TAKUMA SATO: Driving force of Japanese motorsport

Takuma Sato. photo courtesy of INDYCAR

Takuma Sato sent Japanese racing fans into a frenzy following his monumental Indianapolis 500 win May 28. The first Japanese racer to do so, and the only Japanese IndyCar racer currently on the track, Sato sat down for an interview with a pool of Nikkei journalists including the Nichi Bei Weekly ahead of the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma Sept. 16.

Racing in IndyCar
Sato seemed at ease heading into his final race with Andretti Autosport. “I do become a little nervous as race time gets closer, but there’s a few things I do to get myself ready,” he said in Japanese. “I have been doing this for 20 years, so I don’t get really nervous anymore, but there still is a feeling of nervousness for each race.”

Sato went on to finish 20th in Sonoma, getting knocked out on lap 62 of the 85 lap race.

While he did not win his final race of this year’s IndyCar series, he made headlines earlier this year in Indianapolis. “On top of everything, having to be perfect, you can only win that race if you’re lucky as well. So it really is like a dream come true for me to be able to win this race,” he said.

Sato said he has dreamed of attaining this glory as a racer for 30 years. While he did not know about it at the time, he said he saw an Indy 500 race on TV when he was 6 or 7 years old and later fell in love with racing in 1987 while attending a Formula 1 race at the Suzuka racing circuit in Mie Prefecture when he was just 10 years old. He went on to race under a Honda racing scholarship and first drove in Europe, and started racing in the IndyCar series in 2010 after leaving Formula 1 racing in 2008.

While driving at 230 miles per hour can seem terrifying, Sato opined that speed is not what made racing scary. He admitted that it is “pretty fast,” but that was more “fun.”

“This is my own take on it, but you only feel fear when you can’t see what’s ahead of you,” he said. “We figure out how a car will move, pushed to its limits. Even turning into a corner at 300 kilometers an hour, tires skidding, you have an idea of where the car is going. You can’t know everything, but you can see a few moments ahead of you and you don’t feel that fear. But it’s terrifying if your car doesn’t move as you feel it should, if it doesn’t handle as how you feel it should. … To put it another way, if you told me to drive blindfolded, I would be terrified even going 10 kilometers an hour. I’d be scared to even walk blindfolded.”

Sato said his team works to minimize any frightening situations that might arise by building him a tool that enables him to navigate a course exactly as he intends. In turn, Sato said he must clearly communicate his needs through frequent technical meetings with his crew.

Looking for Future Drivers
There have been around 10 Japanese drivers in American open-wheel racing since Hiro Matsushita opened the way for Japanese drivers some 28 years ago, according to Sato. The Indy 500 winner joined the IndyCar Series following Roger Yasukawa, a Japanese American racer. Sato noted Yasukawa serves as his spotter during races, serving as an extra pair of eyes during races to inform what is going on around him. While Sato became a race car driver through a scholarship from Honda, he said it is tough for drivers to advance to where he is.

“It’s a great time for a new Japanese driver to come in. With so many people focusing on the Indy 500 today — and I don’t plan to retire any time soon — I want some new and amazing racers to come along and win against me. They need to. … It’s very hard to reignite that passion once it’s gone. I want younger racers to rise up from the lower categories to join IndyCar (before I retire).”

He said he hopes his Indy 500 win and his recent award from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe boosts interest within the Japanese automotive sporting world to groom future racers to join him, though he noted that it is a challenge for young racers in Japan.

“If anyone can come to North America, that would be great, though it’s really hard to get into this sport without a sponsor. It’s a very high hurdle to get over for a young driver,” Sato said. Unlike North America and Europe, Japan has a smaller pool of younger racers, making major sponsorships unviable for up and coming talent. “There’s no corporation kind enough to sponsor someone when they need that initial investment. Usually, it’s only their parents, either that or you join a manufacturer’s program.”

Facing Discrimination
While Sato’s Indy 500 win made headlines, Denver Post sports writer Terry Frei also made headlines for tweeting: “Nothing specifically personal, but I am very uncomfortable with a Japanese driver winning the Indianapolis 500 during Memorial Day weekend.” Following condemnation on the social network, Frei lost his job and issued a public apology. Sato, however, said he did not expect nor want an apology from Frei.

