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Takuma Sato: Winning Indy 500s and Surfing Couches

INDIANAPOLIS — Takuma Sato, the Japanese driver who has won more than $4.5 million in prize money with two victories now at the Indianapolis 500 since 2017, certainly misses the comforts of home — his home, anyway.

After earning another big payday with a victory on Sunday in the Indy 500’s 104th running, Sato, 43, revealed that he had spent much of this year sleeping on the floor at a friend’s house in Indianapolis.

“Since the start of the quarantine for coronavirus I have been unable to go home to Japan,” Sato said. “My family is in Tokyo. I am unable to go there. They are unable to come see me.”

It seemed like a temporary situation, so Sato never made any kind of permanent, or even longer-term arrangements for a place to stay in the United States. One month became two, then three; now eight.

So when he is not at the racetrack, where he can at least hang out in his team’s luxurious motor home, Sato often crashes at a home belonging to a friend who is an Indianapolis businessman. Isn’t it strange, Sato was asked, that a driver who can so easily drive into victory lane at Indy cannot drive into his own driveway?

“Yes, this has been an awkward and inconvenient situation for so many people,” Sato said in an interview on Monday. “This was supposed to be the year of the Tokyo Olympics, too; I was scheduled to carry the Olympic torch. Now the Games have been postponed until 2021. It is so sad.”

Sato, who enjoys the popularity of a rock star when he is in Japan, hopes he can return home long before the rescheduled Olympics next summer without affecting his demanding travel schedule as a driver. But there is no guarantee that travel restrictions will ease in the immediate future. And there are health-based restrictions on where competitors in the IndyCar Series can go these days.

So, for now, Sato has focused on winning races like Indianapolis — his favorite race, for obvious reasons — and the 2020 IndyCar Series season championship. Despite his two Indy victories, a season title has so far eluded him in 11 seasons in the sport. Despite his victory at Indy, a double points bonanza in the title equation, Sato still only sits sixth, well behind the leader, Scott Dixon of New Zealand, whom he beat in an anti-climactic finish on Sunday.

Dixon, a five-time series champion and a three-time winner so far in 2020, was poised to overtake Sato for the lead in the final five laps of Sunday’s race. But another competitor, Spencer Pigot, crashed violently, scattering debris across the track. Officials quickly displayed the yellow flag to order the other drivers to slow to a single-file crawl with no passing.

Faced with a choice of temporarily stopping the race under a red flag condition to clean up the mess, or just letting the cars idle around the final few laps, officials chose perhaps the less popular option for everyone but Sato.

Sato’s Honda-powered racer was, at that moment, running out of fuel faster than the race was running out of laps.

“We knew we would be tight on fuel,” Sato said. “We made our final pit stop one lap earlier than Scott did. So we had less fuel to work with. We had to work harder to save fuel than he did in the final laps. But I was confident we had enough fuel to make it to the finish.”

Dixon wasn’t so sure. He had led the race for 111 of 200 laps — more than anyone else — when Sato decided to pass him with 28 laps to go. Dixon seemed content to slipstream behind Sato to save fuel, and to wait to mount his attack until the final laps.

“I perhaps should have been more aggressive,” said Dixon, the 2008 Indy winner who also now has three runner-up finishes — all in events that finished under yellow. He tried to get around Sato with about 10 laps to go, but he backed off when Sato blocked the inside lane.

Sato said he was inviting Dixon to use the outside line to pass him, just as Sato had done to take the lead earlier.

“I protected the inside line, which is the shortest way around,” Sato said. “I think that was fair. I would not have blocked him had he tried to go around me on the outside. I don’t know, however, if he would have been successful at that.”

Dixon said: “I could have gone harder to the high side. But I think he would have just run me up the track there anyway, which could have ended with us both in the fence, if not just me.”

Perhaps that would have been true. Sato has a go-for-broke personality that makes him a fan favorite. But he has more than once found himself the victim of his own aggression.

“No attack, no chance, is my motto,” Sato said. In that situation, Sato said, he preferred being in the lead, in danger of running out of fuel, to being Dixon’s pursuer and having to attempt a pass while low on fuel.

Recalling his final-lap crash in the 2011 race while dueling the eventual winner, Dario Franchitti, Sato said going for the win was all that mattered.

“You may face many hurdles in trying to achieve your dreams,” Sato said. “But it is your passion to get what you want that is the key. If you take this passion and use it do whatever it takes to get closer to your dreams, you will be able to attain them.”

He added, “I have faced many hurdles and limitations, but opportunity came to me always when I tried to move forward. Opportunities only come to those who challenge themselves.”

Now, if he can just find an opportunity to conveniently get home again.

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