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No. 2: Sato Wins Indy 500 for Second Time

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 2020 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Takuma Sato became a cult hero among Indianapolis 500 fans in 2012 despite finishing the race climbing from a crumpled Rahal Letterman Lanigan race car against the SAFER Barrier in Turn 1.

Sato crashed on the final lap in a duel for victory with Dario Franchitti, who kept his car under control and earned his third and final Indy 500 victory.

Japanese driver Sato earned redemption for himself in 2017, when he earned his first victory in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” in an Andretti Autosport car. But something still gnawed at him when he rejoined Rahal Letterman Lanigan at the start of the 2018 season.

Sato had vowed to Bobby Rahal, David Letterman and Mike Lanigan after that heartbreaking last-lap incident in 2012 that he would someday deliver them their first Indy victory as NTT INDYCAR SERIES team owners.

That promise was fulfilled Aug. 23, 2020.

Sato climbed to a higher level of immortality by winning the 104th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge and becoming just the 20th driver to capture “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” at least twice.

He won the race under caution in the No. 30 Panasonic/PeopleReady Honda fielded by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing when Spencer Pigot crashed in Turn 4 on Lap 195.

Scott Dixon finished second in the No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda despite leading a race-high 111 laps. It was the third career Indy 500 runner-up finish for Dixon, a five-time NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion and the 2008 Indianapolis 500 winner.

Sato and Dixon were locked in a stirring duel when Pigot crashed hard in Turn 4 at the end of Lap 195 as the leaders had started Lap 196, spinning and making contact with the SAFER Barrier on the outside and then slamming into the protective tire barrier at the head of the pit wall with the side of his No. 45 Hy-Vee/Embrace Pittsburgh Honda.

The gap between Sato and Dixon rarely exceeded one second and was as close as three-tenths of a second after Sato inherited the lead on Lap 185 when Zach Veach pitted in the No. 26 Gainbridge Honda, on a different fuel sequence than the top cars.

Sato appeared to be home free on Lap 191, building a lead of .9515 of a second. But he was approaching the almost-lapped cars of A.J. Foyt Racing teammates Tony Kanaan and Charlie Kimball, which let Dixon close the gap.

On Lap 195, Sato cleared 2013 Indy 500 winner Kanaan while Dixon and Rahal remained behind the Brazilian. That expanded Sato’s gap to 1.173 seconds, but Dixon and Rahal lapped Kanaan just before Turn 1 on Lap 196, moments before Pigot’s race-ending crash.

“Huge congrats to Sato,” Dixon said. “He drove his pants off today.”

Nearly all of the lead cars made their final pit stops between Laps 167 and 170, narrowly close to the maximum laps possible with one tank of fuel under green flag conditions. Sato made his final stop on Lap 168, with Dixon pitting for the final time on Lap 169.

Sato then was able to hold off Dixon in a vigorous race for the virtual lead on the track, as the drivers ahead of them didn’t have enough fuel to finish the race without stopping.

“The fuel strategy was a bit tight,” Sato said. “I saw Scott was coming right through out of Turn 4, and he was screaming coming at me. And I just held him off.”

Still, Dixon thought Sato maybe made his final stop too soon and would be forced to pit late in the race for a splash of fuel, especially because Dixon was able to save fuel by driving in Sato’s slipstream. But that scenario never unfolded due to Pigot’s late accident.

Sato’s second Indy win came 10 years after he joined the NTT INDYCAR SERIES as a Formula One road racer with no oval experience. But much like 2012 nemesis Franchitti, he has become a tremendous oval racer with a special knack for IMS, with three top-three finishes in the last four years. Besides his wins this year and in 2017, he finished third last year.

Don’t be surprised if Sato is in the running for win No. 3 in 2021.

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