The whole month of August was a 200+mph blur for Takuma Sato. It started with two weeks at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where he won his second Indy 500. What followed were non-stop days of press and PR interviews on Zoom from his home in Indianapolis, both for America and his homeland, Japan (and also globally as far as New Zealand, Hungary and other countries).
Despite all of that he had to be ready to race again the following weekend in the next NTT IndyCar Series event, a double-header on the oval at St Louis.
In amongst all that pure joy of Takuma winning his second Indy 500, his Rahal Letterman Lanigan team, and especially for two of the team’s owners, Bobby Rahal, and former TV chat show host David Letterman experienced the same as the realisation sank in.
Rahal summed it up afterwards (this was from the race day Zoom) the Indy 500 win. “For Takuma, my God, I can’t imagine what they’re doing in Japan right now. I mean, he’s a rock star there. Of course, to win the 500 again is just huge. For me all I know is we won the Indy 500 today and that’s what counts.”
Letterman has a special relationship to the event too. He is a born and bred Indiana native, so the win meant a lot. “It’s an amazing thing to witness and to be a part of. I’m very grateful to them all,” says Letterman.
“But at the same time, it all is flattering to me. I think you probably know, I have very little to do with the daily functioning of this organisation. All of this is reflected positively on me. When we won it in 2004, honest to God, it was like I’d been hooked up to some powerful electric generator. I thought that I will never experience this again in my life. For me, just a goon, it was a life-changing experience.
“Now here we are 2020, I get to go through this again all because of the kindness and the generosity and hard work of Bobby and his team. To even be here, to be in the field, to be in the pits, to be any part of this activity…. Anybody who grows up in Indianapolis, this is some DNA we’re talking about. We were always as kids outside looking in. Now inside enjoying it, winning the race. For me it’s a thrill.”
For Takuma it was non-stop, but that is the price of winning such a prestigious event. When he arrived at St Louis he shared what the previous days had been like.
“It’s been hectic and crazy busy, as you can imagine. Not physically, as obviously we had tighter restrictions. We couldn’t do the winning tour because of the travelling restrictions. Still the people knew why. Instead of using travel time, the interviews were coming up in the Zoom all the time. I had no place to hide!
“There was zero chance to really have any free time,” he adds. “I think the Thursday night after was the first time I had probably seven to eight hours of sleep. But it’s all good. It’s obviously happiest moment for the team.”
Teamwork played a huge part in the win, with Sato’s RLL team-mate Graham Rahal finishing third proof of the effort that had been put in. A lot of emphasis had been placed on preparation over the winter and early 2020 before and especially as the Covid-19 virus struck, using data captured by Acronis. Indy had been a focus since last year. All that effort, data capture and research paid off.
“I’m really pleased for our team,” added boss Rahal. “Last May we made the commitment to strengthen our engineering group and make the investments in R&D. I think this August at Indy, it showed in qualifying, then of course in the race having two cars in the top three.”
Sato finished second in the first race at St Louis, behind championship leader Scott Dixon, who he’d been wheel-to-wheel with for his win at Indy the week before, but the life of an Indy 500 winner is never quiet… especially for the first-ever Japanese victor – now a two-time one joining a group of just 19 others to win twice.
“It’s an amazing, amazing feeling. I think in 2017 I was just too excited for the first one,” said Sato. “Now, of course I realise what’s coming. I never thought I would be winning even one Indy 500, but twice? Crazy!”
Among the things he knows are coming are sitting to have his likeness immortalised on the famous Borg Warner trophy by artist William Behrends which will start next month. In 2017 after his victory the huge trophy left American shores for the first time, to do a tour in Japan with Sato, of course visiting Honda’s HQ, Borg Warner’s plant in Nabari as well as a Sato fan day. The following year, like all recent winners, he was presented with a ‘Baby Borg’ a miniature version of the real thing.
“I will cherish that Baby Borg as a memory of my first Indianapolis 500 win for the rest of my life,” said Sato. “It was an honour to be the first Japanese recipient and to be represented on the Borg Warner Trophy alongside so many other great drivers.”
Now he can look forward to adding his face to the beautiful Borg Warner Trophy again.
The Indianapolis 500 may be the jewel in the crown of the NTT IndyCar Series, but there’s no time to celebrate, or sit back and relax. There are still five races to go, and Sato currently lies fourth in the standings.
Team owner Bobby Rahal explains the efforts behind getting his team to the front.
“My partners and I, we’ve committed ourselves to really investing in the team and bringing good people in. We brought Piers Phillips in a little over a year ago as President, we brought young engineers into it. We kind of have a youth movement in our mechanics because frankly in IndyCar a lot of mechanics aren’t my age, but not that far away from it! We’re trying to build for the future, and it’s been working out.
“Winning the Indy 500 gives all those young people, everybody, a huge buzz. For the young guys especially, all that hard work all of a sudden seems worth it, doesn’t it?”