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Historic triumph for Takuma Sato

4/22/2013 - IndyCar

LONG BEACH, Calif. -- It's unfair that people will say that Takuma Sato's victory for AJ Foyt Racing in the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach was something that nobody saw coming.

Truth is, the fact that Sato was closing in on the first race win in the IZOD IndyCar Series for a Japanese driver was clear for all to see.

While people were still cracking "odd-couple" jokes about the unlikely pairing of the irascible Foyt and the boyishly enthusiastic driver from Tokyo, Sato was running fast enough to qualify for the Firestone Fast Six in all three road-racing events this season.

Now a team that supposedly specializes in oval racing has won IndyCar's most historic and prestigious road race.

True, the Foyt team's last road-racing win came way back in 1978, when A.J. himself drove a Coyote to victory at Silverstone, England. It has been more than a decade since Foyt Racing won a race period.

But this is a new AJ Foyt Racing, and not just because it's campaigning a diminutive Japanese driver.

A.J.'s name is still on the door, but son Larry Foyt is calling most of the shots these days.

It was Larry who championed the decision to be the first team to sign up with Honda as an engine supplier when the IndyCar Series switched to its new turbocharged engine formula for 2012.

Common wisdom had the deeply patriotic A.J. Foyt signing with Chevrolet. But Larry convinced A.J. that Honda offered the team its best chance to win.

He also hired race engineer Don Halliday, upgraded the Foyt team's commitment to a more modern engineering approach, and showed marketing savvy by extending a multiyear commitment from team sponsor ABC Supply Co.

Larry also was instrumental in the decision to sign Sato, the former Formula One racer who brought a reputation for plenty of speed but questions about his race savvy.

Sato himself described his first three years of Indy car racing -- spent with KV Racing Technology and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing -- as "a mixed bag."

If, as the old adage says, it's easier to teach a fast driver to slow down than it is to bring a slower driver up to speed, Sato often pushed that theory to the limit.

The pure speed he showed earlier in his career carried over to Indy cars. He has earned two pole positions, including one at the tricky Iowa Speedway oval, and he has occasionally been the fastest man in race conditions. He has led nine races in his three-year IndyCar Series career, including five in 2012.

But there still was a troubling inability to finish races. Heading into 2013, he was running at the finish of only 27 of the 49 IndyCar Series races he has contested, including only five of 15 in 2012.

Plenty of surprise was expressed when Sato and Foyt announced their intention to join forces. But the combination has been the surprise of the season.

Sato qualified on the front row for the season opener at St. Petersburg, then was fast enough to make the Fast Six at Barber Motorsports Park before a blocking penalty moved him back to 12th on the grid.

At Long Beach, he again made it to the Fast Six in qualifying, then drove what was by all accounts the most polished and mature race of his career to score a historic triumph for Japanese drivers.

"I don't know if I've ever seen a perfect day in racing, but I think Takuma did it today," said Larry Foyt. "I didn't see him make a mistake out there all day. It was a fantastic drive. He did everything we asked. Every restart, he timed it perfectly. He did a great job in the pits. He hit his marks.

"Toward the end, I was just asking him to save me a little fuel and he was still pulling away from Graham [Rahal, second-place finisher]. I couldn't believe it. Like we've been saying, we have the speed, we just had to put it all together. We did it today."

"

I don't know if I've ever seen a perfect day in racing, but I think Takuma did it today. I didn't see him make a mistake out there all day. It was a fantastic drive.

"-- Larry Foyt

A.J. Foyt wasn't present to see his team's 44th Indy car victory. He was back home in Texas, preparing for back surgery set for Wednesday.

Well, Tuesday, if A.J. can get it moved up like he wants.

"I'm definitely going to be at Indianapolis," he said by telephone to reporters.

"The last five laps were the longest five laps of anything," he added. "We've had a lot of drivers but none of them wanted to win.

"This boy wants to win."

Sato never won a Formula One race, a third place being his best finish in seven years. He noted Sunday that his last win of any kind came 12 years ago in Formula Three, a category he dominated.

But even though he didn't win in F1, his charging style on the track captivated fans and made him a hero in his home country.

There have been a few crashes along the way -- most famously, on the final lap of last year's Indianapolis 500 when Sato ended up in the Turn 1 wall after unsuccessfully challenging race winner Dario Franchitti.

But Sunday's drive was the best evidence yet that Sato learned to tailor his brash, exciting style for the unique demands of Indy car racing.

Japanese drivers had never broken through to become front-runners. Hiro Matsushita was the Japanese trailblazer, making 117 starts between 1990 and 1998 with a best finish of sixth in the 1994 Michigan 500.

Hideshi Matsuda, Shigeaki and Naoki Hattori (no relation), Shinji Nakano, Tora Takagi and Kosuke Matsuura all raced Indy car with only sporadic success. But Sato was the one who finally broke through.

"It's a fantastic day and it shows the tremendous work the team has done," said Sato, who won in his 52nd Indy car race start.

"When I arrived in Indy cars, it was a good surprise, really. It's just a different series, but it's so competitive. Good variety with street courses, road courses, ovals, the big Indianapolis 500, but also short ovals. You have to be very consistent, to have a good team, to understand everything.

"It's been three and a half years to get here, but I always believed I can challenge. Today I didn't want to finish the race, the car was so good."