T.Akuma Sato might be the world’s most humble racing superstar. He started with racing bikes – like push-pedal bikes – and didn’t get behind the wheel of a racing car until he was 19. In the decades since then, Sato has won with the best machines in the industry and driven for Formula 1 and then IndyCar. He has worked for some of the sport’s greatest legends (Rahal, Foyt and Andretti) and moved from bike to bike with others (Dario Franchitti, Helio Castroneves and Scott Dixon). And this May, when fans return to the speedway, Sato will seek to repeat himself as the 500 champion and cement his own place in racing history with a third Borg-Warner win.
How did I grow up in Japan? Are you in the race?
The first race I saw on TV was the Indy 500. I must have been 6 or 7 – this was back when the TV still had the knob to turn the channel. I remember the quick overtaking and all the quick corners, no hairpin turns.
When I was 10, my father took me to the 1987 Japanese Grand Prix in Suzuka. That was my first experience on a track when I saw cars go by. It was a sensation. From then on I was a huge fan of racing. I wanted to start karting. But my parents just had no idea about racing. There was the financial difficulty. I only had two wheels on a metal frame – a push bike. I jumped on the bike and started competing in this world.
You asked for a kart and you did a bicycle. How did that fulfill your desire to race?
Cycling is fun. You feel the feeling of speed and the mechanics below you. When I was 16, I took part in the All Japan Championship, which I eventually won. Years passed. When I went to university, I was still cycling.
But the whole time I’d been reading auto racing magazines and growing my knowledge of how the industry worked. One magazine had an article about the Suzuka Racing School founded by Honda. I applied and got a scholarship. Without that, I would not have been able to start motorsport.
Even behind the wheel a kart had to be a world of difference to a bicycle.
I was just excited every moment. I started karting and then the racing school used a little junior formula.
The goal at this point is Formula 1?
Yes. But to get into F1, I had to go to British Formula 3. And for that I had to learn English. I attended a private language school. While I was in British Formula 3, I also stayed with an English family to learn the language. It took two to three years to understand the culture, language, and racing.
I would say. You have won the Formula 3 championship within two years.
It was a hell of a trip. I won pole positions and fastest laps. But during the race I either won or fell. But because there was a raw speed they could see, I caught the attention of the right people in F1.
I was lucky enough to have Eddie Jordan [the famous Irish F1 team owner who’d given Michael Schumacher his first ride in the series] Give me the opportunity to test his F1 car until the end of my first year in Formula 3. In F1, the teams and equipment are vastly different from anything else. As a driver, you are only a small part of it. They spend over $ 300 million a year on research and development, with 700 people working on two cars. It’s huge. It’s like a project at NASA. The drivers are all exceptionally good – it’s an incredibly competitive world. And it’s really all about equipment. The first row to the back of the grille is a matter of seconds.
They mention “win or crash”. This all-or-nothing mentality was with you into your early days at IndyCar. It was just a flaw of experience?
It’s me, part of my make-up as a driver. But I also lacked experience. You are trying to be too tough to show your speed and skill, but your foundation is not strong enough. The response to what happens is not developed. The drivers who raced as adults learned time management and racing skills.
So, yes, I tried too hard at the beginning. Even today I feel like I’m still learning and taking a step forward. Nobody wants to crash. But sometimes you have to take the risk.
You have spent seven seasons in F1. What brought you to IndyCar?
I was extreme in F1. But I was forced. In 2008, after the global economy collapsed, the teams lost their sponsorships. They just couldn’t keep running. I was optimistic at the time, but places are so limited. Politics is involved. Anyone who could bring a large sponsorship with them had an advantage. Long story short, it didn’t happen to me.
I started researching IndyCar. I traveled to the states. My first personal experience was Bump Day. Standing on the inside at Turn 1, I saw the cars scream by at 235 mph without slowing down into the corner. In fact, the driver increased the speed. I said, “Damn, that’s just shocking.” I wanted to do it.
In 2010, Jimmy Vasser gave them to you a chance to do just that for KV Run. Two years later you had a one-year contract with Rahal Letterman Lanigan. And this 2012 Indy 500 is when you really got there.
We looked strong in the race. The car was fast, but it was absolutely razor sharp. In the end, I competed with the Ganassi boys Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti. I tried to overtake her on her back straight into Turn 3, but the tailwind was too strong. My car couldn’t get stuck. But at Turn 4 there was a headwind that pushed the front straight down and into Turn 1. That was my only opportunity.
