By TIM YUJI YAMAMOTO, Special to The Rafu
Takuma Sato’s slogan is “No Fight, No Chance,” but after Sunday’s horrific crash at the Houston Grand Prix, will he re-evaluate his tactics.
The crash on the final lap involved Sato and three-time Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti. The mishap launched Franchitti’s car up into the course’s crash catch fencing and the badly damaged car fell back onto the track. Thirteen spectators were injured when debris flew into the crowd and Franchitti sustained a concussion, spinal fracture and fractured right ankle.
Another driver caught up in the accident was E.J. Viso. Sato and Viso were examined and released. Two of the injured fans were taken to Memorial Hermann Texas Medical Center but do not appear to be in serious condition, according to a hospital spokesman.
In one of the final laps Sunday, Franchitti’s car made contact with Sato’s Honda. Sato said later that he had clipped a wall and slowed before the collision.
“On the last lap I caught the marbles and brushed the wall and lost momentum,” Sato said. “A couple cars passed me as I was off line and in turn five. I got very loose and Dario and I came together. Hopefully Dario is OK.”
Sato became the first and only Japanese driver to win an IndyCar race when he captured the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach in April. The Tokyo native will attempt another win, a possible two-for-two in Southern California, when he returns to Fontana for the MAVTV American Real 500 at the Auto Club Speedway on Oct. 19.
Proving that his victory at Long Beach was not a fluke, two weeks later, Sato led until the final turn of the last lap of the Sao Paulo Indy 300 in Brazil, finishing second after being passed by James Hinchcliffe.
By midseason, his race performances were plagued with mechanical failures, contact on the track, and a five-race probation for an avoidable contact with Ryan Hunter-Reay when entering the pit lane at Pocono.
IndyCar officials determined that Sato violated rule 18.104.22.168, which states that “a driver must not engage in reckless, careless and/or overly aggressive actions or unsportsmanlike behavior toward other members.”
The probation ended after the Baltimore race on Sept. 1.
At the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana on Sept. 24, team owner and four-time Indy 500 winner racing legend A.J. Foyt was trackside for the first time after surgery that kept him from being in Long Beach to witness Sato’s first IndyCar victory for his team.
Foyt was asked how he felt about Sato’s aggressive driving, and replied, “There’s going to be a time that we’ll have a first-place car, there’s going to be a tenth-place car. So if we got a tenth-place car, I want you to run tenth. Don’t try to take a tenth-place car and win.”
Foyt added, “You’re really not going to impress me that much if you win or lose, because I’ve been there on both sides. I kind of know what it’s like.”
Foyt said his son and team director, Larry Foyt, has done a great job of keeping the talented Sato calm and operating within his limits.
“That’s one reason that I wanted to come out here, because we had some motor problems on three or four races,” he explained. “At Pocono, where it’s very fast and coming into the pits, it’s so wide that you come off the racetrack you’re still going over 200 miles per hour. When [Sato] came in, Ryan was right there in front of him and just couldn’t get in and hit him, which was one of the unfortunate things in racing. I’ve made mistakes like that, and we all have.”
Asked how he communicates with Sato, Foyt replied, “I think he speaks a hell of a lot better English than I do Japanese! He’s a great guy and we’re glad to have him. We get along great and I think the world of him.”
Sato in turn said he was very pleased to have Foyt back at the track.
“He’s showing his great commitment, coming here a week before the Houston race,” Sato said. “He certainly looks in good shape. I’m sure it’s a long process for the healing and you can’t really tell that he had two surgeries this season. It’s tough for him and it’s tough for the team that we’re missing the big boss.”
Sato also praised Larry Foyt for a tremendous job running the show, and said that he feels a responsibility to perform accordingly.
“Now I have to do some very competitive racing, otherwise I’ll be in big trouble. Hopefully we will be back up to speed, and it’s nice to see a big smile on A.J.’s face.”
Sato’s car is the ABC Supply Co.’s Honda-powered Dallara, painted in red, white and blue and bearing the same number 14 used by A.J. Foyt when he raced at Indianapolis.
Asked about a possible second career win at Fontana, Sato beamed, “That would be great news! I really enjoyed the first time coming here last year and seriously found a very tricky track. I wasn’t sure how I can go flat-out all the way on the test day, but we all qualified and the race was very interesting.
