Takuma Sato Will Not Be Slowed Down

Takuma Sato, of Japan, winner of the 2020 Indianapolis 500 auto race, poses during the traditional winners photo session at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Monday, Aug. 24, 2020, in Indianapolis.

AP Photo/Darron Cummings

Takuma Sato might be the world’s most unassuming racing superstar. He started out racing bikes—as in push-pedal bicycles—and didn’t get behind the wheel of a racecar until he was 19. But in the decades since, Sato has won with the top machines in the industry, driving for Formula 1 and then IndyCar. He has worked for some of the sport’s greatest legends (Rahal, Foyt, and Andretti) and gone wheel-to-wheel with others (Dario Franchitti, Helio Castroneves, and Scott Dixon). And this May, as fans return to the Speedway, Sato will look to repeat as 500 champ and solidify his own place in racing lore with a third Borg-Warner win. 

Growing up in Japan, how did you get into racing?

The first-ever race I watched on TV was the Indy 500. I must’ve been 6 or 7—this is back when the television still had the rotary knob to turn the channel. I remember the fast passing and having all high-speed corners, no hairpin turns.

When I was 10, my dad took me to the 1987 Japanese Grand Prix in Suzuka. That was my first experience at a track, watching cars pass. It was a sensation. From that point on, I was a huge fan of any racing. I wanted to start karting. But my parents simply had no idea about racing. There was the financial difficulty. All I had was two wheels on a metal frame—a push bike. I jumped on the bicycle and started competing in that world. 

You asked for a kart and you got a bike. How did that fulfill your desire to race? 

Cycling is fun stuff. You feel the sensation of the speed and the mechanics beneath you. Age 16, I was competing in the All-Japan Championship, which I eventually won. Years went by. By the time I went to university, I was still bicycle racing.

But all along I’d been reading auto-racing magazines, gaining more and more knowledge about how the industry worked. One magazine had an article about the Suzuka Racing School founded by Honda. I applied and got a scholarship. Without that, I wouldn’t have been able to start motor racing. 

Even getting behind the wheel of a kart had to be a world of difference from the bike.

I was just thrilled every single moment. I started karting and then the racing school used a small junior formula.

The goal at this point is Formula 1? 

Yes. But to get to F1, I needed to go to British Formula 3. And to do that, I needed to learn English. I went to a private language school. While in British Formula 3, I also stayed with an English family to learn the language. It took two to three years to understand the culture, language, and racing. 

I’ll say. Within two years, you won the Formula 3 Championship. 

It was a hell of a journey. I was winning pole positions and fastest laps. But during the race, I was either winning or crashing. But because there was raw speed that they could see, I caught the attention of the right people in F1.

I was fortunate to have Eddie Jordan [the famous Irish F1 team owner who’d given Michael Schumacher his first ride in the series] give me the opportunity to test his F1 car by the end of my first year in Formula 3. In F1, the teams and equipment are significantly different from anything else. As a driver, you’re just a small part of it. They spend over $300 million per year on R&D with 700 people working on two cars. It’s enormous. It’s like a project at NASA. The drivers are all exceptionally good—it’s an unbelievably competitive world. And it’s really all about equipment. Front row to back of the grid is a matter of seconds.

You mention “winning or crashing.” That all-or-nothing mentality followed you even to your early days in IndyCar. Was it just lack of experience?

It’s me, part of my makeup as a driver. But I was also lacking the experience. You try to go too hard to prove your speed and ability, but your foundation isn’t strong enough. The reaction to what’s happening isn’t developed. The drivers who raced growing up learned about time management and race craft.

So, yes, I tried too hard in the beginning. Even today, I feel I’m still learning and taking a step forward. No one wants to crash. But sometimes you have to take the risk. 

You spent seven seasons in F1. What brought you to IndyCar?

I was extremely into F1. But I was forced out. In 2008, after the world economy dropped, teams lost sponsorships. They simply couldn’t continue racing. At that time, I was optimistic, but seats are so limited. There’s politics involved. Whoever could bring a huge sponsorship had an advantage. Long story short, it didn’t happen for me.

I started to research IndyCar. I traveled to the States. My first in-person experience was Bump Day. Standing on the inside of Turn 1, I saw the cars screaming past at 235 mph, not reducing the speed into the corner. In fact, the driver increased the speed. I was like, “Bloody hell, that’s just shocking.” I wanted to do it.

In 2010, Jimmy Vasser gave you a chance to do just that for KV Racing. Two years later, you had a one-season deal with Rahal Letterman Lanigan. And that 2012 Indy 500 is when you really arrived.

