Takuma Sato received a hero’s welcome in his native Japan. Rightfully so.
The Andretti Autosport driver returned to his homeland last week as the nation’s newest icon – the winner of the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. With the hectic Verizon IndyCar Series schedule, it was Sato’s first opportunity to reunite with family, friends, sponsors and media, so the four days were filled to the brim with activities.
“It means a lot, really,” Sato said of the trip home and the reception he received. “Winning the 500 is really a dream come true to achieve such a significant moment. It is definitely the best moment in my life in my whole race career.
“This entire trip, I was really grateful and (showing) appreciation for the people who have been supporting me a long time.”
Sato, the 40-year-old driver of the No. 26 Andretti Autosport Honda, has been living a whirlwind life since becoming the first Japanese driver to win “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” on May 28. Following the Indianapolis 500 Championship Celebration on May 29, he left on a U.S. media tour for New York and Texas, then went straight to the doubleheader race weekend at Detroit’s Belle Isle. A few days later, it was on to Texas Motor Speedway.
With a couple hours’ sleep following the Rainguard Water Sealers 600 on the night of June 10, Sato flew to Tokyo and was overwhelmed by the greeting awaiting him at Narita Airport. Hundreds of fans and media lined the reception area – among them his mother, Akiko, who had not seen her son since his history-making Indianapolis 500 win.
“I’ve been seeing Olympians come back to Japan after getting medals and was always inspired from them and motivated from that,” Sato said. “I was in a very similar situation coming back to Narita – so many fans waited, a lot of media waited, (lights) flashing and the cameras. It’s certainly a great opportunity to say a big thank you to all the fans and sponsors.
“Winning the Indy 500 is such a special moment. We never had such a welcoming at the airport; that was the first time.”
In the days that followed, Sato conducted dozens of media interviews; visited longtime supporter and engine supplier Honda Motor Company; stopped by Bridgestone Corp., the international headquarters for Verizon IndyCar Series tire supplier Firestone, where employees toasted Sato with glasses of milk; attended a reception and dinner involving many of his sponsors that included a traditional Japanese sake barrel opening ceremony; and took in several historic Japanese sights.
Visiting the Honda Aoyama facility, Sato conducted a news conference for nearly 500 media and again met hundreds of adoring fans who had waited hours for the chance. He also presented Takahiro Hachigo, president and CEO of Honda Motor Company, with an original Indianapolis Motor Speedway brick adorned with acrylic glass and metal to resemble the IMS Pagoda (see photo at bottom). In return, Hachigo gave Sato a new Acura NSX.
“Mr. Hachigo was very happy seeing the actual brick from Indianapolis Motor Speedway,” Sato said. “It has a lot of history, it has a lot of passion behind it and the pagoda design was an actual beautiful masterpiece. I am sure they will have the best place to display (it).”
Among the sightseeing highlights Sato visited were: the Zojoji Temple, a Buddhist temple in the Shiba neighborhood with the Tokyo Tower (at 333 meters or 1,092 feet, the second-tallest structure in Japan) looming in the background; and the world-famous Shibuya Crossing intersection, Tokyo’s version of New York City’s Times Square, where Sato’s win was featured on the Glico vision giant display screen, an honor reserved for great Japanese athletic accomplishments.
As the tour wound down on its last night, Sato admitted to being tired and losing his voice, but pleased.
“You can hear my voice has got a degradation, but it was so fantastic,” he said. “Amazing, amazing history and amazing, amazing experience.”
And just in case any fellow Verizon IndyCar Series competitors believe he won’t be ready to go this week in the KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America, Sato sounded a familiar parting thought.
“I’ll be flying back to the U.S.,” he said, “and maximum attack for the rest of the season.”
Watch a video recap of Sato's Japan tour here: