INDIANAPOLIS – Takuma Sato is on a roll heading into the NTT INDYCAR SERIES doubleheader this Saturday and Sunday after winning the 104th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge last Sunday.
And there’s a strong chance the good times will continue during both races of the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 this weekend on the 1.25-mile oval at World Wide Technology Raceway. Sato and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing are the defending champions of the event.
“We’re running Friday, so we have to get ready,” RLLR team manager Rico Nault said. “We’ve watched other people win the Indy 500, and then they can’t get ready for the next race, but I’m confident we will come to Gateway strong. Takuma is the defending winner there; he did a great job last year.
“There is no reason why we can’t go there this week and win again.”
Sato led 61 laps in last year’s race and defeated Ed Carpenter by just .040 of a second in last year’s WWT Raceway win.
Sato’s victory in last Sunday’s 104th Indianapolis 500 was as strategic as it was fast. It was evident Sato had one of the of the fastest cars in the race because he started on the outside of the front row alongside Scott Dixon, who led 111 laps in the 200-lap contest.
Sato raced in the top five most of the day, content to let other drivers lead the first 150 laps because he believed he would have the fastest car at the end of the race.
That was by design, according to his race engineer, Eddie Jones.
“We were confident what we had done with setup and how we had planned our strategy for the race, tire usage, how we set the car up to be fast at the end,” Jones said. “Everything went according to plan.
“You saw that at the end. In that final stint, we passed Scott Dixon, Takuma raced away, and Dixon had nothing for us.”
The box score shows Dixon’s Honda in front for 111 laps and Sato’s No. 30 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Honda in the lead for 27 laps. But much of that was planned as Sato was successful at saving fuel throughout the race if it was needed over a long green-flag stretch at the end.
“I really believe Takuma had the best car when it mattered the most,” Jones said. “That was borne out on some restarts. We got shuffled back a bit. He was had one of the few cars that was making genuine passes on other good cars in the race.”
In the closing 13 laps of the race, Sato’s gap over Dixon was .9 of a second. Dixon’s No. 9 PNC Bank Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing was at full power, but the five-time NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion and 2008 Indy 500 winner could not cut into that gap. He got it down to .7 of a second on one lap when Sato caught up to lapped cars, but on the very next lap, Sato’s lead was back to .9.
“We had a genuinely fast car, one of, if not the fastest cars in the race,” Jones said. “To me, it’s nice to win it that way. Nothing was inherited. Takuma drove for it and we were genuinely very quick. We felt confident in that.”
Jones works closely with Derek Davidson, Sato’s crew chief and race strategist. Davidson is a former United States Auto Club (USAC) Sprint Car and Silver Crown driver with a career that spanned from 1996-2003.
Davidson’s crew had taken Jones’ calculated data to build a car that would have the speed when it mattered the most, at the end of the race.
“We think about 10 laps into a stint, Takuma’s car would really take off and everybody else’s car would fall off,” Davidson said. “We felt pretty good there, at the end.
“We were doing what we could to keep up and then race hard at the end. The guys had amazing pit stops all day, and Takuma was fabulous. When he couldn’t overtake somebody, he was saving fuel the whole time. That really helped.
“At the end, we were confident that we had it.”
Sato delivered with his second Indy 500 victory. His first came in 2017 with Andretti Autosport.
It was the first time Davidson’s car has won the Indianapolis 500. It was Indy 500 win No. 2 for Jones. His first was in 2005 with the late Dan Wheldon at Andretti Autosport.
When Sato returned to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in 2018, the engineer and driver have developed a special bond.
“Takuma Sato is just fantastic,” Jones said. “He is an all-around, top professional in his sport. It’s incredible. He delivers on all fronts.
“I’m one of those that don’t necessarily believe you slow down with age, and certainly Takuma Sato hasn’t slowed down.”
At 43, Sato is driving the best of his racing career. He has found the right mix of speed with patience. That experience has made him a big-time INDYCAR winner.
More importantly, he is well-liked and highly respected by his team.
“Takuma is a bubbly guy,” said Nault, who earned his second Indy 500 win. “His ‘Attack, no chance’ sometimes drives us batty. When he crashed at Texas in qualifying, I wanted to wring his neck. But he makes it happen. When it’s time to go fast, he goes fast.
“That is what we want in a driver.”