Takuma Sato will make his way to the Motor City this week with the title as Indianapolis 500 champion.
Sato became the first Japanese driver to win the Indy 500 and the first 40-year-old winner since Eddie Cheever in 1998 when he took the checkered flag at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Sunday afternoon.
Sato, in his first year with Andretti Autosport, was running up front all day, then took the lead away from three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves with five laps remaining in the No. 26 Honda to earn his second career IndyCar series win.
“It’s an unbelievable experience and I still can’t believe it, felt like it was a dream when I woke up this morning before my manager called me and told me it was five minutes until my first interview,” said Sato Monday evening, just minutes before the Indianapolis 500 banquet.
He credited his team and team owner Michael Andretti for giving him the resources to win.
“I can’t thank (team owner) Michael Andretti and the whole team enough. I knew of all the resources they had is so strong and therefore I was so looking forward to the month of May, and with all the drivers and the sharing of information and team communication made for a fantastic environment,” he said.
“It’s so important to build a car for your liking and then prepare for the last 50 laps when you really need to attack. I felt confident, was really consistent and it was great to be back in P6 (sixth place) region for the last 30 laps. The car worked extremely well so I was able to overtake them one by one.
“Then, with the last six laps, Helio (Castroneves) was leading at that time, and I just wanted to try and give it a shot because I knew recently there were so many leader change and a lot of times people don’t want to lead until the last lap because people get a good tow and they can overtake. I felt if I waited until two laps to go and if I failed, that’s the end of the story.
“I felt six laps to go was a good number so I tried and did it, then he did it (attempted a pass) three laps later, Helio caught me up and tried an attempt, but I knew how to defend my position and that was a very, very intense last five laps, but very exciting and enjoyable moment.”
Sato was among 15 drivers who led the Indy 500, a race record, leading two separate times for a total of 17 laps.
While Sato has run well at Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s 2 1/2-mile oval in past years, it was his Andretti Autosport teammates that fans expected to possibly be in the running for the win, including 2014 Indy 500 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay, last year’s winner Alexander Rossi and two-time Formula One champ Fernando Alonso, who was making his debut on the track.
Hunter-Reay was a factor all day, leading 28 laps before his Honda engine blew up after 136 laps while running third, behind Alonso and Rossi. Alonso was running seventh when his engine expired with 21 laps remaining.
Sato came close to winning the 2012 Indy 500, running for the lead on the final lap when he hit the wall after bumping eventual race winner Dario Franchitti, ultimately finishing 17th while competing for Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Racing.
Sato continued his busy schedule as a celebrity, taking a flight to New York on Monday night for more interviews before making his way to Detroit to compete in this weekend’s Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix on Belle Isle.
Past Indy 500 winners didn’t fare well the following week in the doubleheader in Detroit: in 2013, Tony Kanaan finished 13th and 12th; Hunter-Reay placed 16th and 19th in 2014; Juan Pablo Montoya, 10th and 10th in 2015; and Rossi 10th and 12th last year.
But Sato knows his way around Belle Isle’s 13-turn, 2.3-mile street course. He owned the pole position for the doubleheader in 2014, then finished second in Race No. 2 in 2015 while driving for A.J. Foyt.
Sato’s lone previous win in the IndyCar series came in the 2013 Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach in 2013 while running for Foyt.
Sato is now third in points in the IndyCar series, also finishing fifth in the season opener on the street course at St. Petersburg, Florida, along with the ninth place finish at Alabama.
Sato said he loved street courses because they provide great drama and are challenging for the drivers.
Sato talked about the upcoming doubleheader on Belle Isle after competing on the 2 1/2-mile superspeedway, a 360-degree difference.
“Detroit is pretty much a normal street course set up where you need a lot of stability and traction, but you don’t want to give up too much front grip so you still need good front end turning in the corner,” Sato said.
Detroit Grand Prix
When: Friday-Sunday, Belle Isle (IndyCar races Saturday and Sunday, 3:30 p.m.)
TV: Both races on ABC
2016 winners: Sebastien Bourdais and Will Power