INDIANAPOLIS – Takuma Sato first watched the Indianapolis 500 on television when he was 6 or 7 years old. He didn’t know at the time he was watching the race he would one day win.
“I didn’t realize it was the Indianapolis 500, but now I can tell you 100 percent (that it was),” Sato said this afternoon, 21 hours after becoming the first Japanese driver to win the race. “It was a superspeedway, it was an oval and I am familiar with this scenery. It was the Indy 500.”
Running on adrenaline after a short night of sleep, Sato was the toast of two continents for winning the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. His day-after duties included appearances on network television shows, magazine photo shoots and a two-hour photo session on the start-finish line at Indianapolis Motor Speedway that included photos with the iconic Borg-Warner Trophy and Andretti Autosport crew members and their families.
Sato was awake until 3 a.m. ET today answering emails and texts of congratulation from Japan, where his victory was the story of the day. A native of the Shinjuku ward of Tokyo, the 40-year-old Sato is treated with the same reverence in his homeland as other Japanese sports stars like baseball’s Ichiro Suzuki.
“Everybody is so happy,” Sato said. “I’ve got probably hundreds of thousands of emails of congratulations so far. … It’s just non-stop. I must admit that this is the happiest of things, and I can get on with that.”
Sato’s journey to Indy 500 winner is intertwined with Honda, the Japanese auto manufacturer that has been involved with Indy car racing since 1993. Initially part of Honda’s Formula One program, Sato moved to the Verizon IndyCar Series in 2010 after seven years in F1.
Today, with Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s expansive frontstretch as his backdrop, Sato marveled at his accomplishment.
“I came here the first time (in 2009) and stood in Turn 1, and I was very impressed,” Sato said. “Coming from Formula One, usually you’re not really surprised by speed, but this speed is something completely different.”
Sato made the transition from F1 to INDYCAR by way of Jimmy Vasser, who hired him to join KV Racing Technology. After two seasons, he joined Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing for a season. While there, he infamously lost a final-lap duel with Dario Franchitti for the 2012 Indy 500 when he spun out.
From there, Sato joined A.J. Foyt’s team. But when Foyt made plans to switch from Honda engines to Chevrolet during the offseason, Sato turned to Honda-backed Andretti Autosport. Foyt, whose four Indy 500 victories is tied with Al Unser and Rick Mears for most all-time, was among the first congratulate Sato after Sunday’s victory.
Sato admitted that he didn’t imagine himself winning the race beforehand, but that was always his goal.
“I didn’t picture myself winning, but always winning is our aim,” he said. “When we race here, we go for the win, of course. … I thought our car had tremendous speed. … Fundamentally, the speed came from the preparation, and that was the case from Day 1.”
As for the day after? That was about an extensive photo shoot that will provide memories for many.
“How happy were the boys today?” Sato said after the shoot. “Everyone is so happy, the whole entire team. We just got pictures with every single family. I was very, very happy. Even if it was two hours of photos, I don’t mind, because everybody was so happy.”
For more information about Honda Racing, visit http://hpd.honda.com/.