He was vilified on social media, chastised by some of his fellow drivers, and pretty much trashed by a majority of the racing public during the first 48 hours after a frightening first-lap crash at Pocono last weekend.
On Saturday night, he started fifth, nearly crashed into the two guys he tangled with the week before, and quickly found himself in last place.
But, Takuma Sato displayed a comeback for the ages at World Wide Technology Raceway as he shrugged off the criticism; fought his way back from the early hole he’d dug himself into; and scored one of the most improbable and emotional victories of his career.
“Nothing can top the Indianapolis 500 win, but this was an unbelievable emotional boost,” said the 2017 Indy winner after holding off Ed Carpenter by a car length for his second win of 2019. “I got unbelievable support from my team and a lot of the media; and I’m just so proud to be part of the RLL team and this series.
“Tonight was just so special.”
A week ago in Pocono, on the opening lap as the field headed into Turn 2, Sato appeared to swerve into Alex Rossi, who collected Ryan Hunter-Reay, James Hinchcliffe and Felix Rosenqvist. Sato’s Rahal Letterman Lanigan Honda got upside down, its driver escaping physical injury but later pummeled on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. The criticism even got racial for the 42-year-old veteran from Japan.
“A lot of people judged on TV from one angle, and it looks like I turned into Alex. But that wasn’t true,” said Sato, who was penalized by IndyCar for avoidable contact. “The evidence showed I held my line and drove straight and at the end of the day we had an accident.
“I apologized for the situation — especially involving the championship. But it was clear other drivers moved up and we had an accident. I could have given even more room moving to the right, and perhaps that’s what I should have done; but I just think it shows we need to give each other more room in those type of situations.”
RLL took the rare step of issuing a press release supporting their driver, and an in-car video seemed to support Takuma’s claim.
During driver introductions at Gateway, Sato received a rousing ovation with very few boos, and that lifted his spirits going into the green flag.
“The fans were so supportive tonight when we drove around the track, and that made me feel so good,” he continued. “I just can’t find the words to say thank you enough.”
But there were hardly any words to describe how he scored his fifth IndyCar win.
After his near tangle with Rossi and RHR, the handling on his Panasonic Honda went away and he dropped back steadily. On his first pit stop he was last and no one could have foreseen getting back to the top 10, let alone Victory Lane.
After that, though, he combined a good pace, a little off-sequence pitting, and a very fortuitous yellow to somehow steal the win. When Sebastian Bourdais tapped the wall on Lap 190, Sato, Carpenter and Tony Kanaan were the only cars on the lead lap because everyone else had pitted a few laps earlier.
That caution gave them track position and the top three spots, and Sato managed to stave off Carpenter’s late charge.
“We started fifth but had a difficult start, and then we had a lot of good pace of two stints and stretched out our fuel,” he explained. “Of course we had some luck with that yellow, but I was very happy to bring the car in for the win. I knew I couldn’t make any mistakes because Ed was all over me those last few laps.”
And just like that, last week’s zero became a hero, so to speak.
“That’s the beauty of motor racing,” he replied when asked about winning at his age. “It’s the combination of experience, race craft and your team, and I think we can still perform. But like I said, this was extra special.”