INDIANAPOLIS — Being a part-time NTT INDYCAR SERIES driver is tough enough. Doing so at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is another story. The 2021 race was the 1st time in 10 years since we last saw a part time driver actually win the Indianapolis 500. Dan Wheldon did so in thrilling fashion that day in 2011 which came 10 years prior to Helio Castroneves joining the 4-win club a couple of years ago now. Wheldon’s win came 10 years after the last in which Castroneves did it in 2001 too. Now, can one of the talented drivers on this list do so this year?
“You definitely don’t have the momentum or rhythm,” Takuma Sato told me on Wednesday morning in the shadows of the victory podium of being a part-time driver this year.
Sato has run one race this season. That came back in early April at Texas. This is the first time that he’s shown up to race the Indianapolis 500 and didn’t get to race in the GMR Grand Prix prior. While that cost him rhythm, he notes that here at Indy for the ‘500 you get multiple days to get up to speed and acclimated.
“But at least (the) Indy 500 gives you a couple of good practice days,” he continued. “Now of course, yesterday washed out, but today and tomorrow (Thursday) looks like weather is beautiful so I don’t worry too much. And plus we already had even though a single day, but it was the open tests here which you already tasted and worked with at least the boys and engineers.
“I do get used to it with a new team and now I feel like a much more integrated so I’m I feel comfortable and I feel more confident.”
Boy does he ever. Sato jumped to the top of the speed charts late in Wednesday’s opening day of practice at the famed Indianapolis Motor speedway by going 229.439 mph in his No. 11 Dallara-Honda. It was the second straight year that he’s earned the top speed award on the first day of practice.
Two days later, he set the fastest practice lap in 27 years as well as quickest four-lap average that day too.
Sato also qualified sixth in Texas and had a fast race car. He did crash on Lap 46 though and finished 28th. He said that while it was tough to get a handle on the car in just two short practice sessions at Texas, Indy gives him time to get up to speed.
“No doubt you know definitely help now of course,” he told me. “In Texas Motor Speedway was kind of difficult getting in the car for 60 minutes. I think Indy 500 is a you know, I’ve done here for for a long time. Some of which I know it but this just more cushion more time and more time to analysis actually, that’s definitely helped me.”
Sato has made 216 career NTT INDYCAR SERIES starts, but 13 of them have come here on this oval. Sato knows what it takes to get around here with completing 2,225 laps in race conditions. He joins a strong team at Ganassi that has dominated the laps led the last two years including taking the win just last May.
Does Sato get to put his input, as a two-time Indy 500 champion, or does he have to adapt to Ganassi’s style who’s dominated the last three years overall? Ganassi drivers combined to lead 163 of 200 laps (82%) last year.
“Definitely both ways,'” he told me on that subject. “They’re certainly an organization that I never seen that kind of a scale and resource. Definitely, that was impressive. But not only for that the even finding when they’re small bits and pieces on the detail that a small team I’ve been to that even if I can ask, they didn’t have.
“So I brought some and I learned so much from the team. Just can’t wait can’t wait.”
Sato has won in three-year increments. His first win came in 2017 with Andretti Autosport. His second win came in 2020 with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. Does 2023 come with CGR?
He has three top three finishes in the last six years here and knows even though he doesn’t want to slow down, his years coming are slowing down. The oldest driver to ever win this race is Al Unser at 47. Sato is 46.
Still, whenever Sato calls it quits, he’s left a legacy on Japanese drivers here in America. With that said, who’s next? Sato told me that he’d love to help that next generation and open a pipeline to the NTT INDYCAR Series to his native country.
“I have,” Sato said on if he has some young Japanese drivers in mind who should come over. “Multiple young generation, new generation drivers in Japan that who really wants to come and I’m trying. I’m trying to help now because it’s motor racing and is a complicated, not just on the talent, you have to have a environment you have to have the sponsorship you have to have a deal to complete. Now of course, the pain here myself not necessarily on trying to stop on anything on his generation. Of course not. It’s the opposite. I’ve tried to keep the pipeline. And since I’m helping for the as a principal in a Honda, the racing in Japan, I tried to convince Honda to shift into some of the chance for young drivers to come to the States and everything is going to the Europe. So we’ll see. It’s not going to be turning over overnight. But I think in the short time or on time for sure. We will have a new generation young driver here.”
They have a great driver that’s left his mark here to look up to.