Japanese Grand Prix. So, just naturally I followed them.
"But having said that, I do remember I watched the race through TV was the Indy 500 when it was '86 or '87. The TV wasn't remote control, it was dial. But I was so keen on that TV that day, and I didn't realize that was the Indy 500, but now I can tell you 100 percent because it was this massive speedway, it was oval, and I knew immediately the scenery, and it was the Indy 500."
To the young Sato it was a distant race in an even more distant land but it planted the seed that would grow into his career achievement on May 28, 2017. That is when he outdueled a fiercely determined Helio Castroneves in the final laps of the 101st Indianapolis 500 to score the crowning achievement of his career, even when his career was destined for Formula One.
"When I was 10, a friend of my dad, took me to Suzuka back in 1987," Sato recalled. "It was the very first time I went to the track. First time to see any racing car. That was Formula One. It was a gorgeous day for me. It just got me.
"Since then, I was just crazy about motor racing. I just loved the car. Since then, I didn't have environment, anyone to give me a chance until 19 and 20 years old. When I ask my parents, 'Give me a chance, because the school had age restriction, you had to be under 20 years old.' When I saw it, I was 19. The following year, the first chance to go there, if I'm not good enough, by all means, fair enough, I quit. But I just cannot stand without challenge it. I couldn't quit."
Sato made it to Formula One the lure of Indianapolis eventually brought him to the United States.
"When I got to Europe and went through the Formula 1 project, that was obviously an awesome time over there, but in the back of the mind always ringing the bell was the Indy 500," Sato admitted. "It's something I really wanted to try all the time. And the opportunity came in 2009 on the qualifying day.
"I came here the first time and stood inside of Turn 1, and I was very impressed. Coming from Formula 1, usually you don't really surprise by speed, but this speed is something completely different. You come down 240 miles per hour down the straight, and that speed, the driver going to the corner, and they are trying to control. The car was sliding, I could see it physically, and that was like big, big surprise.
"And then I talked most of the team owners, and Jimmy Vasser told me that he would wait because back then there was no secret again I was nominated for the finalist for the winner Formula 1 team, so I was waiting for the final confirmation. It didn't happen that way, but Jimmy said, let's go for the INDYCAR, so that's how we started."
At that time, Sato was the biggest name from Japan competing in the Formula One World Championship. Vasser was a former driver turned team owner at KV Racing along with former Champ Car Series principle Kevin Kalkhoven.
Sato spent two seasons with KV Racing in 2010-2011 before moving over to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in 2012. He nearly won the Indianapolis 500 in the Rahal machine when he attempted to pass race-leader Dario Franchitti entering Turn 1 on the final lap of the race only to have his car bobble on the apron, then shoot up the track to hit the outside wall as Franchitti won the race - his final Verizon IndyCar Series victory.
Racing legend A.J. Foyt liked what he saw out of Sato and hired him to drive the No. 14 beginning in 2013. It took just three races for this combination to win as Sato captured the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach - becoming the first driver from Japan to win an IndyCar Series race. He nearly won two-in-a-row at the next race in Sao Paolo, Brazil but was passed in the final corner of the final lap by Canada's James Hinchcliffe.
Sato spent four productive seasons with AJ Foyt Enterprises before moving to Andretti Autosport last November.
Sato finally achieved redemption for his near-miss in the 2012 Indianapolis 500 when he defeated Castroneves in a thrilling battle over the closing laps of the race. It was a highly competitive Indy 500 but in the end, Sato displayed a combination of speed along with experience and that helped him claim the moment he had dreamed about as a small boy watching a mysterious race on his television in Tokyo.
"Well, I feel just so lucky, happy, incredibly proud of the team who made me happen in this way," Sato said. "AJ, the team winning at the 2013 Long Beach was such a special moment, as well as this Indy 500 winning for Andretti. Even you're dreaming about it, even you put the perfect scenario, still you cannot win here, right, because it's so many perfection, you really need it. I had a small issue yesterday, very small technical issue, but that could be throwing out. It was very, very close. I can't tell the details, but it was very close."
Sato is discovering the enormity that comes with winning the Indianapolis 500. It was the accomplishment of a lifetime but was a career in the making.