Impressive start has Sato thinking big about Indy

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Bobby Rahal, the owner of Sato’s car last year, and Foyt both concurred with Franchitti’s assessment.

Sato, who finished 17th instead of first or second, has no regrets.

“You just have to realize what actually happened,” he said. “When you know what’s going on, you try to make sure it doesn’t happen again. I really appreciate those who helped me.”

Recovering from such high-profile crashes isn’t always easy.

Two years ago, JR Hildebrand was coming through the final turn of the final lap when he approached a slower car and went to the high side of Indy’s oval — a rookie mistake that sent him into the wall, costing him the win. Hildebrand hasn’t finished higher than fourth in the 31 races since then.

Three years ago, Mike Conway’s car went airborne in a frightening last-lap crash at Indianapolis. He wound up with serious back and leg injuries, and struggled even after coming back to Indy with momentum following a 2011 win at Long Beach. A few weeks later, he didn’t even qualify for Indy’s 33-car starting grid, made it back last year after qualifying 29th and later told Foyt he would no longer run ovals.

Sato, in contrast, has thrived in the wake of his crash.

He posted three top-10s in the final 11 races last year, three more top-10s in the first four races this season and has thrilled his usually hard-to-please owner.

“Jack (Starne) said we didn’t change nothing,” Foyt said with a smile, referring to his team’s general manager. “Except that instead of a rider, we’ve got a race driver again.”

That should not be a surprise, though Sato was a late-comer to motorsports. He didn’t get started in karting until 1996, age 19. He left his native country three years later to compete in Formula Three. Then, after winning the 2001 series title, Sato spent the next seven seasons running with three different Formula One teams — Jordan, British American Racing and Super Aguri, which ceased operations in 2008 and left Sato unemployed after one podium finish in 92 career starts.

Two years later, Sato landed in the other big open-wheel series, IndyCar. He drove the retro-look Lotus car for KV Racing in 2011 and was impressive enough to get hired later by Rahal and then Foyt. Along the way, Sato’s results have steadily improved.

But image isn’t the reason for his success.

“What’s been great is to see this kid, Sato, really fit in good with the team,” Foyt said. “We’ve gotten great feedback from him. You look at (Chip) Ganassi, (Roger) Penske, (Michael) Andretti, they get four times as much feedback with four or five drivers.”

Sato has made up for the difference in numbers with experience, intelligence and an ability to blend in on a team that includes Foyt, the feisty Texan; his adopted son, Larry, the calming team director; veteran engineer Don Halliday; and, this month, 21-year-old rookie Conor Daly.

Somehow, it’s been a perfect mix.

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