Ready to Attack the Oval

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Takuma Sato is 16th in the Izod IndyCar standings heading into this weekend’s IndyCar World Championship at the Auto Club Speedway. (Photos by MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS/Rafu Shimpo)

By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Sports Editor

FONTANA.–Takuma Sato has a self-styled motto that he has lived by since his days racing bicycles in Japan, and it’s true whether he’s driving at 200-plus miles per hour or digging into a customized sandwich:

No attack, no chance.

After coming tantalizingly close in May to winning the crown jewel of American Formula One racing – the Indianapolis 500 – only to lose it on the final lap, Sato is embracing the challenge of Saturday’s MAVTV IndyCar World Championship at the Auto Club Speedway. The two-mile, oval-shaped course will see the return of IndyCar for the first time since 2005, and there are inherent challenges to the course built on the desert floor not far from the San Andreas Fault.

“The facility is quite impressive, but it’s a very tricky track,” Sato said after his first test run in Fontana on Aug. 21. “It was a difficult morning. It’s a very fast track, but also very bumpy.”

Add the fact that temperatures are expected to be in the triple digits on Saturday, and Sato’s team has quite a challenge, indeed.

Sato, currently 16th in the IndyCar points standings with 255 points, said the learning curve and learning the curves has proven a more daunting task than his team had expected, but the final race of the season is a long one and affords time for adjustments.

“Some of the more experienced drivers may have an advantage. Once the race starts, they know how to deal with the course,” he explained. “We will have to learn for sure, but I’m sure, with 500 miles, I will have time to figure it out.”

Tom Anderson, managing director of race operations for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, said toughness, combined with the length of the race, are factors that work in Sato’s favor.

“I think bravery is his number one trait,” Anderson said. “I haven’t seen anything scare him yet. That’s good, if you’re not nervous, you can pay attention. He has very good stamina and I’ve never seen him physically tired after a race. Once you’re physically tired, then mentally you don’t think correctly.”

Anderson said that the team wasn’t as concerned about qualifying as much as the challenge of controlling the course, with its relatively sharp turns.

The Auto Club Speedway has helped to make Sato feel at home, even creating a sandwich in his honor to be sold at Saturday’s race.

“You want the car to be able to turn by itself and hang on to the road, and let the race car driver guide it, more than trying to carry it,” he explained. “On an oval, the cornering speeds are too high and the car has to be able to do the work for you.”

“As bumpy as the track is, I think mentally, it’s going to be tough. Concentration is really key,” added Sato, who predicted considerably slower speeds than were seen at Indianapolis. While he has moved on, the memory of that race in May still drew a pause from the 35-year-old from Tokyo.

Heading into the final lap, Sato had what many felt was a clear inside lane to pass leader Dario 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.

“In some ways, the reaction and support from fans all over the world was a good feeling,” Sato said of the incident. “Even at the airport, I was feeling down and many fans showed up. We had to go to Windsor, Ontario, and even at the border, some of the inspection people asked about me.

“The feeling over not having won was there, but the fact that we were so competitive and we were so close to the win was good. It’s a mixed bag. It’s good to have the feeling that we have the ability to win the race.”

Coming into Fontana, Sato said it’s a different environment and he and his team have an approach unique to this particular race.

“We have to reset,” he explained. “We have to come here with a clean sheet of paper and carefully plan how we approach the weekend. We have 500 miles, which helps us, because today is our official test day and we don’t have much time.”

An added welcome for Sato is the addition of a menu item in his honor, that will be available at the concession stands for Saturday’s race. While in Indianapolis, he became quite fond of pork chop sandwiches. Fontana will offer the Takuma Sato sandwich – a pork chop with barbecue sauce and wasabi slaw.

Sato, above driving during his first test runs in Fontana on Aug. 21, said the 500-mile race leaves a good deal of time for adjusting to the unfamiliar and bumpy track.

While he had not yet seen it, Sato was touched by the gesture.

“I’m looking forward to that, because the league has done a lot to make this special. It’s a real pleasure to have a menu with something I really loved in Indianapolis,” he said.

Sato is somewhat of an anomaly in auto racing, growing up without much exposure to the sport and entering at a relatively late age. He is also one of the few drivers from Japan with very little experience in his homeland. He credits the challenge and simple  determination as his motivation to pursue a career behind the wheel.

“I was not a guy who had everything there as a kid,” he recalled. “I wasn’t in a racing environment and my parents had no idea about racing. I just loved cars and racing as a kid.”

At the ripe old age of 20, Sato was accepted by the Honda-managed Suzuka Circuit Racing School, where he admitted he struggled at first.

“When I had an opportunity to go to racing school at Suzuka, that was my first opportunity to be exposed to this business,” he said. “I felt the challenge and I failed so many times, but through failure, you learn.”

After two years, he began to show marked improvement, and in 1998, moved to England to hone his skills on the European circuit. there, he lived with an English family, studying English during the week and kart racing on weekends. In less than two years, he moved up to British Formula Three, winning the championship in 2001.

“In that two years, I learned so much; not only English, but the skills of racing and how to approach racing internationally, communicating with people in racing, setting up the car, everything,” Sato explained.

Sato drove in European Formula One beginning in 2002, leaving to sign with IndyCar in 2010. He said the challenge of Fontana is simply his latest, and that his motto of “No attack, no chance” holds as true as ever.

“Not many people start to get into IndyCar racing beginning at 20 years old, but for me, unless you try, you never know,” he said. “Nothing is impossible and it’s never too late. Just don’t give up what you’re dreaming of doing. If you try, there’s always some chance.”

The MAVTV 500 IndyCar World Championship will be held Saturday at the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana. A special Takuma Sato ticket package, which includes a pit pass and a question/answer session with Sato, is available by calling (800) 944-7223, or by visiting www.autoclubspeedway.com/sato.

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