‘It changes your life’ – what does winning the Indy 500 mean to drivers?

Bobby Rahal won the Indianapolis 500 as a driver 35 years ago this month in 1986, and as a team owner in 2004 with Buddy Rice, and again in 2020 with current racer Takuma Sato. They both have their faces on the famous Borg Warner Trophy, and both are fully aware of what winning at the Brickyard means.

Now behind the three-car Rahal Letterman Lanigan effort for his son Graham Rahal, two-time Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato and team newcomer Santino Ferrucci, in the 105th Indianapolis 500, Rahal has experienced victory in the race from both sides.

He sums it all up succinctly: “As a driver, winning the Indy 500 really changes your life professionally, it changes your life personally and it has an unbelievable effect on your career. I don’t think that there are many sports where one event in itself has that kind of impact. It’s like an athlete winning an Olympic gold medal, winning the Grand Prix in Monaco, maybe Le Mans. Wimbledon in tennis, or the British Open in golf.

“But Indy does change everything. Everybody, no matter how much or how little they know about racing – certainly in America, but even in Europe and around the world – everybody has heard of the Indy 500. They may not know 100 percent what it is, but that is the reach of the event over the decades. It just has a tremendous impact.”

His driver Takuma Sato has won it twice now, in 2017 and 2020, his wins elevating him to rock star status in Japan. So much so, the prestigious Borg Warner Trophy left the United States for the first time in its lengthy history for a celebration tour of Tokyo and the home of Honda.

#30: Takuma Sato, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda poses for photos

Despite winning it twice (and crashing out while battling for the lead on the final lap in 2012), Sato is still in awe of Indy.

“I don’t think I really realise where I am at moment, you know, a two-time Indy 500 champion,” says the Japanese racer. “Every single driver who participates in the Indy 500 is just full of appreciation, joy, excitement and nervousness of course. It’s one of the biggest races, for sure, and one of the most exciting races in the world.

“I have had two very different wins but both feel very similar in one way, and very different in another. It’s certainly unbelievable to be on the list of the legendary drivers that I certainly respect as a two-time Indy 500 champion. You could never dream of it.”

Bobby Rahal with his Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing partners was the winning team owner in 2020 with Taku behind the wheel. How does that compare to winning as a driver?

“It’s really different,” says Rahal. “I tell people as an owner it gives great pride to win that race. It obviously gives you great pride to win any race, but Indy is Indy, and you get a tremendous amount of satisfaction for your team, and for all the people that work so hard as part of that team. It’s great for the sponsors, it gives you credibility as a team in the racing world…. It’s very, very different, very special, very satisfying.”

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Andy Hallbery