By Ryan Gregory
Sports Capital Journalism Program
INDIANAPOLIS –Takuma Sato had been on many dates with the Indy 500, but this was the first that ended with a kiss.
Sato waited seven long years to lay his lips on the bricks of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, including a final-lap disappointment in 2012. On Sunday, Sato became the first Japanese driver to win The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
Sato emerged from a frantic chase of global competitors, outlasting three-time Indy 500 Champion Helio Castroneves of Brazil, newcomer Ed Jones of the United Arab Emirates, Max Chilton of Great Britain and two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso of Spain to claim the Borg-Warner Trophy.
“This will be mega big,” Sato said when asked about the expected response at home. “I cannot imagine how it’s going to be.”
The winning margin of 0.2011 seconds between Sato and Castroneves was the sixth-closest of the 101 races. For Castroneves, the outcome was too familiar. He has been involved with five of the 12 closest finishes in the history of the event, winning in 2001 and 2009 and coming in second in 2003, 2014 and this year.
He excelled in a car with a Honda engine, unlike Alonso, who led for 27 laps but dropped out in Lap 180, smoke trailing from the car. Sato was not affected by two multi-car accidents, including a frightening crash that sent pole-sitter Scott Dixon into the air on Lap 55, leading to the ninth red flag in the history of the event that was not a result of rain. Dixon escaped with an injury to his left foot that required a walking boot.
Sato’s victory brings pride not only to his home country, but also to the Andretti family that had dealt with disappointment for decades. Andretti Autosport has now won the race five times, including three of the last four, a total second among current teams to the 16 titles won by Penske Racing, and its chairman Roger Penske, among current teams.
“That’s a big deal,” said owner Michael Andretti. “Obviously I couldn’t ever win it as a driver. Maybe I was meant to win it a ton of times as an owner. Maybe when I’m 80 years old, hopefully I’ll have more wins than Roger. That’s our goal.”
Sato’s win did not come without obstacles. There were 11 yellow flags on the day, thanks in part to four separate collisions. Jay Howard, pole sitter Scott Dixon, Conor Daly, Buddy Lazier, James Davison, Will Power, Oriol Servia, James Hinchcliffe, and Josef Newgarden were all eliminated from contention due to crashes.
Ryan Hunter-Reay, the 2014 winner, took the lead seven times and led for 28 laps until Lap 137, when his engine began smoking. Alonso, who smoked out on Lap 180, had led for 27 laps.
“Obviously disappointed to not finish the race because every race you compete in, you want to be at the checkered flag,” said Alonso, who had never before competed on an oval course. “Today (that) was not possible. It was a great experience, the last two weeks. I came here basically to prove myself, to challenge myself. It was nice to have this competitive feeling. I felt at home. I’m not American, but I felt really proud to race here.”
Sato won his first Indy 500 despite the late charge of Castroneves, who was vying for his record-tying fourth Indy 500 victory. There was no shortage of chances for the Brazilian driver. Despite his starting position of 19th, Castroneves was in contention for a majority of the race. On the final lap, he made a move to the outside of Sato, but the run was stifled thanks to Sato’s defensive driving.
Early in the race, Castroneves had barely survived Dixon’s frightening crash, driving underneath the flying wreckage while going up on the grass near Turn 2. “I saw they were flying,” he said. “I duck, I close my eyes. When I open, I was in the grass. Hold on, you know.”
A winglet broke off the back of his car when Dixon went tumbling over him, just grazing Castroneves. During Lap 66, when Daly slammed into Turn 3, Castroneves had a front row seat. He had the experience and quick thinking to slow and turn away from potential trouble. His survival skills and good fortune had given Castroneves a chance to take one more climb up the fence near Victory Lane.
“I tried everything I could with three laps to go,” said Castroneves. “I went outside. I thought it was good timing because I would try to make a move again. Man, he just took off and that was it. That was my last chance. I’m disappointed for the fans and obviously my team. They gave me a great car and I did everything I could. Unfortunately, second place is the best for us today.”
Castroneves was one of many veterans who were expected to dominate this field of 33. Instead of a showcase of decorated drivers, it turned out to be an opportunity for the future of the sport to shine. Sato, who turned 40 in January, had one series victory in 2013 and had led for just two laps in the five previous races this season.
Chilton, who made his IndyCar debut last season, led a race-high 50 laps and finished in fourth place. Jones, a rookie, finished third and put stress on Castroneves and Sato in the closing laps.
“I’ve learned so much in the few races I’ve done so far,” said Jones on his growth as an IndyCar driver. “Having Seb (Bourdais) as my teammate has been a huge help for me. Without having an experienced guy there, it makes it tougher for rookies to get up to speed. Everywhere we go, he knows exactly what we need. He has experience of it.”
Sato’s career had raised questions about his ability to finish races. Five years before, after leading here for 31 laps, Sato spun while trying to take the lead on the final lap and finished in 17th place.
This time, after passing Castroneves on Lap 195, Sato was ahead by just 0.0328 of a second as he raced past the start-finish line.
For one day, at least, his place in Indianapolis history eliminated all those old doubts.
“When I come, I give 100 percent commitment,” Sato said. “I knew I could do it. I just had to wait for the moment. The last few laps, they were my moment.”