We looked strong in the race. The car was fast, but it was absolutely knife’s edge. At the end, I was competing with the Ganassi guys, Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti. I tried to pass them on the back straight into Turn 3, but the tailwind was too strong. My car couldn’t hang on. But there was a headwind on Turn 4 pushing down the front straight and into Turn 1. That was my only opportunity.

In lap 196, I overtook Tony [Kanaan]. On lap 198, I overtook Dixie. I knew lap 199, going into Turn 1, was my first and only chance to overtake Dario. My closing speed was greater than I thought. Dario knew it. He moved to the inside to defend. I was surprised that he wasn’t going high. Our entry angle was incredibly shallow. I was almost at the bottom. We braked, went down to two gears. Both of us on the edge. Unfortunately, the last thing I wanted to do was make contact. He’s a champion. I’m just a challenger. Before I knew it, I was on the white line, losing speed, and I crashed. Dario did nothing wrong. He raced hard. And I was not prepared enough to pull that off. 

Photo by Tony Valainis

Even though you were unable to finish that race and unable to continue with Rahal Letterman at the time, this was a huge moment for you.

A couple drivers came up afterwards and said it was fantastic. One specifically, and I won’t name him because it would be unfair, asked me, “Why did you avoid Dario?” At the time, there was an unwritten rule that you don’t force another car down to the white line. This was a breach of that rule. Of course, in the last lap of the Indy 500, who cares about rules? Again, Dario did nothing wrong, as far as I’m concerned. I wanted to avoid him—but it would be different next time.

After your one-year deal with Rahal, A.J. Foyt came calling. That’s pretty high praise.

A.J. is just crazy in a perfectly positive way. First, I didn’t understand a word he was saying. I spoke English, but not A.J.’s English. You just have to smile and say “yes.” His charisma is unbelievable and what he achieved is legend. He’s always joking, always talking about past races, and always talking about food. And of course, I don’t think he’d ever seen someone eat sushi before. We were born in completely opposite parts of the world, completely different cultures, and completely different generations. The only thing we have in common is that we want to go fast.

But you both also like to win. And in 2013, you brought him his first win in more than a decade. 

Winning with a one-car team—beating three Ganassi cars, three Penske cars, and three Andretti cars—in Long Beach was huge. I was so proud. It was an unforgettable day. My only regret was that A.J. wasn’t physically there. He’d had a surgery. We spoke on the phone. He was very happy and proud. I wish we had put together another win for him. Again, unfinished business.

When I won the 500 racing for Andretti Autosport in 2017, A.J. actually came to Victory Lane. And A.J. is not going to come to Victory Lane for another team’s driver unless he’s going to hit someone. I’m joking. But seriously, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him come to Victory Lane for a driver unless it was his. He was so proud. Our friendship is as strong as it was when I was driving for him. He congratulated me in 2020, too. And he told me, “Only two more to go.”

Tell me about 2017. Once again, the 500 comes down to the last lap, this time with Helio Castroneves. But unlike 2012 with Dario, this was different.

First, my 2017 car was very, very different. I knew before the race started that I had a car that could run up front and compete to the finish. Andretti Autosport had the advantage that day. But Helio had five bullets, five cars—he was the guy to beat.

I respected Helio as much as I did Dario, but I was more experienced this time, I knew I had to run my race. I decided to go to the front with five laps to go. My engineer thought it was too early, but to me, I thought I had to go. I knew what it was going to take to win. And we held on.

What was the reaction in Japan?

It was a big hit. Every media outlet in Japan, all the networks, brought home the happy news. I received thousands of messages from Japan—greetings and amazing support. And at the end of that year, we took the Borg-Warner Trophy to Japan—the first time in the trophy’s history that it had ever left the U.S. The level of support for that historical moment, I felt so fortunate to share it with Japanese fans.

What was 2020 like leading up to the race, not knowing when or if it was ever going to happen? 

In most years, during the season, I’m going back and forth between Japan and the States. Obviously, 2020, it wasn’t possible with the restrictions. There were a lot of unknowns for April and May, so I had to be here in the U.S. and ready. It was my longest time ever away from Japan. Of course, I missed the family and the friends, but that’s small compared to the people suffering with COVID-19. We have FaceTime and Zoom. In two seconds, you can see your kids.

As drivers, we were so fortunate to race last year. Many athletes lost the opportunity to compete. It’s sad we didn’t have fans and sad that we couldn’t see family. But that’s nothing compared to other athletes who couldn’t do anything.

What was it like to win again?

Winning a second time is obviously special. Also, we beat Dixon and Ganassi on their best day—he wasn’t struggling. He dominated the entire race. And it was particularly satisfying to win for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, where I had left unfinished business back in 2012. I was so proud to come back to the team and do the job. It only took eight years. 

So what’s next?

That’s easy: win again.