Sato Feels Back at Home Quickly at Rahal Letterman Lanigan

  • Racing News
Takuma Sato

It didn’t take long for Takuma Sato, a two-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, to be convinced Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing was the place for him this May.

Yes, RLL struggled in “500” qualifying last year, with Graham Rahal failing to earn a starting position. But Sato said he was impressed with the team’s offseason efforts and the resources it committed for this race. That included convincing veteran engineer Eddie Jones to postpone retirement to lead his program.

The capper was the team’s determination to bring back Sato for a third stint at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“(Team owner) Bobby (Rahal) was calling me two and a half years ago, saying, ‘Taku, when are you going to come back, when are you going to come back?’” Sato said Tuesday as the rain washed away most of the opening day of practice. “This sport is all about maximizing results because everyone wants you to compete (and) be competitive. But it’s funny to say, that warm welcome – that love – you want to go where you’re wanted.

“So, that sort of feeling I really appreciate and not just from Bobby but also (fellow team owner) Mike Lanigan and the entire team, including Eddie Jones, who was supposed to be retired, officially. It’s the passion of this sport, of these people (at RLL).”

Sato first drove for this team in 2012, losing a chance to win the “500” when he crashed trying to execute a last-lap pass of Dario Franchitti in Turn 1. Driver and team were together again from 2018 through 2021, which included a victory in the ’20 race.

Sato earned a spot in last year’s “500” with Chip Ganassi Racing by qualifying in the eighth position. But he said he was “heartbroken” watching RLL struggle on Bump Day, a feeling compounded by Dale Coyne Racing’s No. 51 car, which Sato drove in 2022, also having to fight through Last Chance Qualifying to make the race.

Of course, sentimentality only goes so far in this sport and is insignificant when cars hit the track, as they did for a brief period Tuesday on Opening Day. But Sato said RLL’s competitive fire to return to glory has never been hotter.

“I see a chance to challenge (for a third ‘500’ win) because of the number of elements that the team has put into winning,” he said. “So many resources and effort that I see.”

Graham Rahal said Sato can give to the team as much as he receives from it, and it starts with an honest assessment of the differences he feels from last year’s Ganassi car to this one fielded by RLL. It’s important to note that Sato, who is making his 15th attempt in the event, is known for the extreme amount of detail he seeks from his team.

“It’s (early), but he’s very pleased with the balance of our car,” Rahal said of his 47-year-old teammate. “(I asked), ‘How does the car suck up (to another car)? Does it have natural speed compared to what (you’re) used to?’

“The guy’s a two-time winner not by chance – he knows how to get around this place.”

Actually, Rahal’s Indy career goes back even farther than Sato’s – he was a rookie in 2008, two years before Sato -- but he said a team can never have too much experience.

“With him, it’s trying to fine-tune (the cars) into a window that we know we can be competitive with in the race,” Rahal said. “That’s where a guy like Christian (Lundgaard) or Pietro (Fittipaldi) may struggle a little more because they don’t have as many races around here to know when that Sunday comes what’s going to be good and what’s not.”

Sato has driven for six NTT INDYCAR SERIES teams over the years: KV Racing Technology, RLL, AJ Foyt Racing, Andretti Global, Dale Coyne Racing and Chip Ganassi Racing. He has finished in the top seven in four of the past seven “500s” and led 87 career laps.

“Look, it’s basically the same car,” Sato said. “It’s just a matter of how you manipulate it in terms of settings and preparation. All the details of preparation are down to the team (and) the engineers, but when you’re on the track it comes down to the setup, which I’ve already applied things that I’ve known (to work).

“Graham has already felt the car is more free (than last year), has more acceleration, and it should be faster than last year. We’ll see how competitive we will be.”

Again, it’s too early to tell, but Sato was comfortable and at speed within a couple of laps Tuesday. He turned the morning’s third-fastest lap – 225.551 mph in the No. 75 AMADA Honda -- on just his fifth circuit.

“It’s a comfortable environment,” he said of returning to the team. “It’s almost like (being) back in the saddle.”

Practice resumes Wednesday at 10 a.m. ET (Peacock, INDYCAR Radio Network). The 108th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge is Sunday, May 26 on NBC, Peacock, Universo and the INDYCAR Radio Network.