The 1987 Japanese Grand Prix at the Suzuka Circuit was not only the first Formula One race at the course, it was Takuma Sato’s first experience with motor racing. A 10-year-old Sato and his family attended the race together when his father acquired tickets through a friend.
Motor racing hooked Sato from that day forward and he would follow the sport through magazines. He knew he wanted to do something in racing but could not start go-karting.
“All I had was a steel frame with two wheels,” said Sato.
Instead, Sato competed in bicycle racing, winning national junior championships. When he was 19, Sato convinced his parents to give him a chance to go to a formula car racing school at Suzuka.
Within six years and a tour through British racing circuits, including a British Formula 3 Championship, Sato found himself behind the wheel of a Formula One DHL Jordan Honda in 2002. After seven F1 seasons, Sato joined the NTT IndyCar Series in 2010. Now in his 10th INDYCAR season and driving for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, Sato has four career wins and eight pole positions. His greatest achievement was winning the 2017 Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge at age 40.
Sato’s path to the pinnacle of open-wheel racing is rare for getting such a late start, but he’s not alone. A few drivers currently in the Road to Indy development ladder have similar stories. Among them are Ryan Norman in Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires and Kory Enders and Moises de la Vera in Indy Pro 2000 presented by Cooper Tires.
Norman raced in motocross from age 4 until he was 15. When he and his father participated in a three-day school at the Skip Barber Racing School at Road Atlanta, instructors told Norman that he was catching on fast. He returned to participate in an advanced school and compete in the summer series in 2014.
“I was catching on pretty fast,” Norman said. “It was cool to see that I was able to keep pace with guys that were karting all their lives and I didn’t have that experience.”
He knew that if he put the time and energy into learning how to race, he had a future in open-wheel racing. In 2015, Norman finished second in the SCCA Formula Enterprise championship with five wins. A year later, he captured the SCCA Pro Formula Atlantic Championship, winning 10 races.
Norman joined Andretti Autosport for the 2017 Indy Lights season and remains there today.
“The Andretti guys just … took note that I was just an open book,” said Norman, adding that his lack of experience played into his favor because he didn’t have any bad habits that the team needed to correct.
Norman captured his first Indy Lights victory last August at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway.
“It’s really just motivated me, knowing that my hard work (was) paying off,” he said of the win.
Norman is fifth in the 2019 Indy Lights points, coming off an exciting second-place finish last month in the Freedom 100 presented by Cooper Tires at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He missed winning by 0.0067 of a second.
Enders took an unconventional journey through racing. He started go-karting at 6 but gave up racing in the seventh grade to focus on schoolwork. His family runs a Mercedes-Benz dealership in Texas, and he started to take clients on test drives around the MSR Houston track when he was 14. Compliments from the riders on how good of a driver he was brought back the desire.
“The racing kick, it never really left me,” Enders said.
After attending the NTT IndyCar Series race weekend in Houston in 2013, Enders and his father decided that pursuing an open-wheel career would be a good idea. He tested with DEForce Racing co-owner David Martinez before competing in his first races – an Indy Pro 2000 tripleheader at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca in September 2016 – at the age of 19.
In early 2017, he competed in the Toyota Racing Series, a short five-week season in New Zealand.
“They fit an entire racing season into a month and a half,” said Enders, “which is extremely intense. It was good for me because I was able to get a lot of racing experience under my belt and get (my) race craft honed for open-wheel cars in a shorter amount of time.”
Last year, Enders drove in six Formula 4 NACAM Championship races, winning three at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez in Mexico City in June. He also drove an entire season in the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship, the entry level of the Road to Indy, to gain more seasoning.
Enders moved up to the Indy Pro 2000 full time this season, teaming with de la Vara at DEForce Racing. De la Vara got a taste for karting when he was 6, turned a few laps but didn’t like it. It wasn’t until he was 17 when an uncle invited him to watch his cousin race that de la Vara was inspired to get behind the wheel and give it a shot.
He was in karting only nine months before moving up to a Formula 4 car. In 2016, at the age of 18, de la Vara participated in the inaugural season of the NACAM Formula 4 Championship, earning top rookie honors. He won that series’ championship for the 2017-18 season on the strength of nine race wins, but it was a challenge.
“Never having to make a mistake,” de la Vara said. “Always trying to think about the championship and (I had) a very nice competitor, (former Road to Indy driver) Igor Fraga. He taught me how to manage situations better and helped me grow as a driver.”
Through five Indy Pro 2000 races this season, de la Vara is eighth in the standings and Enders sits 10th.
Late starts by Norman, Enders, and de la Vara haven’t impeded their ability to reach some of the highest levels of American open-wheel racing. And they need look no further than Sato, the 2017 Indianapolis 500 winner, for the perfect example.
“Even (at) 20 years old, you can make it, (and) after 20 years you can still achieve one of the biggest races in the world, which is the Indy 500,” Sato said. “I took 20 years, but you can make it.”