‘TAKU-SAN’ BARGES WAY TO VICTORY LANE AT INDIANAPOLIS 500
All the buzz at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway all month had centered on the Hollywood-handsome two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso, who elected to bypass another crack at the Grand Prix of Monaco to race at this tantalizingly tough 2.5-mile oval course.
And a foreign driver had a better-than-even chance to win Sunday’s 101st Indianapolis 500-Mile Race. Nineteen of the 33 starters were non-Americans.
But the foreign racer for Andretti Autosport who drank and bathed in the milk in Victory Lane and who will be immortalized with his likeness on the Borg-Warner Trophy was not the rookie looking for a challenge. It was his teammate, Takuma Sato, the 40-year-old Japanese veteran who had dreamed of that moment since he was 12 years old, growing up in Tokyo in a family not caught up at all in motorsports.
The über-aggressive Sato dueled through the final turn with Helio Castroneves to deny the Brazilian a stratospheric fourth Indianapolis 500 triumph. Instead he gave Andretti Autosport back-to-back victories and a third in four years at this Memorial Day classic.
Sato’s achievement in the Ruoff /Andretti Honda satisfied a 73-race hunger to win again. His only other Verizon IndyCar Series victory came at the 2013 Grand Prix of Long Beach in California.
“It’s such a privilege to win here,” Sato said, salving his unsuccessful 2012 last-ditch effort against Dario Franchitti that resulted in a Turn 1 crash on the final lap. “So whether it was the first attempt or eighth attempt or you had drama in the past, it doesn’t really matter. Wining today . . . it’s just superb. I do feel after 2012 I really need to correct something I left over. Today I was so happy that I made it and won in a good move.
“It’s just a fantastic feeling. I love this place, not just because [of] the winning, but the fans so appreciate. I respect them,” he said. “Going into Turn 1 [at the start], it’s always great to see so colorful, so full of people. This is the place, mega-place.”
Sato’s atonement for 2012’s disappointment came with five laps remaining, as he made a run on Castroneves and overtook him on the main straightaway. He fended off the Penske Racing headliner, who could close the gap to no more than 0.0510 of a second.
Castroneves, runner-up here for a third time while trying to become the fourth four-time winner, said, “Takuma Sato is a great driver. He has a lot of misses – but when he gets it, he gets it. Today was his day. He did a great job, just proved that age is just a number. We get better when we get old.”
Team owner Michael Andretti said immediately of Sato’s performance, “I’m in shock. Takuma came through. He’s awesome. Oh my God – I can’t believe it!”
After he had collected his thoughts, Andretti said, “Obviously I couldn’t ever win it as a driver. Maybe I was meant to win it tons of times as an owner. Maybe when I’m 80 years old, hopefully I’ll have more wins than Roger [Penske]. That’s our goal. We work really, really hard on this race. We really focus on it.”
Andretti Autosport has won the Indianapolis 500 with Dan Wheldon (2005), Franchitti (2007), Ryan Hunter-Reay (2014), and Alexander Rossi (2016).
Again this year, he said, “We had the right guy doing it, for sure. He drove a superb race. I watched him very closely. There were many times he was in a difficult situation, and he would get out of the situation. He showed a lot of patience. But then when he had to go, he went. There was one move where he passed two cars on the outside in one, which . . . was the move of the race, in my opinion. When I saw that, I’m like, ‘Whoa! I think we’re going to win this thing.’ He didn’t let us down. He drove very, very well. Taku did an awesome job. I’m so happy for him, really happy for Honda. They worked hard to get us here.
“I know how big this news is going to be tomorrow when they wake up in Japan,” Andretti said. “It’s going to be huge.”
Sato agreed: “This will be mega-big.”
The first Japanese winner of the 500 began his IndyCar career with KV Racing in 2010 and has driven for Rahal Letterman Lanigan and A.J. Foyt. Andretti hired Sato in the offseason to complement son Marco Andretti, Hunter-Reay, Rossi, and eventually Alonso, as well.
“He has brought a lot to our team. He’s got a lot of experience, very technical,” Michael Andretti said. “On top of it, he’s a great guy. He’s a great part of the team. He has done everything I thought he was going to do. I knew he was going to be fast here. He definitely didn’t let us down.” Sato qualified fourth on the grid and led 10 early laps in addition to the five at the end that counted most.
