INDIANAPOLIS – Takuma Sato proved once again that the older he gets, the better he becomes as a racing driver.
It’s hard to say that the driver from Tokyo was flying under the radar entering Sunday’s 104th Indianapolis 500. After all, he was starting on the outside of the front row alongside Scott Dixon in the middle and Marco Andretti on the pole.
Once Dixon took the lead in turn one at the start of the race, he drove away from the field, leading the first 27 laps. Dixon would go on to lead 111 laps in the 200-lap contest.
Sato, meanwhile, hung out in the top five. He was content to let Dixon, Alexander Rossi and others lead while he conserved fuel and remained within striking distance.
Sato took the lead for the first time on lap 157 and built a gap over Dixon leading into the final pit stop of the race. Sato’s final stop came on lap 168, one lap before Dixon made his final stop. Santino Ferrucci and later Zach Veach were briefly scored as leaders of the race, but they were on a different strategy than Sato and Dixon.
When Veach pitted on lap 185, Sato was in the lead and had built a .9-second gap over Dixon with the laps winding down. By that time, Sato’s Honda was the fastest on the track and Dixon could not close the gap.
Ten laps later, when one of Sato’s Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing teammate Spencer Pigot slammed into the attenuator on pit road with just more than four laps remaining, there was no way the race could end under green and it was too late to red flag the race.
Sato scored his second Indianapolis 500 victory in the last four years driving behind the pace car with Dixon’s Honda flanking him to the inside.
Instead of Dixon celebrating his second Indianapolis 500 win, it was Sato, who also won the Indianapolis 500 for Andretti Autosport in 2017.
“Scott was probably the best competitor the entire two weeks to be honest, from practice to qualifying,” Sato said. “He showed speed. Even the Carb Day, with very tricky conditions, three of us actually struggled a lot. Ganassi and Dixie (Dixon) did a phenomenal job to put that car in the competitive situation.
“He led the start, then he just disappeared. I was able to hang on. At that time, I was playing with fuel mixtures, also how much we can get the fuel mileage out of it. Basically, I wanted to see how the traffic, with single-car traffic, double traffic. I know we practiced, but in the race situation, the same age of the tire, with mixture setting, I just wanted to learn it on that point.”
Sato has developed into a patient driver after beginning his career as a driver who was often in a hurry, which often led to needless crashes. He decided in the first 100 laps to stay in the top three or top five. That was always his thought coming into the race.
After lap 100, he had the opportunity join the battle with Dixon.
“I just went to leading the race, to see how it goes,” Sato said. “So that moment I realized we had a very competitive package.”
Sato said small changes were made to his No. 30 Honda on each pit stop.
“Finally, for the last three stints I was able to (be) happy with the car, particularly second half of every stint I was very strong,” he said. “I knew towards the end of the stint I had a very good speed of it.
“However, after the restart, when I got (the) lead, I got a voice from the pit basically (saying I was) using too much fuel. I had to back off with leaner mixture, which you can see immediately Scott caught me and tried to give it a go. At that point I had to switch back to the maximum power. He was three cars, four cars behind, I go with the leaner mixture. We were close. Even without it, I was hitting a number. If you scan my radio, we were on the number. Even (if) we (had) gone through the entire green, I think we (would) be OK.
“However, still I think I will be threatened (by) Dixie from the last few laps where he will be probably 100 percent to power, which I had some of that in the pocket, but otherwise it was very, very close.”
Sato has achieved historic status in Indianapolis 500 history. There are 20 drivers that have won the Indianapolis 500 two or more times in their career. Sato is now one of them.
“It’s just an amazing, amazing feeling,” Sato said. “I just don’t (it) feel yet. I think it’s coming later on. It was exactly the same happening in ’17. I think I was just too excited for the first one. Now, of course I realize what’s coming.
“I’m just so glad to be part of this organization. Once again, thank you for all the owners and the boys and the sponsors and fans that make me happen, still driving in very competitive manner.
“I just feel so lucky.”
At 43, Sato is driving better than ever. When he won the 2017 Indianapolis 500 for Andretti Autosport, he was the first driver from Japan to win the world’s biggest race.
Now he’s won it twice, this time for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, the same team he nearly took to victory lane in the 2012 Indianapolis 500.
“I never even imagined the situation like today,” Sato said. “Look, after 40 years old, still driving, that is just living in a dream. People say 2012 was probably my peak and the best shot. Well, we’ll see. We kept on going.
“We had a second chance in life. I say just keep challenging, keep open the door, then you will get eventually the chance. But if you are in that chance, you have to grab it. It’s always living on edge is my kind of lifestyle, to be honest.
“Hopefully I can compete a little bit longer.
“I never thought I would be winning a 500, but twice?