By TIM YUJI YAMAMOTO (Special to the Rafu)
LONG BEACH — Speaking in Fontana last September, Takuma Sato said he was well past the crash that likely cost him the checkered flag at last year’s Indianapolis 500.
“We have to reset,” he explained.
Consider the reset complete.
On Sunday, Sato became the first Japanese driver to win an IndyCar race, taking the 39th Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach in just his third race with his new team, A.J. Foyt Racing.
Sato was fourth on the starting grid behind pole-sitter Dario Franchitti – the same driver who some say used questionable tactics that led to the crash at Indy – after qualifying on Saturday.
Sato finished by leading 50 out of a total of 80 laps, driving his ABC Supply Company Honda-powered Dallara. The Tokyo native held off second-place driver Graham Rahal after a tight restart, and Justin Wilson, who came in third.
Sato took the lead on the 11-turn, 1.968-mile street course when Will Power pitted from the front and from there, he had no problems holding off the field over the remaining 50.
The victory is shared by an unusual pairing of Texan racing legend owner A.J. Foyt and his 5-foot-4, 117-pound Japanese driver. Foyt is known for having little patience for errors and Sato has a penchant of letting his aggression take him out of many races.
“It’s a fantastic day. I didn’t want the race to end,” Sato, 36, said after the race. “Today was just perfect; the car was just so fun to drive. Everything was perfect.”
Sato praised his crew for “tremendous work” and for pit stops with no mistakes, and thanked the team owner and his son, Larry Foyt.
The win is the first in 52 IndyCar Series starts for Sato, and the first for A.J. Foyt Racing since Airton Dare won Kansas in 2002. Even more impressive? It was the first on a road or street course since 1978 when Foyt was behind the wheel for a win at Silverstone.
Foyt never won on the street course as a driver or an owner and said via telephone, “The last five laps were the longest five laps of anything.”
“Takuma made it look too easy,” team director and race strategist Larry Foyt said. “It made me so nervous watching it out there. He just drove a flawless race.”
Sato’s previous best finish was second at Edmonton in 2012.
At last year’s Long Beach GP, Sato was in second place before getting into a skirmish with Ryan Hunter-Reay’s car and finished eighth. Sato commented on trying to keep calm and not make any mistakes.
On Sunday, Sato was under orders to save fuel, but still was able to pull away from the rest of the field while using the usually slower black wall tires.
“We’ve had a lot of drivers, but none of them wanted to win,” the 78-year-old Foyt said of Sato. “This boy wants to win.”
Asked how his win would be received in Japan, Sato replied, “It’s great news from a sporting point of view. Any win is great news for us,” referring to the survivors of the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami who are still living with much difficulty in temporary housing. Some 300,000 are still without permanent homes.
“This, hopefully, is good news to cheer them up and hopefully, yes, this is just a start to bring more IndyCar excitement and enthusiasm to Japanese fans,” Sato said, adding his wish is to have more Japanese fans know about IndyCar.
“Unfortunately, we don’t have IndyCar Japan, but it’s just a small start and I would like to go back to Japan with the series.”
Sato was greeted by several Japanese fans cheering him on during his parade lap before the race, and commented, “Long Beach is such a perfect place to get my first win, being
here on the West Coast with the Japanese community down here.”
The win pushed Sato to second in the IndyCar standings, and was redemption for last year at Long Beach while driving for Bobby Rahal.
It was as he was heading into the final lap at the Indy 500 last year that Sato had what many felt was a clear inside lane to pass leader Franchitti.
However, Franchitti held his ground, forcing Sato to drive across the apron, causing him to lose control and crash into the wall. Some felt the stand by Franchitti constituted a block, which is against IndyCar rules, but the official decision let the result stand, giving the Scotsman the checkered flag and leaving Sato – unable to finish due to the damage from the crash – with a 17th-place finish.
Sunday’s win also marked a sweep of the top four spots for Honda, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this season and had been shut out by Chevrolet in the first two races of the year. All Honda drivers were previously scheduled to visit Honda Performance Development and American Honda on Monday in Los Angeles, a trip Rahal noted will be much more enjoyable following the sweep.
– Additional information from Rafu staff and wire service reports