A restart with 17 laps to go resulted in a five-car pile-up that looked like a Talladega tangle from NASCAR and took out threats Will Power, James Hinchcliffe, Oriol Servia, and James Davison. That raised the distinct possibility that the iconic event would have a new and 71st winner. Max Chilton, the British racer representing Chip Ganassi’s team and led a race-best 50 laps, was a prospect. So were Sato, eventual third-place finisher Ed Jones (Dayle Coyne Racing’s Boy Scouts of America-sponsored Dubai resident), and Californians J.R. Hildebrand and Charlie Kimball. However, Castroneves and Sato muscled Chilton aside and staged their sparring session to the delight of the impressive but not-sellout crowd.
Indianapolis has had its winners with popular nicknames: The Mad Russian (Bill Vukovich), Lone Star J.R. (Johnny Rutherford), The Flying Dutchman (Arie Luyendyk), and Big Al and Little Al (Unser). Now, after Sunday’s accolades from Takuma Sato’s competitors, The Brickyard has “Taku-San,” or “Sato-San.”
SECONDS SUCKS – “Finishing second again sucks,” Castroneves said. His goal is to join A.J. Foyt, Al Unser, and Rick Mears in the elite club of four-time Indianapolis 500 winners. “I really am trying,” Castroneves said. “I will not give up this dream. I know it’s going to happen.”
DIXON GOES FLYING . . . AND THAT SUCKS, TOO – Polesitter Scott Dixon bore the brunt of a vicious collision with Jay Howard between turns 1 and 2 on Lap 53 that stopped the race for 19 minutes on Lap 55.
Howard drifted high on the track after letting Hunter-Reay pass him. He got out of the groove and became a powerless passenger. His Lucas Oil-sponsored Dallara slid down to the inside of the track, leaving Dixon nowhere to go as he raced through the turn. Dixon’s car plowed into Howard’s and launched into the air, sailed across the track, slammed down onto the inside guardrail, and tore a hole in the safety fencing. Slinging parts and pieces in every direction, Dixon’s car flipped and rolled and spewed flames before coming to a halt.
Neither driver was injured. Howard accused Hunter-Reay of triggering the accident by pushing him into the marbles.
“I’m fine. I’m glad Scott’s OK. He’s a victim of this. It sucks,” Howard said.
ALONSO DOESN’T SUCK – With some drivers and some fans publicly resentful of Alonso – thinking he might swoop into Indianapolis, win, and consider it too easy a race to stick around – the Spaniard with Formula One credentials made a stir this May.
In the end, he made a serious challenge for the victory in his McLaren-Honda-Andretti entry. Alonso, the No. 5 qualifier, led 27 total laps and wound up a deceiving 24th with an expired engine on Lap 180 – just 20 from the completion of the race.
And he said, “I came her to prove myself, to challenge myself. I know that I can be as quick as anyone in an F1 car. I didn’t know if I can be as quick as anyone in an IndyCar. It was a very nice experience. I thought the performance was good. It was a nice surprise to come here with the best guys and be competitive. Thanks to IndyCar. Thanks to Indianapolis. Thanks to the fans. I felt at home. I’m not American, but I felt really proud to race here.
“It is true that before coming here, some of the questions were, ‘How can you trade Monaco for the Indy 500? This is the best opportunity for the team.’ I won two times there [in Monte Carlo]. I won two world championships. To drive around Monaco for a sixth place, seventh place, even a fifth place . . . To be here is not possible to compare that thing. I didn’t miss Monaco in terms of result,” Alonso said.
“If I come back here, at least I know how it is,” he said. “It will not be the first time I do restarts, pit stops, all these kinds of things. So it will be an easier, lets’ say, adaptation. Let’s see what happens in the following years. I need to keep pursuing this challenge, because winning the Indy 500 is not completed. It holds a challenge.”
He said he was especially proud to see his car number, 29, atop the pole as a lap leader. He said as he passed the tower and saw his car number displayed as the leader, it occurred to him that that is an image he hoped someone photographed.
“I was thinking at that moment if someone from the team was taking a picture, because I want that picture at home,” Alonso said.
Alonso said Sato, a former Formula 1 racer, “was a lot of help” to him when he arrived in Indianapolis.
“The last two laps I was on my knees, really pushing Sato. Extremely happy for the final result.”
To show how much he has assimilated into Hoosier and Indianapolis 500 culture, Alonso amused the media by whipping out a small carton of milk. He said, “I didn’t win, but I will drink a little bit of milk.” Then he teased, “You follow me for two weeks every single minute, I really enjoy. Thanks for the welcoming. See you in Austin.”
Formula One’s U.S. Grand Prix will run in October at the Circuit of the Americas in the Texas capital.