Impressive start has Sato thinking big about Indy

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - When Takuma Sato strolls into his garage at Indianapolis, he gets a quick glimpse into the two distinct paths that have defined these past 12 months.

There’s the wall that features front pages from two Japanese newspapers with his arms raised in victory. Back home, he’s a national hero.

A few feet away, on another wall, is a poster of team owner A.J. Foyt wearing an Indianapolis 500 winner’s ring — a stark reminder of what happened last May and of Sato’s primary goal this month.

“We are here aiming to win the 500, so there is no reason why we cannot,” Sato said.

Certainly not given Sato’s incredible start to 2013.

He started on the front row and finished eighth at the season opener at St. Petersburg, wound up 14th at Barber and then became an international star by giving Japan its first IndyCar winner with a victory at Long Beach. Two weeks later, at Brazil, Sato nearly did it again, losing the lead on the final turn as he finished second to Canadian James Hinchcliffe.

Suddenly, Sato now leads the points chase, has given A.J. Foyt’s once struggling team new hope and comes to the Indianapolis 500 as one of the pre-race favorites. Around the track, he’s confident, respected at age 36 and could be on the cusp of greatness in his first season with the team.

Sato expected nothing less.

“When I jump into the car, I remember very clearly that first time at Sebring this winter, the car was a bit different from what I was used to from last year but it was very, very consistent,” Sato said. “I thought, `Hmm, this consistency, if you can maintain it, just sharpen up the speed, we could have been really, really strong.’ And that’s what we did.”

For Sato, the May 26 race is not just about winning — it’s about casting aside the ghosts of years past.

As an Indy rookie in 2010, Sato finished 30th, two laps off the pace. In 2011, he qualified 10th and looked like a race day dark horse until he got too high going through one turn and wound up in the wall, the first car out.

Last year, he struggled on Pole Day, qualifying 19th. But everyone remembers him most for what happened on race day.

Running side-by-side with Dario Franchitti heading into the first turn of the last lap, Franchitti took a higher line, leaving Sato a narrow lane just below the white line. Sato took a chance and as Franchitti squeezed the opening, the tires on both cars appeared to touch, sending Sato into a spin and into the outside wall. Some thought Franchitti protected his lead with a block. Others thought Sato just took too big a chance.

Either way, it’s still the talk of Gasoline Alley.

“I saw Sato move across and I remember thinking I had to leave a little gap for him. The fact that he went through that gap and lost control was not my fault,” said Franchitti, the defending 500 champ and a three-time 500 winner. “I would have done the same thing.”

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.

“I’m surprised at what a smart racer he is. Everyone knew he was fast,” Larry Foyt said. “The Long Beach race, he drove so perfect. He did everything perfect in the pits and we’re all just getting along so well.”

Sato was the second-fastest Honda driver heading into Friday’s practice, posting a fast lap of 223.660 mph. That number will certainly climb as drivers are given an additional boost of roughly 40 horsepower in this weekend’s qualifying. Chevrolet has dominated the speed charts all week, as they did a year ago, though the Honda engines were better on race day.

If that happens again May 26, Sato could give his fans another reason to celebrate.

“We come here with a clean sheet of paper,” he said. “I was so close last year. Knowing that now how to get there, what you need there, so it’s been a tremendous experience. Hopefully, I can translate it to, you know, translating to this year’s performance. Hopefully we’ll be smiling after that.”

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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