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DETERMINED DRIVER. Takuma Sato of Japan celebrates after winning the Indianapolis 500 auto race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, on August 23, 2020 in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

TWO-TIME INDY 500 CHAMP. Takuma Sato of Japan, winner of the 2020 Indianapolis 500 auto race, poses during the traditional winnerís photo session at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on August 24, 2020 in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

From The Asian Reporter, V30, #10 (September 7, 2020), pages 10 & 11.

Two-time Indy 500 winner Sato gets better with age

By Mike Street

Special to The Asian Reporter

The last time I wrote about IndyCar driver Takuma Sato, he had just become the first Asian driver to win the Indy 500, back in 2017. It was only his second career IndyCar victory in eight years, and his career has since taken off. In August of this year, he returned to the winnerís circle at an unusual Indy 500, taking his second checkered flag at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in a race delayed three months and held in front of empty stands, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Prior to 2017, Sato had underachieved on the IndyCar circuit, with one victory, 12 top-5 finishes, and 32 top-10 finishes in 118 starts. But in the two seasons since his first Indy 500 win, heís made 34 starts and collected three wins, along with eight finishes in the top 5 and 15 in the top 10. Last season, he established a career high with 200 laps led, more than heíd led in the past five seasons combined.

Some of this improvement came after Sato changed teams. One season after switching to Andretti Autosport in 2017, Sato left Andretti for Rahal Letterman Lanigan (RLL). Heíd last raced with RLL in 2012, the same year he almost won his first Indy 500 but crashed trying to overtake Dario Franchitti on the final lap.

Speaking after Satoís recent victory, RLL co-owner Bobby Rahal said that in the 2012 Indy 500, Sato "was doing something with a car that should not have been able to be done." Rahal said that car "was not anywhere near as good as the car we had today," but Sato had made an "unbelievable pass on [Scott] Dixon" earlier in the race that he later tried to replicate against Franchitti before crashing.

Despite the crash, Rahal called the pass emblematic of Satoís approach to racing. "Heís all fight. Heís not a guy thatís going to give up." Satoís aggressiveness, however, was his Achilles heel in his early career, when he only finished 38 of his first 68 IndyCar races. He had to learn to get his blazing speed under control.

Sato finally seemed to get that control starting in 2017, when he won the Indy 500, but he really started to put it all together when he moved back to RLL. His timing was perfect because RLL was also entering a new phase. That year, Sato became the teamís second full-time driver, and RLL brought on new talent in their engineering and marketing departments.

Those moves paid off, as RLLís other driver ó Bobby Rahalís son Graham ó matched his career high of 12 top-10 finishes in 2018, while Sato won his third IndyCar race and finished third at the Iowa 300. Sato gave the team both of its podium finishes that season and set a career high with eight top-10 finishes.

In 2019, Sato won twice, secured two pole positions, and had four top-5 finishes for the third straight year. He finished in ninth place overall, his second-best finish ever, and notched a win in his third straight season. For his part, Graham Rahal ended 2019 in the circuitís top 10 drivers for the fifth straight year, collecting four top-5 finishes and 11 top-10 finishes.

Everything seemed to be coming together for RLL and Sato. Heading into 2020ís coronavirus-delayed Indy 500, Sato had five top-10 finishes in his first seven races. And the Indy 500 showed the patient driver Sato has become, as he allowed Scott Dixon to lead for much of the race, lurking right behind him for his chance to strike.

Sato found his opportunity on lap 157 and zoomed ahead of Dixon to take the lead. The two kept battling for almost 40 more laps, balancing speed with fuel efficiency, with Sato trying to avoid a pit stop before the checkered flag.

And then, on lap 196, RLL teammate Spencer Pigot lost control coming out of Turn 4. His car spun around backwards, scraping the outside wall before spinning violently into the barrier entering pit road.

Debris was scattered across the track, and Pigot needed to be extracted and given medical attention, presenting race officials with a tough choice. They could wave a yellow flag, allowing the race to continue behind a pace car with no passing permitted. This would allow safe cleanup but effectively end the race four laps early.

Or they could order a red flag, which would stop the race completely for a cleanup. This would be followed by a green flag restart and a mad five-lap dash to the finish, allowing almost anyone near the front to win the race. While this seems more competitive, officials rarely call a green flag so late in a race.

And so the officials waved a yellow flag, giving Sato the victory but frustrating Dixonís team, who didnít think Sato had enough fuel to finish. "Itís definitely a hard one to swallow," Dixon said after the race. "We pitted a lap later, and the [fuel-efficiency] numbers they had to get, it was going to be very difficult."

Dixon wasnít the only one who was shut out of a win by the yellow flag: Satoís teammate Graham Rahal finished in third place. With characteristic humility, Sato said after the race, "I know they wanted Graham to win so badly Ö Iím sorry for Graham I won today."

The victory was also a sort of redemption for Sato, who still felt the sting from his late-race stumble in the 2012 Indy 500. "I disappointed them," Sato said. "I just wanted to fix it. It took eight years, [but] I just simply wanted to appreciate the team ownersí commitment."

Sato now joins a list of just 20 drivers who have won two Indy 500s, and he is only the second to get both wins in his 40s. "Age is just a number to me," Sato said. "Itís always about living on the edge Ö And hopefully I can compete a little bit longer." With a season like Satoís been having, thereís no reason that he shouldnít add to his list of victories in the months and years to come.

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