Life-changing moment / Defending Indy 500 champ happy to be back

For The Tribune

It felt kind of like déjà vu.

A really, really good kind of déjà vu. The kind you definitely don’t mind experiencing again.

For IndyCar driver Takuma Sato, coming back to Indianapolis for the month of May a year after winning the Indianapolis 500 was a different kind of feeling.

[sc:text-divider text-divider-title=”Story continues below gallery” ]Click here to purchase photos from this gallery

“I felt actually really kind of emotional in my first installation lap because it brought me fresh back to last year’s Indy 500,” Sato said. “I’ve got the same spotter, so the voice is the same, and the view from the cockpit is exactly the same. It was a special moment again.”

Special is a word that comes up a lot when Sato speaks about Indianapolis, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indianapolis 500. He made history last year as the first Japanese driver to win the iconic race, something he repeatedly referred to as a dream come true.

Stepping foot in the airport, driving around the city, going back to the Speedway — the signs are all there, literally in banners, with a whole lot of good memories attached to them.

“Indianapolis is a capital of racing,” Sato said. “I know how important this is. To physically understand it, you have to be here. To feel it out. The scale of the impact of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and that the Indy 500 has is just beyond your imagination.

“Year by year, the more you participate, you’ll get more appreciation. And of course winning is just an unbelievable experience. This is just a special place for all the people who love racing.”

Sato has raced in Indianapolis many times. He had come close to winning on several occasions and gotten on the podium once, earlier in his career.

Finally breaking through last year was a moment the driver said he’ll never forget. It was his second IndyCar win — he won at Long Beach in 2013 — but this was different.

This was the culmination of a dream. Something he considers an “incredibly significant” moment in his life.

It nearly left him speechless.

“That specific moment, when I passed through the checkered flag … usually through the radio the driver thanks the team, thanks everyone, because it’s an absolute team sport,” Sato said. “I was going to say that, but I couldn’t say anything. I had to shout. I was so, so happy and so incredibly fortunate to be part of history as a Japanese driver.”

Sato’s history at Indianapolis started back in 2002, with an 11th-place finish at the United States Grand Prix as a driver in Formula One.

His first taste of the podium was in 2004, in the same race. Even though he didn’t win, Sato’s third-place finish was an unforgettable one. He remembers the race, he remembers the finish, and he remembers the winner, Formula One legend Michael Schumacher.

He was all smiles on that podium. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway had left an imprint.

Over the next decade, Sato raced at Indianapolis multiple times in the Grand Prix, and in 2010 made the field in his first Indy 500, finishing the race in 20th place.

In just his third 500, he was within one lap and one position of possibly winning before things took a turn for the worse.

In second place behind eventual winner Dario Franchitti, Sato made his move to pass on Turn 1 of the final lap. As Sato tried to squeeze to the inside of Franchitti their cars touched, and Sato was sent spinning into the wall.

He was so close, but finished a disappointing 17th.

“In 2012, I had another shot to win the 500 and challenge Dario Franchitti,” Sato said. “In the end it failed. There were various reasons, but it failed. You really learn so much from that. And that led to, five years later, last year in 2017, finally winning.”

Before last year’s winning effort, Sato’s best results in Indy had been a pair of 13th-place finishes in 2013 and 2015.

In 2017, he started in Row 2 after qualifying fourth. After staying competitive for the entire 500 miles, Sato finally added his name to the record books as an Indy 500 champion — and a likeness of his face to the famous Borg-Warner trophy.

“The entire 500-mile race, I raced competitively, and in the end it was those last five laps, and I don’t know how to explain it,” Sato said. “It was joy, it was nervousness, it was excited moments with Helio Castroneves, the man to beat for the 500. It was a great day.”

His dream was achieved, but he’s not stopping there. Sato said that while you get the satisfaction from achieving a dream and reaching your goal, there’s always another goal, another dream, right around the corner.

Unsurprisingly, he has some big goals for this year’s race on May 27.

He said he hopes to accomplish something that has only been done five times before, and hasn’t happened in 16 years.

“Of course, it’s needless to say that back-to-back winning is the ultimate goal,” Sato said. “I know it’s incredibly difficult to do, but it can be done. Nothing is impossible.”

Castroneves, the man Sato beat last year for the victory, is the last to race to a repeat, winning in 2001 and again in 2002. It was 30 years earlier that Al Unser Sr. accomplished the same feat. Joining them on the short list is Wilbur Shaw, who was the first to do it in 1939 and 1940, followed by Mauri Rose in ‘47 and ‘48 and Bill Vukovich in ‘52 and ‘54.

Winning again this year certainly would put Sato in rare company, but win or lose, he admits he’s got a unique opportunity regardless. He’s coming back to the Indy 500 as a defending champion.

He said he knows that’s going to make this race extra meaningful. And now that the pressure is off — a little — from winning last year, he said he wants to make sure to enjoy the race as well.

It’s been a busy year since what Sato referred to as a life-changing win, with appearances, awards, interviews and more. He said he feels incredibly fortunate to work with the people he’s worked with to make this happen, and he has a vast appreciation for just how important last year’s win was.

“A lot of people have told me that I’ll be introduced as Indy 500 champion for the rest of my life,” Sato said. “That’s almost one win being equal to or even bigger than winning a championship. That’s an incredible feeling and I really appreciate being a part of it.”

Now, he’s ready to make some more history. He’s hoping for another case of Indianapolis déjà vu.