On lap 196 I passed Tony [Kanaan]. On lap 198 I passed Dixie. I knew that lap 199 at Turn 1 was my first and only chance to overtake Dario. My closing speed was faster than I thought. Dario knew. He went inside to defend himself. I was surprised it didn’t go up. Our entry angle was incredibly flat. I was almost at the bottom. We braked and went into two gears. We both on the edge. Unfortunately, I wanted to get in touch last. He’s a champion. I am just a challenger. Before I knew it, I was on the white line, lost speed, and crashed. Dario didn’t do anything wrong. He raced hard. And I wasn’t ready enough to go through with this.
Although you couldn’t finish this race and move on with Rahal Letterman at this point, this was a big moment for you.
A couple of drivers came up after that and said it was fantastic. One special, and I won’t name him because it would be unfair, asked me, “Why did you avoid Dario?” There was an unwritten rule at the time that you shouldn’t force any other car to the white line. This was a violation of this rule. Who, of course, takes care of rules in the final round of the Indy 500? Again, Dario didn’t do anything wrong for me. I wanted to avoid him – but next time it would be different.
After your one-year contract with Rahal, AJ Foyt called. That’s pretty kudos.
AJ is just insane in an absolutely positive way. First of all, I didn’t understand a word he was saying. I spoke English but not AJ’s English. All you have to do is smile and say “yes”. His charisma is incredible and what he has achieved is a legend. He’s always joking, always talking about past races and always talking about food. And of course I don’t think he’s ever seen anyone eat sushi. We were born in completely different parts of the world, in completely different cultures and completely different generations. The only thing we have in common is that we want to go fast.
But you both like to win too. And in 2013 you brought him his first win in more than a decade.
Winning with a one-car team – three Ganassi cars, three Penske cars, and three Andretti cars – in Long Beach was huge. I was so proud. It was an unforgettable day. I just regret it AJ wasn’t there physically. He had had an operation. We spoke on the phone. He was very happy and proud. I wish we had put together another win for him. Unfinished business again.
When I won the 500 races for Andretti Autosport in 2017, AJ actually came to Victory Lane. And AJ will not come to Victory Lane for another team’s driver unless he is going to hit someone. I’m just kidding. Seriously though, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him come down Victory Lane for a driver unless it was his. He was so proud. Our friendship is as strong as it was when I drove for him. He also congratulated me in 2020. And he said to me: “Only two more.”
Tell me about 2017. Again The 500 goes to the last lap, this time with Helio Castroneves. But this is unlike 2012 with Dario was different.
First, my car in 2017 was very, very different. I knew before the race started that I had a car that could go in front and go to the finish. Andretti Autosport had the advantage that day. But Helio had five bullets, five cars – he was the guy to beat.
I respected Helio as much as Dario, but this time I was more experienced and knew I had to run my race. I decided to move forward with five laps to go. My engineer thought it was too early, but for me I thought I had to go. I knew what it took to win. And we held on.
How was the reaction in Japan?
It was a great success. Every media company in Japan, every network brought home the good news. I have received thousands of messages from Japan – greetings and amazing support. And at the end of the year, we brought the Borg Warner Trophy to Japan – the first time in the trophy’s history that it had left the United States. I was lucky enough to share my support for this historic moment with Japanese fans.
How was 2020 in advance? the race, not knowing when or if would it ever happen
Most of the years, during the season, I go back and forth between Japan and the States. Obviously, it wasn’t possible in 2020 with the restrictions. There were a lot of unknowns for April and May so I had to be here in the US and ready. It was my longest time outside of Japan. Of course, I missed family and friends, but that’s small compared to the people suffering from COVID-19. We have FaceTime and Zoom. In two seconds you can see your children.
As drivers, we were very lucky to race last year. Many athletes missed the opportunity to compete. It’s sad that we didn’t have fans and sad that we couldn’t see a family. But that’s nothing compared to other athletes who couldn’t do anything.
What was it like to win again?
Obviously, to win a second time is something special. We also beat Dixon and Ganassi on their best day – he had no problems. He dominated the entire race. And it was particularly gratifying to win for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, where I left the pending deal in 2012. I was so proud to get back on the team and get the job done. It only took eight years.
It’s easy: win again.