During the final laps of the 2012 Indianapolis 500, Takuma Sato found himself with a decision to make.
He was in third place, trailing Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon, teammates who took turns zipping past each other for the lead. With two laps to go, Sato managed to breach the 1-2 formation, taking a chance to Dixon’s left and passing him on the inside of a turn.
The Tokyo native was fully intent on becoming the first Asian driver to win the Indy 500, and as the white flag waved indicating the final of 200 laps, Sato made an approach to the inside of a turn, attempting to pass Franchitti for first the same way he passed Dixon.
This time, it didn’t work. Sato’s car clipped Franchitti’s as he attempted to pass him. Sato spun out and crashed into the side wall, and the dream of a 2012 Indy 500 win was extinguished.
“Imagine if I had just followed (Franchitti) to finish second in the Indy 500. It would be the best result I’d ever had in the Indy 500 and you get a huge bonus and you have history, being the first-ever Japanese driver to finish second in the Indy 500,” Sato said.
“But I had no interest in following him to finish second at that time, because I had an opportunity to win. If I didn’t feel there was an opportunity, I wouldn’t, but I was going to win the race — that’s why I tried. As a result, I crashed, and that was heartbreaking. The car is very (difficult) to drive, but what makes the difference is the driver. I didn’t have enough experience or skill at that time to cope with that situation, so I failed.”
Sato admits the loss weighed on his psyche for weeks, and it was only the demanding schedule of IndyCar racing, that requires drivers to shift their focus to new cities and racetracks on a week-to-week basis, that snapped him out of his funk.
Although Sato is a household name in the racing community now, he almost never got a chance to sit behind the wheel of a race car.
In his hometown of Tokyo, he was much more focused on bicycle racing as a child. He was good at it, too, winning the All-Japan High School Championship.
“I had always dreamed about it, but I never had the opportunity to go into racing karts and things like that. I grabbed my bicycle, the only thing I had with wheels on it. I rode on the bike quite often and it was just for fun when I was a kid, but when I went to high school I started seriously into competition, and I won the All-Japan High School Championship and went to university with a bicycle as well,” Sato said.
But Sato says that the dream of vehicular racing had been simmering for some time, starting at 10 years old, when Sato’s father took him to the Japanese Grand Prix.
“I couldn’t give up on my dream to become a race car driver, but as a teenager, I was struggling with my dream and the reality that I couldn’t do anything to start racing because I needed some budget I didn’t have,” Sato said. “I was struggling massively when I was in university, and I went to a magazine feature of Suzuka Racing School and I was about to become 20 years old, so this was my last chance. I asked my parents for one shot — and if I don’t have a scholarship there, I will quit; at least give me a chance.”
The school only accepted racers younger than 20 and typically judged people based on their résumés, rather than an audition process. With no experience in karting, a popular form of racing among Japanese youth, Sato knew he’d have no chance, but he convinced the judges to conduct an interview instead. He ended up getting a scholarship to the school, one of seven drivers, among 70 applicants, to get into the school that day.
Sato said the moment was a prime example of the attitude of “no attack, no chance,” a life motto he carries with him to this day.
“I basically changed the way they operate. The attack is, if you don’t try, there’s nothing there for me; that’s how I really became ‘no attack, no chance.’ That’s how I started my entire career. It was about attacking and creating chances by yourself,” Sato said. “Not intentionally, but somehow my race style is the same too, causing a lot of issues like spinning and crashing and not having consistent results because you are living on the edge too much. But then, just the experience so you can land exactly, precisely what you want to. That’s why my motto is ‘no attack, no chance,’ because there’s no chance unless you try.”
From his early days in racing at Suzuka to his time in the United Kingdom as part of Formula 3, and then Formula 1, Sato had plenty of setbacks, but he took home major victories, capturing a title in Macau for the British F3 championship in 2001 before advancing to Formula 1. Despite later success, he looks at the Macau win as one of his proudest, as it set the foundation for the rest of his career.
In 2017, his eighth year as an IndyCar driver after switching from Formula 1, Sato finally broke through for a win on the biggest stage in Indianapolis. This time, he didn’t have to risk a crash for the win, leading the entire final lap. The win was the first for an Asian driver at the Indy 500.
Three years later, he did it again.
“I wanted to thank everyone who supported me. In Asian or Japanese history, to achieve such a pinnacle of a U.S.-based sport, I’m really proud of that in myself and my country. Thank you to everyone who gave me the opportunity to do so,” Sato said. “I now became the first Japanese driver to win the Indy 500. For me, it’s almost nothing, but it’s important to make history so the next generation and the next, next generation of Japanese drivers can have a result and, ‘If he can do it, I can do it.’”
Sato felt the result was a boost for Japan as a whole, not just Japanese racers.
“Japan had earthquakes and tsunamis and it was a difficult time,” Sato said. “At that time, it was giving something back and a great hope for my own country in Japan, to have a great spirit. Sports can be very influential for life motivation and I’m pleased to be (an inspiration) too.”
Beyond another Indy 500 win, Sato wants to build on his legacy.
“If I win another race in the Indy 500 and challenge for the IndyCar championship, that’s the ultimate dream,” he said. “I try hard, but in racing, it’s not just you who can make decisions by yourself, but there are other factors. There are so many talented drivers who had opportunities taken away because it’s such a difficult sport.
“It’s nice to finish high and then make the best out of it and try and hand it over to the next generation. I want to see a young Japanese driver come over and continue in my footsteps.”