This week, INDYCAR.com is recapping the 2020 NTT INDYCAR SERIES SEASON. Today is the latest feature highlighting the top three stories of the year.
Entering the 104th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge on Aug. 23, one of the compelling storylines was the expectation that a driver would win “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” for the second time in their career.
That goal was reached, but it wasn’t by the driver that many expected.
Instead of Scott Dixon winning his second Indy 500, it was Takuma Sato of Japan.
Sato knew if he was going to be the best on Race Day at Indianapolis, he was going to have to beat the best.
Dixon dominated the 500-Mile Race, leading 111 laps in the 200-lap contest. But Sato was equally fast in the No. 30 Panasonic/People Ready Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. Although he led just 27 laps, Sato was in contention the entire race, shadowing Dixon’s No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda.
Sato took the lead on Lap 185 with Dixon in pursuit over the closing laps. But when Rahal Letterman Lanigan teammate Spencer Pigot severely damaged the pit road attenuator in a crash on Lap 196, the final five laps were run under caution.
“Takuma got through the traffic pretty good and Takuma had just enough of a gap, that’s all it took,” winning team owner Bobby Rahal said. “For Takuma, a two-time winner of the Indy 500. That’s pretty cool.”
Sato won the race for the second time since 2017, when he scored a victory for Andretti Autosport and defeated three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves.
“I’ve been very fortunate to race hard against some of the legendary drivers, not just Dixie (Dixon) but the others, too,” Sato said. “Even in 2017 with Helio Castroneves, he was the guy to beat. This year, there was no doubt from practice to qualifications to 100 laps into the race, clearly, Scott Dixon was the guy to beat.
“We managed to put everything in perfection position for the last 30 laps, which was essential. It was perfectly executed. There was some luck, too, but you have to be there to grab that. All of the preparation was coming along, together.
“I’m extremely happy and very, very satisfied.”
Sato nearly won the Indy 500 for the first time in 2012 when he was in a fierce battle with Dario Franchitti in the closing laps of the race. At that time, Sato was in his first stint with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and was determined to get the team the big win at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
On the final lap of that race, Sato had set up Franchitti in the draft, prepared to make the race-winning pass going into Turn 1. Sato went low in the corner, Franchitti held his line and Sato’s car hit the white line and lost control.
Instead of winning the race in 2012, Sato was climbing out of his crashed race car while Franchitti celebrated his third Indy 500 victory and his final win of his NTT INDYCAR SERIES career.
When Sato returned to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in 2018, he made a vow to team owners Bobby Rahal, David Letterman and Michael Lanigan that he would gain redemption at the Indy 500 to make up for what happened in 2012.
Redemption came in a race that was originally scheduled for May 24 but had to be moved to Aug. 23 because of the pandemic.
“Bobby, David, Mike, all three are boss,” Sato said. “Bobby is the man who ultimately makes the decision. But Mike Lanigan has put a financial commitment to my No. 30 car. That is why I have been given an opportunity to drive the car, because of Mike Lanigan.
“You need financial stability, and Mike Lanigan was willing to help me. That’s a huge commitment for him.
“I went to A.J. Foyt for four years and then with Michael Andretti to win a ‘500,’ every single time, Bobby and Mike would ask, ‘When are you coming back?’ It’s not a joke, Mike Lanigan made an absolute commitment. That is why I’m so grateful and so thankful to him.
“I’m happy for my American family.”
Part of his “American Family” is a man from England, engineer Eddie Jones. Sato and Jones have enjoyed a very close relationship throughout the years, and Sato was especially happy to get an Indy 500 win for Jones, who retired at the end of the 2020 season..
“I am so fortunate to work with so many great engineers,” Sato said. “Eddie Jones was a race car driver. He knows about Pocono, he knows about Nurburgring back in the days. He is a designer, car builder, as well as a race car driver. He knows the business, about what you need. He is so grateful.
“I simply love him, and we work so closely. It’s a magical chemistry feeling that we get along really great since day one.”
Sato’s second Indy 500 victory was just as thrilling and just as sweet as his first in 2017. Although the scenarios were completely different, Sato’s two Indy 500 wins are a combination of bravery, speed and loyalty to his “family.”
“In a way, it’s quite similar and it’s quite different,” Sato said. “Winning the ‘500’ is so special. Everything has to be perfect, and the team provided that. The team gets all the credit; I was just a part of it.
“Sharing the milk and the joy with the boys, the sweat, crying, tears and everything. That moment was not different from the 26 boys (Andretti in 2017) to the 30 boys (RLL in 2020). If anything was different, I gave something back to the owners from 2012.
“The first achievement was significant. The second, I know this feeling, but never get tired. Winning the Indy 500 was so special. I had a mixture of feeling and very emotional.
“This time, I was more relaxed when I won.”