By John Sammon
Takuma Sato is one of those rare people who ask themselves in whatever they try to do, “Can I become the best?”
That kind of dedication and focus is what led Sato into the history book becoming the first Japanese race car driver to win the Indianapolis 500, the world’s premier racing event.
“I knew I had a good chance of winning the race, but until the last lap you never know—-anything can happen,” Sato said.
Sato was born in Tokyo in 1977, but there was little in his childhood that would indicate glory on a racing track a world away in the U.S.
“I was always interested in cars but at first my parents had no idea,” he said. “They let me study piano when I was four years old. However, my father took me to a Formula Racing event in Japan in 1987. For me that was an unbelievable day.”
Sato’s first attempt to go fast was in the sport of bicycling.
“I was still a schoolboy but I managed to win the All-Japan High School Championship at the age of 17,” he recalled. “By this time I was dreaming about racing cars.”
Sato enrolled at the School of Human Science at Waseda University in 1996; however the desire to become a race car driver was too strong and he quit the university to gain entrance to the famed Honda Suzuka Racing School located in Suzuka, a city south of Tokyo on Ise Bay near Nagoya.
The school founded in 1992 has a stated mandate of striving to teach each student to be a world-class driver not only technically but mentally, and to become an outstanding person.
“The school was for students 20 years of age and under and I was 19, so this was my last and only chance,” Sato said. “I needed to go to that school and I needed a scholarship. There were many drivers trying to get in, but only seven could be picked. There were two judges. They had what was called a ‘subtraction meeting’ to make the choices.”
Past records and experience were considered for applicants to the school. While most had more impressive backgrounds than Sato did, there was something about him the judges recognized—a quality. He seemed to burn inside with a desire.
“They gave me an interview and this is a school where they try to find a driver with potential and a future,” Sato explained. “I had so much passion they thought maybe I had something. I convinced them.”
Sato got in the Honda School and received a scholarship also.
The school turned out to be eight months of intensive training in Formula Three Car racing. Formula is a class of motor sports racing using open-wheel, open-cockpit, single-seat; high-powered race cars built low to the ground. The engine is located behind the driver and uses front and rear wing flaps for road hugging stability. There are different classes of Formula road racing, Formula One, Two, Three and Four, with Formula One the top class.
Since its inception in 1950 Formula One is considered the premier form of auto racing. The cars are the fastest in the world because of their aerodynamic construction and high-powered engines, achieving speeds of up to 233 miles per hour.
“A Formula One car is more sophisticated in its construction than the other types,” Sato said.
At the Honda School drivers practiced braking and accelerating.
“You have to learn the techniques,” Sato said. “Sometimes I would drive with a teacher in another car behind me. I got 100 hours of driving time in a Formula Three car. But my dream was to drive Formula One. My hero was Ayrton Senna (Brazilian race car driver considered the fastest in Formula One). I wanted to drive as fast as possible and learn from the other drivers.”
Sato asked Honda officials if he could use his scholarship to journey to England and enter Formula racing in that country, the British version considered among the most competitive racing circuits in the world.
In 1999 competing for the Diamond Racing Team Sato finished second place in the Europa Cup Britain race driving a Formula Three car, and within two years won championships at the British Formula Three competition, the Macau Grand Prix and the Masters Formula Three.
In 2002 Sato made the jump to Formula One competition driving from 2002 to 2008 for the Jordan, BAR, and Super Aguri race teams, and scoring a single podium (win) at the 2004 United States Grand Prix.
Since 2010 Sato raced full time for the IndyCar Series for KV Racing, Rahal Letterman Racing, and the A.J. Foyt racing teams. He currently drives for Andretti Autosport.
In 2013 he won the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach for A.J. Foyt Racing, becoming the first Asian driver to win an IndyCar race.
Sato described the jump to Formula One competition as a huge step in a racer’s career.
“There can be 600 people on a race team supporting the (Formula One) driver, for example designers, engineers, mechanics, fabricators, all of them depending on you to win,” he said.
His steady rise to the top of the sport was not without its incidents. In 2002 Sato suffered a crash in Austria when another driver lost control and slammed into his race car, punching a hole in it. Another time Sato hit a wall going over 200 miles per hour.
“That was a huge accident but I never went to the hospital,” he said. “The sport of racing has gotten much safer than the dangerous time in the 1960’s and 70’s. The technology is better and the cars are built stronger.”
Asked what the key secret is to winning a race, Sato said a good sense of timing is a big part.
“You need to set it up in a race when you’re ready to overtake and pass another car,” he said. “Timing is everything. But it’s a team sport. You depend on the help and encouragement of all your teammates.”
Sato reached the pinnacle of his sport when driving for Andretti Autosport aboard an Indy car with a Dallara Chassis powered by a Honda engine he won the Indianapolis 500 on Memorial Day weekend, May 28 2017.
“It was like a dream come true,” he said. “It’s very difficult to win. You have to have luck to win and it’s one of the biggest races in the world, so you’re hungry to win and it’s such a special moment. No one from Asia had ever won before. It was also a proud moment for me being the first Japanese to win. I got an incredible trophy that is as high as I am tall.”
This was only the beginning of the honors. In a special ceremony held in Japan in August Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe feted Sato and presented him with a Prime Minister’s Award. Sato is one of only 33 people or organizations so recognized for making substantial contributions and bringing honor to Japanese society. In addition, a sculpted life-size likeness of Sato will be added to a Borg-Warner Trophy to be displayed at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum on Oct. 17.
When Sato got a sneak-peek of his likeness carved by noted sculptor William Behrends that will join the faces of past greats of the sport like A.J. Foyt and Al Unser, his response to his recreated visage was, “He’s better-looking than I am.”
Asked what his future plans are, Sato said he will take part in the “Go-Pro Grand Prix” of Sonoma, Calif., on Sept. 15-17.
“Next year at the Indianapolis 500 I’ll be the defending world champion,” he said. “It’s a great honor. I want to thank and express appreciation for my teammates and fans for their support.”
Takuma showing his Indy 500 win ring is taken with Larry Baer, president and CEO of the San Francisco Giants showing his World Series ring. Photo courtesy of Hiro Matsumoto.