“It was just a little whistling on the wind and then a gearbox noise and then such a low-rev engine noise. That was all. The grandstand was very quiet and gray, and just completely different from 2017.”
That was the experience last year as Takuma Sato crossed the finish line to win the quietest Indianapolis 500 in history.
The hallowed ground of Indianapolis Motor Speedway was a shell of itself, literally, with no spectators in attendance due to the pandemic. The race, which was pushed back until August 23, featured a dramatic run to the finish as Sato outdueled Scott Dixon until, fittingly, caution came out with four laps remaining and Sato’s No. 30 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Honda coasted to the checkered flag under a symphony of silence.
“I do remember, but what I cared about was car functions,” Sato told RACER, pointing out he still needed to manage his fuel mileage in order to make it to the finish. “That’s about it. We’re aware, we all know. Even during the race, the backstretch, I can see Turn 3 and we always see the flags because of the wind direction. Between those, there’s usually a colorful 300,000 people. That day, it was just pure gray grandstands. Everyone was aware something’s very different from a usual year, but the last few laps, yes…it was a very sad, lonely moment. But through the TV, I know millions of people were watching.
“Most importantly for the No. 30 boys and team, they were waiting for the checkered flag. So that’s why I was basically concentrating on a few things. (Big) contrast because ’17 (when he won Indy with Andretti Autosport) was a flat-out race against Helio (Castroneves). It’s such a difference. In 2020 when I crossed the line, I was very happy of course — it’s one of the happiest moments — but it wasn’t like I was shouting and everything. I was almost like clapping and saying, ‘Well done boys.’ I was quite calm, equally excited…it’s a weird feeling.”
Reality hit the 44-year-old from Tokyo, Japan in the walk out to Gasoline Alley that the 104th Indy 500 was unlike any before it.
“That was definitely the moment we just never experienced as a competitor,” said Sato. “Coming through to the grid, through Gasoline Alley, usually balloons and little papers flying, and then 300,000 people; the energy is there. And that day was just nothing. It was just quiet, as if that was a practice day. Of course, it was a hot day, but that wasn’t the first race without spectators, right? There weren’t spectators that season. Yeah, we never want to get used to it, but (it’s) something we completely understand. Nothing we can control, just feel sad — that’s it. But the big race was coming up regardless and we really had to concentrate 100 percent. Even on the grid during pre-race, we felt sad because the fans aren’t physically sharing it, but there’s no choice.”
While some might think the lack of fans would allow Sato the chance to embrace the moment, he confesses there was never an opportunity to soak everything in.
“No, there wasn’t a single moment,” he said. “I’m almost not allowed to in terms of timing. You’d be here, interviews be there. Particularly, with the pandemic happening, everything’s remote, everything’s online.
“Fortunately for me, of course in ’17, we did it old fashioned. The car was on the floor. Everybody here, photographers here. As it was for the 500 for over 100 years. Then last year, the new style with (rising) podium, because of the two completely different environments, doesn’t really compare apples to apples for me. Even though the grandstand was absolutely silent, you can still feel the energy because your boys are here and your sponsors are here, and team owners are here. Everybody had a big smile, flashing (lights) all over the place. It was the same. It was the same unbelievably significant moment.”
For Sato, who came into IndyCar in 2010 after a six-year run in Formula 1, the biggest satisfaction came in taking the fight to the pre-eminent driver and team of the season.
“In terms of just pure race point of view, we beat someone on their best day,” said Sato, of his battle with Dixon, driver of the No. 9 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda and polesitter for today’s Indy 500. “That’s something you should be really proud of — not just me, but our entire team. They did a phenomenal job without a doubt. Even today, Chip Ganassi Racing are almost dominant in the field every single day. Dixie got on pole this year; last year, he was second. They’re there all the time and they don’t mess up.
“It looked like Dixon was having his best day and we beat them. That is something this team was working so hard to be able to do, so that’s something that really feels unbelievable.
“Now, how can we repeat? Who knows? Maybe completely impossible or it could be possible. That’s the name of the game. That’s why we’re really excited. But that day, I knew the car had good pace. It might not be the fastest, but it was an incredibly consistent car. That’s what I was aiming for. So from the first stint, when Dixie went and (Ryan) Hunter-Reay came on really strong, I really didn’t want to race too hard with him. I wanted to see how he performed. I was just always watching and observing the first 100 laps. Then doing adjustments on the front wing and tire pressures. Just learning where are we going to put the peak on our performance?
“Last two stints, when I had opportunity to come back again, that’s the time you show everything. I hid the car (performance) quite a lot. That was fun. Not many races you can have that kind of a luxury, to do the other things and tactics. It’s endurance a bit, but we’re still sprint racing all the time — just not a sprint like some of the other races. So you have a lot of ability to make it happen.”
Although there was not an opportunity to celebrate with the fans last year, there will be a special moment today during driver introductions. There, Sato will be given a brief time alone on the stage for fans to extend their appreciation of his remarkable drive before he braces for battle from the 15th starting spot.
“Honestly, I’m not planning anything because I just want to enjoy that moment,” said the six-time IndyCar race winner. “Then completely shift to the next 500 miles, for sure.”
— NTT INDYCAR SERIES (@IndyCar) May 30, 2021