Thursday, June 21, 2018

Takuma Sato back to defend Indy 500 victory with new team

The fans lined up one by one in the most orderly fashion, waiting for their chance to take a photograph or snag an autograph from the first Japanese winner of the Indianapolis 500.

Good thing they were patient, too.

Takuma Sato spent time chatting with every single one of them.

The meet-and-greet came during a triumphant tour of Japan late last year, which included stops at the Twin Ring Motegi racetrack, Mt. Fuji and the Tokyo headquarters of Honda. Along for the ride was the massive Borg-Warner Trophy, with the face of Sato now molded into it alongside the rest of the Indy 500 champions, as it left the United States for the very first time.

"The fans were overwhelming," recalled Scott Gallett, a vice president at BorgWarner Inc., who was on the trip as the trophy's caretaker. "We had people that came to multiple events. They'd just follow us around. And it was something to see such an appreciation for Takuma and what he'd accomplished."

The 41-year-old Sato may not carry the name recognition of Unser or Andretti even after winning last year's race for Andretti Autosport. But with a quick smile, easy laugh and ebullient personality, he was nonetheless a popular champion, so much so that nobody seemed to care a whole lot that he denied perpetual fan-favorite Helio Castroneves from joining the hallowed club of four-time winners.

That was just in America, too. Sato was positively revered in Japan, where he first shot to stardom years ago driving in Formula One, far and away its most popular motorsports series.

When he first returned home last June to celebrate his win, hundreds of fans and media were on hand to greet him at Narita Airport. And during a four-day victory tour in the Japanese capital, he visited the world-famous Shibuya Cross intersection — Tokyo's version of New York City's Times Square — where the finish of the Indy 500 was shown on a giant video screen.

The love affair continued into this season, too.

Sato threw out ceremonial first pitches for Cubs and Angels games. He got to spend some time with baseball sensation Shohei Ohtani, bringing two of Japan's most popular sports stars together.

"I've had so many different things and people I've met — Olympians, baseball plays. Yes, Shotani," Sato said this week, shortly before surviving bump day to make the 33-car field for Sunday's race.

"Baseball, you know, I like it but I never played in my life, so I never thought I'd get to throw out a first pitch," he said. "Motor racing is big but baseball is the national sport."

There are a few reasons why Sato has been in such high demand.

For one thing, he has a go-for-broke style that resonates among auto racing fans regardless of nationality. He's willing to push the limit, even if it means crashing out in search of the win.

That was the case in 2012, when he challenged Dario Franchitti for the lead on the final lap. Sato was pushed low, lost control and the two cars clipped tires, sending him into the wall. Franchitti held on to win the race while Sato, despite his disappointment, was gracious in defeat.

That's the other big reason he's in demand: His personality is magnetic. He's the kind of driver that fans can't help but cheer for, and he returns their love for him in kind.

"Sometimes it's tiring," he said of the constant adoration, "but I really appreciate it."

The Indy 500 victory was without question the biggest moment of Sato's career. He'd only won one other IndyCar race, back in 2013, and managed one podium finish in 44 races in Formula One. Yet it showed once more how much different winning can be at the Brickyard.

There are no victory tours for winning elsewhere, no photo ops at Mt. Fuji, and Honda officials are less inclined to fete you at world headquarters.

Now the trick is to back up that victory.

Sato is driving for his third team in three years in Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, and recently ran in the top 10 at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. He's now teammates with Graham Rahal and Oriol Servia with Bobby Rahal serving as his strategist when the green flag flies on Sunday.

"I think we've got as strong a group as any team out there," Bobby Rahal said. "I think with the group we have, we have three pretty strong prospects for the 500, and I'm pretty excited about that."

Who knows? Maybe the slight-as-a-pixie Sato can become the first repeat winner since Castroneves more than a decade ago, and embark on another triumphant tour of Japan.

One thing is certain: The fans would surely show up.

"He's always been so fantastic to work with. Very humble, doesn't ever think he deserves it," Gallett said. "Of course, he does. He deserves everything he's gotten."

___

AP Sports Writers Michael Marot and Jim Armstrong contributed to this report.

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