INDIANAPOLIS – Back in 2012, NTT INDYCAR SERIES team owners Bobby Rahal, David Letterman and Michael Lanigan were watching the laps wind down in the Indianapolis 500. At the time, they had a fearless driver battling Dario Franchitti for victory in the 96th Indianapolis 500, a former Formula One driver from Tokyo named Takuma Sato.
After leading 31 laps in the race, Sato was sizing up Franchitti at the start of the final lap to make the race-winning pass. The two drivers entered Turn 1 nearly side-by-side. Sato’s Honda went low, touched the inside line separating the apron from the racecourse, and the car spun and slammed into the outside wall in Turn 1.
Franchitti completed the final lap for his third “500” win and what would ultimately be his final NTT INDYCAR SERIES victory.
Sato left the team at the end of that season but believed he owed Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing an Indy 500 victory for his near-miss. He spent the next three seasons with team owner A.J. Foyt before joining Andretti Autosport in 2017.
That year, Sato drove Andretti’s Honda to victory in the Indy 500, becoming the first driver from Japan to win the world’s biggest race.
He rejoined Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing beginning in 2018 and promised the trio of team owners that one day he would make good on his promise to deliver an Indy victory that he let get away in 2012.
On Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Sato made good on that promise.
Sato started third, led 27 laps in the 200-lap race and was in the lead for good on Lap 185 after Zach Veach and Max Chilton pitted. Those two drivers were on a different pit stop strategy than leading contenders Sato and Scott Dixon.
Once Sato was in front of Dixon, his Honda was the best at that point in the race. He was able to maintain a gap with Dixon, who dominated the race, leading 111 laps.
The harder Dixon tried, the gap to Sato remained the same.
When Sato’s teammate, Spencer Pigot, had a huge crash into the attenuator at the entrance to pit road with five laps to go, the race ended under caution and Sato had scored his second “500” victory.
The near-miss of 2012 was paid back with a victory in 2020.
“It’s just a mission completed,” Sato said. “My personal ambition was achieved in 2017 with Michael Andretti. Of course, you have something back in your mind is always pulled in that way.
“I had to get it right in 2012. I had to fix it. I messed up. Whatever there is, there is a lot of science behind why I can win, but it's no point to talking about that. Now I know how to do it, right?
“I just wanted to have Bobby and Mike, of course, David, as well, that I just wanted to give them back what they have, and they felt on that particular moment. I disappointed them.
“I just wanted to fix it. It took eight years, to be honest. I just simply wanted to appreciate the team owners' commitment, they put me in the No. 30 car. I know they wanted Graham (Rahal) to win so badly. I'm pleased today the team (finished first and third). I'm sorry for Graham that I won today. But I still feel this is the moment mission completed that I really wanted, waiting for eight years for my team owners to give it back.”
Sato’s payback was the second “500” victory for Rahal and Letterman as a team owner. Their first as ownership partners came in 2004 with Buddy Rice.
Sunday’s win was the first Indy 500 victory for Lanigan as a team owner.
Rahal also won the 1986 Indianapolis 500 as a driver, so this was his third overall Indy victory to go along with three CART championships as a driver.
“That race in 2012, he was doing something with a car that should not have been able to be done,” Rahal said. “That car was not anywhere near as good as the car we had today, yet there he was.
“In fact, I remember he and Dixon and Franchitti came out of (Turn 4), and Takuma put a pass on Dixon that was just unbelievable. Of course, he tried to do it again on Franchitti on the last lap. I think Dario made the track a little narrower than it was intended to be. Nevertheless, we lost control and crashed.
“That's Takuma. If he sees it, smells it, he's going to go for it.”
Rahal was pleased with the overall performance of the team.
“What a day for RLL,” he said. “Graham drove great.
“Takuma did a super job. The pit stops for both cars were really good today, gained a lot of spots on that. I guess when it's time to go racing, we went racing. Just really pleased to have two cars in the top three at the Indy 500.
“Not a bad day.”
Bobby Rahal earned fame and glory as a race driver. Letterman earned international acclaim as a comedian and a television talk show host.
Before Letterman launched his career, he grew up in Indianapolis and regularly attended the Indianapolis 500 as a youngster. The Broad Ripple High School graduate loved his hometown race.
Thanks to Sato, he’s a two-time Indy 500-winning team owner.
“I'm typically introduced as television has-been,” Letterman quipped. “For me, this is a delight.
“I'll tell you, if we had never won a race beginning to end, to be associated with Bobby and his team and Graham, there's not a better driver on the grid than Graham and Takuma, Spencer showing tremendous promise for a kid. We're all hoping that he's going to be OK. I think he is.
“But it all is flattering to me. I think you probably know, I have very little to do with the daily functioning of this organization. All of this is reflected positively on me.
“When we won it in 2004, honest to God, it was like I'd been hooked up to some powerful electric generator. I thought that I will never experience this again in my life. For me, just a goon, it was a life-changing experience. Now here we are 2020, I get to go through this again all because of the kindness and the generosity and hard work of Bobby and his team.”
When Letterman last made it to the victory celebration after his team won the Indy 500 with Buddy Rice in 2004, it was held inside the Green Room of the Pagoda because hail and lightning had preceded a tornado that hit 7 miles from IMS.
Sunday, it was another unusual day with an Indy 500 held in August because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Letterman told his son, Harry, on Saturday night that something big might happen Sunday. Sato made sure Letterman was able to deliver his promise to his son.
“I said, ‘When I see you tomorrow, we may be Indy 500 champions.’ He kind of rolled his eyes and went to bed.
“So, I have leverage over the kid now.”