LEEDS, Ala. – Takuma Sato’s victory in Sunday’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama proved the old guard of the NTT IndyCar Series is still fast.
Just one race after Colton Herta became the youngest winner in Indy car history when he was six days shy of his 19th birthday, 42-year-old Sato started on the pole and drove a fantastic race to score the fourth win of his NTT IndyCar Series career.
Sato started on the pole and led 74 laps in the 90-lap contest. Although Sato was in front for most of the race, the intriguing strategy of a three-stop or two-stop race as well as when to use the primary and alternate tires created a great race.
There were a race record 11 lead changes, breaking the previous record of 10 set in 2015.
There were also many frantic, side-by-side battles throughout the field on the 2.3-mile, 17-turn Barber Motorsports Park.
Despite the physical racing, there was just one caution period for seven laps. That came when Graham Rahal’s car came to stop on the race course on lap 58. IndyCar officials allowed all the cars to pit under green before throwing the yellow flag, to keep from splitting the field as happens so often in past races with the closed pits rule.
Max Chilton was attempting to drive into pit lane but was blocked by Tony Kanaan’s car and got punted into the tire barrier.
Racing resumed on lap 65 with Sato in the lead. He was challenged by 38-year-old Scott Dixon, but went on to win by 2.3874 seconds. Forty-year-old Sebastien Bourdais finished third as Honda swept the top three positions.
With three of the four oldest drivers in the series on the podium, Dixon called it the “All Geriatric Podium.”
Sato isn’t letting age slow him down. Three of his four career IndyCar wins have come since 2017. He has now won one race in each of the last three seasons.
Mario Andretti was 53 years old when he won at Phoenix in 1993 and the Unsers were winners in their late 40s. Sato could be a bit of a throwback in that regard.
“It’s obviously nice to hear and encouraging me that it looks like I have 10 years left to race,” Sato said. “But in current formula, I don’t know.
“Obviously, it’s a very physical sport nowadays. Don’t get me wrong, even Mario, of course, it is. But the cars are very fast and putting 3.5 to the 4G’s and have to have an extensive program for the training. See how I go, see how I survive with age, and mentally I’m still a happy guy to race with, and if it — is it possible? I think that Bobby Rahal (team owner) will give me an opportunity. Let’s see how far we can go.”
Dixon finished second for the sixth time in his career. He has finished third or better in eight of the 10 Honda Indy Grands Prix of Alabama but has never won.
It was Dixon’s 42nd second-place finish of his 19-year career, moving him ahead of Helio Castroneves and alone behind only Mario Andretti’s 56 career runner-up finishes.
“We’ve got to be happy with that,” Dixon said. “It’s always tough competition. We come here to win, but second place (was) great for points. … Hopefully, we can try and get a win here one day.”
The win was the 27th for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in its 27th year as an Indy car team. Co-owners Bobby Rahal, the three-time Indy car champion and 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner, and David Letterman, the iconic late-night talk-show host, were on hand.
“I’m really pleased for Takuma, he drove beautifully,” Rahal said. “The team did a fabulous job, pit stops were great, strategy was great. But I honestly think Takuma was in a league of his own.”
Track officials announced a healthy three-day weekend attendance of 82,889.
About the only time Sato turned a wheel wrong came with five laps to go, when his No. 30 Mi-Jack/Panasonic Honda went wide in turn eight, going airborne briefly as it rattled through the grass. His car undamaged from the off-track excursion, Sato gathered himself and kept Dixon at bay to the checkered flag.
“Outside, (it) probably looked easy winning from the cruising and the pole position, but it wasn’t really cruising,” said Sato, the 2017 Indianapolis 500 winner. “So, I was really pushing hard using push-to-pass on everything the last 10 laps. So, it was tough, and I had a little moment into turn eight.
“Anyway, it was not necessary to give the little bit sort of heart attack to the body.
“It’s probably the cleanest race I ever won. … I think we come here with the hopes, always do, but honestly never really, really expected to be this much of a domination.”
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