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Top 10 Moments of 2017 - #2: Sato Wins!

Editor’s Note: This is the ninth of a series of 10 vignettes in which IMS Senior Communications Manager Paul Kelly picks his top 10 moments of 2017 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Before May 27, 2017, the most endearing moment in Takuma Sato’s career at the Indianapolis 500 was a crash.

Sato ended up crunching the SAFER Barrier in Turn 1 after making contact with eventual race winner Dario Franchitti as they dueled side by side for the lead on the final lap of the 2012 Indianapolis 500. 

Former Formula One driver Sato ended up 17th in the box score that year with his second crash in his first three starts in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” only reinforcing his somewhat undeserved reputation as a fast but reckless driver. But his daring, risks-be-damned attempt to win the world’s biggest race created a new level of respect and appreciation from fans, aided by Sato’s very infectious, bubbly personality.

Still, few fans probably penciled in Sato’s name in a prediction pool before the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil this May, even after he qualified fourth. After all, Sato had just one victory during his previous seven years in the Verizon IndyCar Series, and that came in 2013 on the street course in Long Beach. His best oval finish was fifth in 2011 at Texas, and his previous-best finish in the Indianapolis 500 was 13th in 2013 and 2015.

But Sato showed speed all day and held off three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves by .2011 of a second to become the first Japanese driver to win the world’s most prestigious race.

Sato wasted little time driving to the front in the 200-lap race, leading Laps 65-75 in the No. 26 Andretti Autosport Honda. He never panicked after losing the lead, staying in touch with the leaders through pit stops and cautions.

Unheralded Max Chilton of Chip Ganassi Racing took the lead on Lap 169 after the last round of pit stops for nearly every driver in the 33-car field. Chilton stayed out front in the No. 8 Gallagher Honda and kept the lead on the final restart of the race, on Lap 189 after a five-car crash in Turn 2 involving Josef Newgarden, James Hinchcliffe, Will Power, Oriol Servia and James Davison.

Sato drove side by side with Chilton in Turn 1 to try to gain the lead on Lap 191, but Chilton parried the move.

Then it was go time for Castroneves. He hunted down Chilton and passed him with a bold outside move in Turn 3 on Lap 194.

Meanwhile, Sato passed Chilton for second on the same lap and then zeroed in on Castroneves to make his decisive pass on Lap 195.

Castroneves looked outside of Sato for the lead in Turn 1 on Lap 199, but he never had enough momentum to challenge over the final two laps.

Sato showed incredible grace and speed under pressure over the final two laps, refusing to fumble away his chance for glory like in 2012. It’s one thing to win at Indy; it’s quite another to hold off Castroneves, one of the best drivers to ever turn a lap around the historic 2.5-mile oval.

“This time I was pointing in the right direction, wasn’t I?” Sato said. “It’s beautiful. I dreamed of something like this. I can’t thank everyone enough for their support.”

The victory triggered a wave of affection from the huge crowd for the affable Sato, who seems to be improving as a driver even at age 40. His scream of “AHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!” on the team radio immediately after crossing the finish line was perhaps the most visceral reaction to an Indy victory since Gil de Ferran’s similar yelp of joy in 2003.

Sato’s win also spawned even more global publicity for the “500,” especially in Sato’s native land of Japan. The demand for Sato and anything Indianapolis 500-related was so great that the Borg-Warner Trophy left the United States for the first time in late November for a two-week victory tour with Sato around Japan.

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Takuma Sato
Top 10 Moments of 2017 - #2: Sato Wins!
Sato showed incredible grace and speed under pressure over the final two laps, refusing to fumble away his chance for glory like in 2012. It’s one thing to win at Indy; it’s quite another to hold off Castroneves, one of the best drivers to ever turn a lap around the historic 2.5-mile oval.
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