“He didn’t attack me personally, he expressed he was uncomfortable with the situation overall. He said he was uncomfortable that a Japanese racer won on Memorial Day … He didn’t harbor any ill will toward me personally,” Sato said. “I can see someone letting something like that slip in any conversation when they’re frustrated.”

He added that Frei’s comments personally cost him nothing.

He said Frei’s comments were “inappropriate,” given that it has been more than 70 years since World War II ended. “I am aware there are still people who feel very sensitive about these issues today, but I question why anyone should bring this into the realm of sports,” he said. Sato went on to say the nationalism expressed following a sporting win should be celebrated.

He also went on to say that he was pleased to see that society aligned with the correct side of the situation, making it clear that Frei’s comments were inappropriate. But he also wished the beleaguered sports writer a return to his career.

“I want him to take into account the perspective he gained through this experience and recover,” Sato said. “I’m sure he’s a good reporter.”

Sato, however, said he was not immune from racial discrimination. “I do feel discrimination. I think there’s no escaping it. I feel it’s never going away,” he said. “ … I experienced this when I was in Europe and I do feel it in America as well. The person saying these things might not think they are being discriminatory, but I am sometimes hurt by what people say.”

Sato said he takes the anger he feels from these experiences and turns it into energy for his racing. “This year, I beat all the other racers on the Indy 500 track. Beating all the other racers is perhaps the easiest way to say to any of my detractors, ‘how’s that?’”

Looking for a Bigger Win
With the Indy 500 win under his belt, Sato now looks toward next year’s season where he will rejoin Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, the team he was with in 2012. Sato notably crashed out trying to overtake first place on the final lap of the Indy 500 that year. He admits that he is an aggressive driver on the course.

“As a pro driver, it’s preferable to finish in third place rather than to crash out. There is a financial and statistical benefit to doing so, especially when you think of the sponsors,” he said. “However, if you’re not challenging people and always finishing third — and it’s fine once in a while — I think it doesn’t translate into showing you’re determined to win. This is a value judgement and people might disagree with me.

I’m fine with that. But I hope that people see that determination and think, ‘this guy might actually win.’”

Sato’s next goal is to become a series champion. “It’s not about winning one race, it’s about winning the season. It’s a very difficult thing to do. It will take a lot of effort, not just from the driver, but the entire team,” he said. “And if I’m lucky, I want to win a second Indy 500 in a row if I can.”

 

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Takuma Sato fast facts

• Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato was born Jan. 28, 1977 in Tokyo. He began competitive cycling in his third year of high school at Wako High school. He attended Waseda University where he continued cycling. He entered motorsports in 1996.

• While the Indy 500 winner does not have time to closely follow other sports, he is interested in what other Japanese athletes are doing abroad.

• Sato estimates he burns about 3,000 calories for every two- to three-hour race. He also said he loses two to three kilograms (4.4 to 6.6 pounds) every race, most of it in water weight.

• As part of his routine, he eats about two hours before a race and then gets a massage from his physical therapist before getting into his car.

• He typically eats easy to digest udon or rice before races. He said he does not particularly watch what he eats, but prefers the natural taste of ingredients in Japanese cuisine and does not eat a lot of fried foods.

• While he laments that local food can be a “hit or miss” in America, he said it helps him savor the food he eats when he goes back to Japan. He is also thankful that the ramen boom extending out from the East and West Coasts have finally met in the middle, as two ramen shops have opened in Indianapolis.

• Sato’s most memorable IndyCar race was the 2013 Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach while racing with A.J. Foyt Racing. It was his first IndyCar win.

• Sato has developed a love for wine and bottled 600 commemorative bottles of white wine to celebrate his win in Long Beach.

• Sato is married and has two children: an 11-year-old son and an 8-year-old daughter. Sato said he does not plan to pressure his children to become racers, but will offer them the opportunity if they show genuine interest.

• Following the March 11, 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, Sato founded With You Japan, a charity focused on giving children opportunities to get into racing.

• Sato is, not only the first racer to receive the Prime Minister’s Award, but the first honoree to drive himself to the Prime Minister’s residence without a chauffeur.

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