No attack, no chance.
Takuma Sato’s philosophy behind the wheel has earned the 35-year-old Japanese race car driver a new group of followers. Many were won over by his challenge to Dario Franchitti on the final lap of the Indianapolis 500, although it ended in a wreck, that displayed his hard-driving style.
Sato will bring his approach to Iowa Speedway for the IZOD IndyCar Series Iowa Corn Indy 250 this weekend in Newton. Practice is set for Friday with heat races to determine qualifying order at 6:15 p.m. The race is Saturday, beginning at 9 p.m.
The aggressive attitude is more calculating than risky, and is indicative of his own personality.
“It has to be specifically planned out and see the possibility, and then any chance you have to grab it,” Sato said. “Any space you have a chance to grab then you have to go for it. Not necessarily do you always want that. You have to judge by feeling and experience.”
Sato, who is 17th in the points standings, made an impression on race fans when he contended late at Indianapolis, passing Scott Dixon and then making a move to the inside of Franchitti for the lead. Sato and Franchitti appeared to make contact, resulting in Sato hitting the apron and sliding into the wall in Turn 2.
“We showed tremendous speed and it was a high-end performance,” said Sato, who had to settle for 17th after the crash. “I was going for the win so, of course, it was a very disappointing outcome.
“We were there. I’m really proud of the team and that Bobby (Rahal) chose me as a driver this year.”
Listen to the Japanese call of the final laps of the Indianapolis 500.
The added attention after the race was eye-opening for the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver in his third IndyCar Series season.
“I think I didn’t realize how big IndyCar was,” said Sato, noting that you don’t know until you attract attention. “The reception after that race was enormous. Not only in Japan, but the United States.”
Increased popularity was almost immediate. People started to recognize him away from the race track, coming up to him in public.
“Even people that don’t follow racing, but heard stories about the last lap of the (Indy) 500, recognized it was me,” Sato said. “I got ‘Are you Sato?’ and that kind of thing. That was good.”
Fanfare is not new for Sato, the most successful Formula 1 driver in Japanese history. He said he has great support from Japanese fans as IndyCar grows in his native country. They have been treated to his highest IndyCar finish, placing third at the Sao Paulo Indy 300 April 29. They apparently tuned in for the Indianapolis finale.
“A lot of the fanbase in Japan follows this year’s IndyCar Series, especially my first podium in Brazil,” Sato said. “It might have been four o’clock in the morning in Japan, but people were screaming (after the Indianapolis 500 finish).
“I’ve heard a lot of great stories so I believe a lot of Japanese fans are looking forward to every race this year.”
Sato claimed another top-10 with an eighth-place finish at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach April 15. He earned his first two poles last year with the first coming at Iowa Speedway. He is the first Japanese driver to accomplish that feat, but it had more meaning.
“Not only for my first pole in the IndyCar Series, but also it was right after my father passed,” Sato said. “Basically, I wish I could share the moment with my father, but it didn’t happen. It happened at almost the same time so I feel that’s a very special race to me.”
Sato’s father was a lawyer and wasn’t a racing fan. He enjoyed the casual drive, but Takuma loved cars and racing, and was hooked at age 10 when a family friend took him to the first Japanese Grand Prix in 1987.
He had to wait 10 years before he attended a racing school when he was about 20. He turned to racing bicycles before getting a chance to race cars and ascend the ranks of various auto racing circuits.
“All I had was a push bike,” Sato said. “It was the only way I could express my racing passion.” I wanted to do it. I just couldn’t. I couldn’t give up on my dream.”
The dream became a reality with backing of his late father and his mother, who attended last week’s race at Milwaukee. Sato won them over as well.
“I’m very proud of my parents to give me such an opportunity when I was 20,” Sato said. “They supported what I wanted to do. They became huge race fans.”
The season overall hasn’t been indicative of the ability Sato and his new team. He has led three of his eight races, including three times for 31 laps at Indianapolis. Sato, a believer in learning from mistakes, hasn’t completed the last four oval races, wrecking in each race leading up to the Iowa Corn 250, where he hasn’t placed in the top 15 in his two appearances.
He is focused on a strong showing like qualifying day at Iowa Speedway a year ago.
“Hopefully, like last year, I’ll have a special day,” Sato said. “Hopefully Iowa will be the good pick up point for the second half of the season. I hope to give a competitive race.”
It should be exciting if nothing else.