An emotionally overwhelmed Yoshihide Muroya wiped away tears of joy as the reality started to sink in.
A jubilant Takuma Sato raised his arms as if vicariously reliving his own euphoric, career-defining moment at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Nobody enjoyed the Red Bull Air Race on Sunday more than two new fast friends from Japan as Muroya, inspired in part by Sato, flew home with a record run in the final heat to win the event and claim his first Master Class World Championship in the event taking place in the skies above IMS.
What made the experience more memorable was that it came where Sato triumphed in the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil less than five months earlier. Each set a Japanese precedent by winning: Sato as the first driver from his nation to win the Indy 500 and Muroya the first from Japan or Asia to win the prestigious aerobatic racing series season championship.
Whereas Sato ended that glorious day at dusk by kissing the famed yard of bricks at the iconic 2.5-mile superspeedway oval, Muroya was doing the same smooching in the early-evening shadows with his airplane wheeled next to the start/finish line.
“I can’t believe it,” Sato said. “Two of us (win) in the same place in the same year.”
Muroya admitted it meant a lot for his cheering section to include Sato, who has become a national hero since the Indy 500 triumph while driving for Andretti Autosport. Sato will drive for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series competition and spent Monday showing Muroya his new team and car.
“He has a lot of energy inside,” Muroya said of Sato. “I met him (Saturday) and I feel a really powerful emotion from him. That means a lot to motivate.”
The excited Sato, who leapt at the opportunity on Saturday to sit in Muroya's race plane, repeatedly uttered the word “incredible” to describe the day.
“All the emotions come out,” Sato said. “It was so incredible to see him and his family here for such an incredible moment. What an incredible moment.”
The dramatic conclusion on a cloudy, overcast day was in stark contrast to how the afternoon began, when Muroya feared he had lost his shot at the title after incurring a two-second penalty in a first-round showdown with points leader Martin Sonka of the Czech Republic.
“Living on the edge," Sato said.
Muroya edged Sonka, who incurred a three-second penalty but was fastest loser in the opening round and still advanced. Both reached the final-four showdown. Muroya, who had entered the day four points behind the leader, needed to win and Sonka had to finish third or worse for the Japanese pilot to prevail.
Despite windy conditions which saw many pilots clip air gate pylons with their wings, Muroya was at his best when it counted the most with a record run of 1 minute, 3.026 seconds. When Sonka struggled and finished fourth at 1:07.280, it was time for so many Japanese visitors – including many ecstatic fans and media – to celebrate once again.
As Muroya shed those tears in his hangar and accepted congratulations from team members, he was grabbed and hoisted high by defending series champion and inaugural Red Bull Air Race winner Matthais Dolderer of Germany. Dolderer finished a season-best second Sunday.
Sato, so honored by how his win inspired Japan, put into perspective his friend’s victory. He acknowledged how Muroya, 44, is from Fukushima, which is still recovering from a 2011 massive earthquake and tsunami, the latter causing a catastrophic meltdown in the Daiichi nuclear power plant.
“He came from the devastated area, so this really means a lot to them, it means a lot to him, it means a lot to us, too,” said Sato, who established his own "With You Japan," project to to support the recovery and relief effort for children involved in the disaster.
Sato was so moved by Muroya’s win, he joined the media in asking a question of his new friend about how this accomplishment will resonate in Japan. Tokyo native Sato referred to Muroya as “the man for helping people and supporting them.”
Muroya expressed gratitude to people back home for helping him.
“The people in Fukushima are really strong,” he said. “We were down at first, but we’ve recovered in five years. The life is back to kind of normal. For now, going to the next stage with a more bright future that we’re aiming for, I’m kind of an ambassador. Maybe I’m not helping, but I’m helped by the Fukushima people.
“Lots of people support me as a very good home base for training. That’s why I can be a world champion. What I can do is promote and open the media to the reality for now.”
Muroya eventually admitted that, after Sato’s Indy 500 win, his world championship could be “a huge, huge news event, I think.”
In such an unforgettable day, perhaps the most meaningful moment came when Japan’s national anthem was played on the IMS public address system. The respectful Muroya took off his hat with his left hand and clutched a Japanese flag with his right hand.
“I just feel so proud of that,” Sato said. “We did both the road and the air.”