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Sato revels in glow of historic Indy 500 triumph

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Takuma Sato joked that he has had a little too much milk since the great feat he accomplished on May 28 — when he became the first Japanese and Asian driver to win the prestigious Indianapolis 500.

At a triumphal news conference at the Honda Motors headquarters in Tokyo’s Aoyama district on Tuesday, Sato shared a story about the impact of his victory in the Indy 500, one of the oldest and most celebrated races in the world, after which the winner customarily drinks a bottle of milk.

Sato said that he was subsequently served milk at a restaurant — even though he did not order it.

“Absolutely, it was a significant moment in my life,” Sato told The Japan Times in an exclusive interview in fluent English after the news conference. “It was definitely a life-changing point.”

Sato was quick to give credit to his team, adding: “We achieved an incredible achievement winning the Indy 500.”

As Sato’s milk story shows, he has gained a lot more recognition in the United States with his Indy 500 win. The last few weeks have been a whirlwind full of “non-stop” media appearances in the U.S.

“But I received so many congrats and a great response from my supporters, fans, and of course from the sponsors. It’s all a very happy time,” said Sato, who has competed in the IndyCar Series since 2010 and has raced for four different teams. “So it’s been physically busy and tiring. It’s a good crazy time.”

Sato was grateful to be back in his native Japan after such a massive achievement.

“Like yesterday, when I landed at Narita airport, it was such as great time to share the happiness and I enjoyed the moment with the fans,” he said. “And having the media today, this is an incredible environment for me to have an opportunity to share the great news.”

Sato runs his own “With You Japan” project to support the recovery and relief effort for children who suffered from the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake.

“(My Indy 500 win) is a great story, great news. It’s definitely accelerating the support for Japan, especially for the devastated area,” he said.

The Tokyo native is indeed an ideal role model for those children, with his positive, energetic attitude and demeanor. He is a great dream-come-true example that anyone can achieve great things with a concrete will and determination.

He entered the professional motor racing world when he was 20 years old.

“I think strong power of belief and having a dream is so important,” said Sato, who enrolled at the Suzuka Circuit Racing School at 19, which is way later than racers usually start. “And keeping challenging and believing in yourself really makes your dream come true.”

But Sato is not naive enough to believe that something big will automatically happen by just crossing his fingers.

Sato said his brain was “spinning like 19,000 rpm” during the final few laps of the 101st edition of the Indy 500, making calculations of how to stay ahead until the end. Leading the pack is not considered to be a very smart move, as you have to contend with more air resistance than the cars behind you.

“I simulated a lot,” said Sato, who took the lead with five laps remaining, overtaking Brazil’s three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves.

Sato said he decided to overtake Castroneves for the lead with five laps to go because then he would be able to see how many laps it would take for Castroneves to catch up, and still have enough distance left to retrieve first place before the checkered flag if the Brazilian retook the lead.

Making the right moves at the right moments and knowing the track well are key elements to winning races in the IndyCar Series. Sato stressed that his win was a result of the experience he has accumulated.

Five years ago, Sato came close to gulping down the Indy 500 milk. He attempted to overtake leader Dario Franchitti from the inside at a corner on the final lap, but failed and crashed into a wall.

Before he joined the IndyCar circuit, Sato was an F1 driver from 2002-2008, driving for the Honda-powered BAR and Super Aguri teams. While he has posted two IndyCar Series wins, in Long Beach in 2013 and at this year’s Indy 500, Sato made just one podium finish in F1, finishing third at the USA Grand Prix in Indianapolis in 2004, a season in which he finished eighth overall in the driver’s championship.

Asked if he felt he had redeemed himself with his Indy 500 win, Sato said he has “no regrets whatsoever.”

“Every single point (of my career) was important,” said Sato, who moved to the Andretti Autosport team, which is powered by Honda, this year. “Every single experience was a road to come to this moment. I’ve got great memories from my Formula Three days (in Britain, where he became a champion), Formula One days, being (on) one of the most competitive teams in 2004, and sharing great joy and competition with Jenson (Button) together as teammates.”

BAR finished runner-up in the constructor’s championship in 2004.

“We also had great memories in the Super Aguri days,” he continued. “That wasn’t necessarily the most competitive package, but some of the races, we showed tremendous speed and, in fact, we overtook McLaren’s (Fernando) Alonso in the Canadian Grand Prix.

“That was basically the overtake of the year in 2007. That is still highlighted to this day,” he said. “So I had great memories and great friends in Formula One, and I gained incredible experience and I enjoyed them.”

Now he competes in the North American-centered IndyCar Series, which is an open-wheel race like F1 but has different characteristics in many aspects. However, Sato’s positive attitude and his signature smile remain the same.

“I really enjoy the (IndyCar) race,” said Sato, whose first experience of motor racing was watching the Indy 500 when he was an elementary school student. “This is the most competitive battle and also probably the most fun time on a track because there is so much overtaking. This is really an American race because you can win from the back of the grid. I think there’s nothing like it (outside Indy). I think only IndyCar provides that.”

Now Sato wants more milk, by winning another Indy 500. But before that, he has a job to do in 2017, namely shooting for the championship.

“We have a bigger job over the rest of the season,” said Sato, who is currently third with 312 points in the driver’s championship. “How we are going to compete is the most important thing because if you can challenge for winning the championship, that is another dream.”