Takuma Sato would like for Sunday’s race to be the next in an unending string of great 500-mile runs at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. What the two-time Indy 500 winner doesn’t know is if it will be his last.
The winner of the 2017 and 2020 editions of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” has seen his IndyCar career undergo a significant change as the 46-year-old completed 13 seasons as a full-time driver and returned this year in a part-time deal with Chip Ganassi Racing. Transitioning from a complete 17-race calendar to only driving on ovals wasn’t by choice.
Concluding the negotiations to share the No. 11 CGR Honda with road course driver Marcus Armstrong required immense patience, as the funding to do so took considerable effort to find and secure Sato’s place in the team for 2023.
Presented with the best opportunity of his life to become a three-time Indy 500 winner, Sato loves the idea of winning for Ganassi and getting an invitation to restore his full-time status.
“Where I’m standing today, racing the ovals — which is still amazing opportunity, if you can’t win the championship — why not try to win the Indy 500? That’s an equally amazing achievement,” Sato told RACER. “I still dream about winning the championship, but it’s not realistic right now.
“When I wrote down all the options at end of last year, I asked, ‘What do I really want? What do I really need to do? Over 25 years of professional race car driver career, what more do you even want to achieve anymore?’ I really want to win the 500. It’s not ‘job done.’
“And this opportunity with Chip is fantastic. But my future is entirely open. Nothing is guaranteed.”
Sato’s future options may be narrowing at Indy, but he’s determined to make the most of the opportunity he has secured with Ganassi. Motorsport Images
With no assurances he’ll be back in 2024, Sato is treating his debut with Ganassi as the best chance — for now — to take another sip of milk in victory lane.
“It’s a huge pressure on me; I want to succeed,” he said. “And ultimately, if you do that, I think the future is always possible to open the door. So my plan for the future at the moment is zero, but there’s nothing but love to come back to the 500 as long as I’m really motivated, and I feel this way. I’m ready to compete. If I have an opportunity, I want to come back. That’s it.”
Separate from his lifetime of driving and representing Honda from inside the cockpit, Sato’s been asked to play a large and important role for the Japanese auto giant outside of the car. It’s here, with a call to develop and lead Honda’s young driver program, where Sato’s time is in high demand to help create future versions of himself to race in Formula 1, IndyCar, and other championships where the company is directly involved.
“Honda needs another new generation,” he said. “There is a lot of potential young drivers in Japan who need help or support. And you don’t see these drivers really coming over to the U.S. I want to develop something to make more opportunities for these drivers everywhere in the world, but also here where I have spent many years of my career.
“If I can make a bridge to extend the scholarships not just in Europe to try to get to Formula 1, but for the United States, there is the possibility of having new drivers from Japan racing everywhere.”
If the 107th Indy 500 does prove to be Sato’s final race on the Speedway, he’ll be sad, but he isn’t limiting his possibilities to open-wheel racing in the years ahead. IMSA’s GTP class and racing at the 24 Hours of Le Mans also hold his interest.
“The hybrid prototype things are just happening, so it’d be nice to be involved if I have opportunity,” he said of the class where Acura/Honda participates with factory entries. “But once again, I also am looking at what can I return, what I can give back to Honda? What can I return to the people who are supporting me for 20 years? This is very important to me.”