Takuma Sato has been inspired by the success of other Japanese athletes on the world stage in recent years.
Since Sato won his first Indianapolis 500 title in 2017, Naomi Osaka has won the Australian and U.S. Open titles twice, Hinako Shibuno won the Women’s British Open, Hideki Matsuyama won the Masters and Los Angeles Angels two-way star Shohei Ohtani has become perhaps the most captivating player in MLB.
There was also Sato’s own win at the prestigious 500, billed as “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” last year.
All that success is quite the motivator and sends Sato into this year’s race, which will be run on May 30, with a little added fuel in the tank.
“Matsuyama’s achievement was historic for Japanese athletes,” Sato said during an online news conference from the U.S. on Monday. “I was watching on TV and I was really excited. I think each athlete is doing their best to stand on top of their respective stage. It’s the same for me.”
A victory in the 105th running of the 500 would put the 44-year-old Tokyo native, one of two active drivers with multiple wins, in rarefied air. Only 10 drivers have won the race at least three times. Sato would also be the fifth to repeat as champion.
“I’m not concerned with making history,” Sato said. “I’m not really even thinking about that. I just want to have the best race I can and finish on top. Of course, it’s natural to set your goal at three once you’ve won two.”
Sato, though, earlier held up the two big, gold winners’ rings he received after his previous victories and said there’s room for more.
“As the defending champion, I want to win a third and I’m going to give it everything I’ve got,” he said.
Sato earned last year’s ring under strange circumstances. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, there were no fans at Indianapolis Motor Speedway to see him take the checkered flag, get doused with milk or kiss the Yard of Bricks at the start/finish line.
Fans will be allowed back at the Brickyard in limited numbers for this year’s race. Indianapolis Motor Speedway will operate at up to 40% venue capacity — around 135,000 people — in addition to other health protocols. Sato, who has been vaccinated against COVID-19, thanked the officials who made it possible for fans to return.
“The venue has a certain atmosphere,” he said. “The race usually has a crowd of over 300,000 people and there is this amazing energy there. That’s something I feel at the Indy 500.
“When the track was empty, we were running in front of the gray grandstands. Of course, once the race starts, we are 100% focused on the race, but it still feels like something is missing (with no fans).”
In addition to running at an empty track, Sato also won the 2020 race under caution after Spencer Pigot crashed on Lap 195 of the 200-lap race. Sato ran near the front for most of the race and battled Scott Dixon down the stretch before the crash. Dixon felt he might have won had the race been stopped and restarted as he didn’t think Sato had enough fuel for the finish.
Sato was on the wrong side of a tough finish himself in 2012. He had his eye on the title on the final lap and tried to overtake leader Dario Franchitti before spinning out and ultimately finishing 15th. Sato left Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing after that season, but his return in 2018 made last year’s Indy win that much sweeter.
“This will be my 12th year competing in the Indianapolis 500,” Sato said. “Of course my first win at the Indianapolis 500 was in 2017 and I have a lot of memories from that. Winning last year was also a special moment, but not just for me, for the team.
“In 2012, I was just one step away from winning and I was fighting with Dario Franchitti in Turn 1 and went into a spin and wasn’t able to win. At that time I was racing with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, which is the team I’m with now. Eight years later, I was able to realize my dream, because I was so happy to be able to win last year’s race with Rahal.”
He’ll try to win another this year.
On Sunday, Ohtani, with the Angels trailing the Boston Red Sox by a run with two outs in the ninth inning, connected on a two-run home run that helped the Halos pull victory from the jaws of defeat. Going into this year’s 500, Sato wants to similarly rise to the occasion.
“I got energy from Ohtani’s wonderful come-from-behind home run in that situation,” Sato said. “I want to do my best in any situation at the Indy 500.”
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