“Unlike other tracks, here you can go high and low, but it’s a bit tricky going down low. It just presents very exciting racing,” he explained. “I remember last year here in the final race, no one knew until the very last lap who could win.”
Sato said last year at Fontana was very exciting, and he’s hoping to be just as competitive on Oct. 19.
He also acknowledged the large fan base of people from Japan on the West Coast.
“I know that there is a big Japanese society here, and I expect this year we’ll have a turnout twice as big as compared to last year,” he said. “A lot of fans are coming on board and hopefully we’ll have a strong race in front of them.”
Tuesday, Sept. 24 was testing day at the Auto Club Speedway. In stark contrast to a race day, with packed grandstands and pit crews wearing their fire-retardant safety suits and helmets, the session had single cars zooming past empty stands and crew members wearing shorts and sneakers, not trying to beat the stopwatch to get the car out of the pits, but to get the lap speeds faster.
The testing was mainly to analyze the performance of the racing engines, made by Chevrolet and Honda, that power the Dallara Indy race car, and to get an idea on how to set them up to get optimum speed.
Slight adjustments to the stiffness of the suspension or minute angle changes of the front and rear wings, slight differences in tire pressure, harder or softer tire compounds all affect whether the car will grip better in a turn, allowing the car to get a better line to help with speed and enable the driver to pass another car.
Sato is returning to the Auto Club Speedway for his second time racing this course. Asked how much difference there is compared to last year, he mentioned that last year he didn’t know what to expect going into the race and major changes were made on the initial settings on the car.
The race was also run at night and the lower temperatures made the overall performance and handling of the car different. The experience gave him a feeling of what to expect this time around, plus the team is the same, so a basis has been established on how to set up the car.
“The runs had progressively become better and I was pleased on how the car performed,” Sato said after the afternoon session, adding that the team has the car about two-thirds of the way to their performance goal.
“The race is still a few weeks away and there will be changes in the track surface. Being a night race, and if the wind direction varies, that drastically changes things,” he explained. “By testing various settings, we open our drawer to see what works.
“When it’s hot (during a day race) the cooler temperatures at night make racing a little more difficult.”
Sato explained that the surface condition of the track changes and also the amount of air down force is different.
“We have to overcome those big factors and set up the car. The type of tire is also different from last year, so we are studying the differences.”
Sato’s plan of attack is to get good position on the first lap. The race is long, so the objective is to move up in position a little at a time.
Comparing Long Beach – a street course – to the oval track at Fontana, he said, “The demands on the car are completely different, from the setting of the suspension to the aero package where the shape of the front and rear wings are configured.”
Sato said each type of track has its challenges, but added, “Here at the Auto Club Speedway, it’s a very exciting track. The race is thrilling and it’s hard to know who’s going to win until the end. Unlike racing single file, you’re able to run side by side, which makes it more difficult to win.
“As for street and road courses, it’s more natural for me because of my racing background.”
Before joining IndyCar, Sato raced in Formula 3, then Formula 1.
“With an oval course’s long distance, the number of pit stops increase, and more practice prepares the team toward attaining victory. If the package is just right, it’s quite enjoyable. Since I haven’t won at an oval, I want to try hard and win.”
He was close to victory last year, leading for the last 20 to 30 laps.
“I remember last year was a bit like the Indy 500. It becomes very tense, very competitive, and everybody wants to win.”
In Sato’s win at the Grand Prix of Long Beach last year, the pit crew’s teamwork was a major factor.
“As in any race, it’s not only the driver but the whole team has to put their strengths together; otherwise we can’t be competitive,” he said. “At Long Beach, the settings were great and the other teams had their problems, and with the outstanding pit stops we were able to win. Although street and oval racing are different, without forgetting that feeling of winning we want to put everything together for success.”
Asked about his plans of returning to Indycar next year, Sato said he wasn’t in a position to comment but has been talking with the team and would like to come back. He is currently 16th in points, with one race to go for the IndyCar Championship.
A Takuma Sato ticket package is available for Oct. 19. A grandstand ticket, pit/paddock pass, question-and-answer session with Sato, souvenir cheering flag and free parking are included for $35. Call (800) 944-7223 or visit www.autoclubspeedway.com/SATO for information.