By Takuma Sato, Driver Columnist
In his fifth column for Motorsports Tribune, Takuma Sato takes us inside the cockpit on how he won the 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500, the second consecutive for Andretti Autosport. He also carried that momentum into the Detroit doubleheader with two solid top five finishes and now sits third in the Verizon IndyCar Series championship standings as they ready for this weekend’s race at Texas.
The Final Run to Victory
It’s all about timing and it worked out perfectly. There was 22 laps to go and the chess match within the race hit the deeper stages. I saw Helio Castroneves with a great tow from rookie Ed Jones as they were battling for second side-by-side down the front straightaway. I had been trailing behind them for some time, but when that happened, I got a double-tow from them. I could have easily backed off, but if I did then I would lose all the momentum and valuable track position. Knowing Helio was going to get by Jones on the outside, I had a great opportunity to challenge with them. Oval racing always comes down to being calculated, and I was positive I could make the three-wide pass from the outside on both of them going into Turn 1. I had a great closing speed and I could carry that perfectly as I approach Turn 1 from racing line so in my mind, that move wasn’t risky. It was more comfortable with it than anything else. That move was a mega-critical point and gave us great positioning for the so few laps that remained.
The caution came out just after I made that pass, but it really set everything up nicely for us because you want to be in the top five, more specifically top three whenever it gets down to 10 laps to go. The racing just gets so much more intense at that point. It takes on a completely different look than it had even 100 laps earlier and you had to think more about how to protect your position and how to overtake, and wind direction made it increasingly tricky.
I made a few attempts on Max Chilton, who was leading at the time, figuring out where and when is best to overtake but when I lost a bit of momentum behind Max, Helio managed to get by me with an impressive pass entering Turn 3 with nine to go, and he ended up taking the lead just two laps later. It ended up working out for me because then it was Max that lost momentum and I was able to get by him and move behind Helio.
Everything started to remind me of 2012, when I followed Dario Franchitti as we passed Scott Dixon and battled for the lead. It was similar situation.
I decided to move alongside Helio with five laps to go as we battled for lead and I pulled ahead as we went down the front straightaway into Turn 1. It started to sink in and I began to think to myself how am I going to win this race? The tow affect was so great that I knew Helio would have some chances to make a charge on me and I wanted to see how many laps does he need to catch me up because if he re-take lead from me next lap or so then I have a time to figure it out but if he took more than two laps then I knew if I held off it would take time for him to mount another challenge. That case it will be at checkered flags.
With two laps to go, Helio pulled beside me on the outside as we headed towards Turn 1, but using the experience I remembered from 2012, I was able to hold him off with no problem. The white flag came out and it was really intense and exciting, but once we finally came off Turn 4 with great acceleration as the checkered flag was waving, I knew instantly what a significant moment in my life it was.
Getting a chance to celebrate with team owner Michael Andretti and my whole No. 26 crew was simply amazing. I can’t thank enough to Michael and entire Andretti Autosport team because it was an absolutely team effort, but also one of the greatest surprises was when A.J. Foyt came to see me in the celebration after in the Winner’s Circle. I was around everybody and covered in milk, which is a fantastic experience, and out of nowhere A.J. popped up and we had a great moment. It meant so much to see him and how happy he was for me after winning this special one, even if it was for a different team. We’ve always had a great friendship and I really appreciated him coming over and elevating what was already one of my happiest moments.
This race was a big reason why I wanted to come to Andretti Autosport. I am so grateful to Michael and everyone on the team who believed in me and helped make this happen.
This One is for Japan
Being the first driver from Japan to ever win the Indianapolis 500 is so incredibly unbelievable. After Texas, I’m finally going to be able to go back to my country and we’re going to have a press conference in Tokyo with HONDA and INDYCAR. We will have some appearance for some of my sponsors, and have a fun event for the fans – the support has been amazing from them. After missing out on winning the Indy 500 in 2012, I feel so fortunate to have this kind of second chance. This tells us the importance of having a dream, believe in yourself and “keep challenge” philosophy make this truly happen. I didn’t let this one slip away from me I reached out and grabbed it. I made sure I was challenging and attacking all the time so you create a chance. I want to take this opportunity to go to Japan and make an even bigger impact of awareness of what we have achieved.
Ever since the tragic earthquake and Tsunami that hit Japan in 2011, there has been suffering. There are over 200,000 people that still live in temporary housing. My foundation, With You Japan, is a children’s support program that focuses on the devastated area. Certainly the exposure from winning the Indy 500 has helped accelerate the support for the recovery process for Japan.
The Focus on the Championship
I think it is extremely important to keep the momentum going. After winning the Indy 500, sometimes you get caught up in everything following it, but there is still a fight for the championship going. It is equally important. Even though the victory media tour was tiring at times, I was still focused on what was coming ahead. INDYCAR and everybody on the PR side really helped make it easy for me once I got into Detroit so I was finally able to catch some good sleep! So I maintain good condition for the weekend – finishing eighth, fourth and taking pole position in the second race.
We are third in the championship after that fantastic team effort, and I’m really proud of what we were able to do there.
Now we head to Texas this weekend at a fast 1.5-mile oval where the speeds approach 225 mph, again.
We accomplished one dream in winning the Indy 500, and it’s the goal and the dream to win the championship. It’s going to be very, very tough. We may have just won the biggest race in the world, but it was one part of this season-long battle.