A Great Opportunity for All Involved

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Yesterday, we got confirmation on something that had been rumored for the past couple of weeks. Takuma Sato has been confirmed at Chip Ganassi Racing for the No. 11 oval-only program, in the same car that will see rookie Marcus Armstrong run all of the non-ovals.

What a contrast for the No. 11 team! They will have a true rookie in the 22 year-old Armstrong for twelve of the races. Then for the five ovals races, they will switch to a 46 year-old veteran who drove seven seasons in Formula One before driving thirteen full seasons in the NTT IndyCar Series. In IndyCar, Sato won six races – two of which were the Indianapolis 500, in 2017 and again in 2020.

Most fans reacted very positively to the announcement yesterday. Of course, there was the obligatory handful of fans who complained that the part-time ride should have gone to a more deserving Linus Lundqvist, the reigning Indy Lights champion.

Lundqvist is definitely a hard luck story. In the past, Indy Lights had paid $1 Million in scholarship money to be used in securing a few races in IndyCar. Last year, it was inexplicably cut in half – leaving the champ on the IndyCar sidelines for the upcoming season, while lesser known rookies signed fulltime deals for the 2023 season. So I can understand fan’s angst when some drivers are signed over Lundqvist – but not this time.

None of Lundqvist’s wins in Indy Lights came on ovals. Three of Sato’s six IndyCar wins took place on ovals, two of which came in the Indianapolis 500. Chip Ganassi Racing’s current stable boasted a total of two Indianapolis 500 victories – Scott Dixon in 2008, and Marcus Ericsson in 2022. With this signing, their current total just doubled.

Takuma Sato has ruffled a few feathers in his thirteen years in IndyCar. He has made some overly-aggressive moves that have raised more than a few eyebrows. But there is no doubting his ability to find the fast way around the 2.5-mile oval at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

He did not luck into either of his two Indianapolis 500 wins. In 2017, Sato started fourth and battled none other than Helio Castroneves over the last several laps to win. In 2020, Sato started on the outside of the front-row and battled Scott Dixon over the last fifteen laps to take the win. Not only was Sato fast in qualifying, he raced hard to close the deal in both wins.

Sato was also right in the mix at the end in 2019. Then don’t forget his battle with Dario Franchitti in 2012. At the beginning of the final lap, Sato made a move on Franchitti, who was leading at the time, headed into Turn One. Although there was room for only one car, neither driver gave an inch. The two cars touched, and Sato ended up in the wall, while Franchitti went on to claim his third Indianapolis 500 win in his last five tries. A year and a half later, Franchitti’s career would be ended during a horrifying crash in which Franchitti and Sato tangled in Houston. Sato would be unhurt, but Franchitti suffered multiple fractures and a concussion. Fans blamed Sato for that crash.

Just to gratuitously insert myself into the story, Sato was also blamed for this crash that I filmed on the opening lap at Pocono in 2019.

Susan and I were on top of a billboard overlooking Turn Two, along with Paul Dalbey of Fieldof33.com. The following photo appeared on Racer.com the following day. With all of this mayhem going on just below us, we three foolishly chose to stick with the shot instead of ducking for cover. That’s Susan in the white (just over the point of the "ROXOR" sign) with her still-camera. I am behind her in the black polo taking the video; while Paul Dalbey is directly behind me, wearing blue, taking video on his phone. The person behind Paul is wisely taking cover, as we were showered with carbon fiber debris just a few seconds later. Don’t try this at home, kids! While we got great shots, it was a very stupid thing to do to not drop and take cover.

2019 Pocono

Anyway, I digress…

Getting back to Sato, he also drove to a thrilling win at probably the best IndyCar race we have seen at Gateway in 2019. Sato was at the top of the podium, but he was surrounded by Ed Carpenter and Tony Kanaan in a moment for the old guys. All three battled at the end, but Sato came out on top. This was just the next race after he (rightfully) caught the blame for the crash at Pocono. I took this photo of Sato being interviewed by Kevin Lee just as he stepped out of the car after the win.

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Although he already has two Indianapolis 500 wins to his credit, Sato has never been on a team the caliber of Chip Ganassi Racing, with all due respect to Andretti Autosport and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. This is a great opportunity for Sato and Ganassi.

Sato began his IndyCar career with KV Racing Technology where he did not win at all. He then moved on to AJ Foyt’s team, where he gave them their most recent win – Ling Beach in 2013. For one year he was at Andretti, when he won his first Indianapolis 500. He then won four races for Rahal, including the 2020 Indianapolis 500 – his last win. Last season, Sato drove for Dale Coyne, where his best finish was fifth.

Sato has riled a few fans, drivers and car-owners over the years; with his No Attack, No Chance mantra as he races. But how many owners would prefer to have a driver that they had to reign in from time to time, versus one that you had to light a fire under? If I ever won the lottery and started a racing team, I would much rather have the one you had to slow down occasionally. They stand a much greater chance of winning over those that sit back and wait for things to happen.

The way I see it, this is a win-win for everyone – Sato, Ganassi, the fans and the Indianapolis 500. For the most part, Takuma Sato is a very popular driver among the fan base. At 46, he still gets a chance to race ovals – and with one of the best teams in the business. This also gives Chip Ganassi an excellent chance to win a fifth Indianapolis 500. It’s not close to Roger Penske’s eighteen wins, but it’s still an impressive number nonetheless.

This is also good for the oval races Sato will race in, especially the Indianapolis 500. The record for former winners in the race is ten, which occurred in 1992. Last year’s race had eight, which is high number compared to some years. We will most likely not have Juan Montoya in the race this year, but we picked up a new winner in Marcus Ericsson who returns this year. But without Sato in the race, that would still drop the number of former winners to seven. Keeping Sato will keep the number of former winners at eight, which is a good thing in my eyes.

Best of all, it keeps an exciting driver in the series for the ovals. Fans want excitement in racing, especially on the ovals. Nothing reminds us of why we originally fell in love with this sport, more than watching a driver attempt a seemingly impossible move and actually pulling it off. Sato is capable of doing that and has actually done it numerous times.

So congratulations to Takuma Sato, Chip Ganassi Racing and especially the fans. A likeable and passionate driver will be returning to the ovals this year, in a very good car. That’s can be a winning formula.

George Phillips

7 Responses to “A Great Opportunity for All Involved”

  1. Very pleased Sato has the drive. Would be very happy if he brings it home although Dixon wouldn’t be !
    Agree re Lundqvist. He really should be on the grid but not just ovals and instead of the rumoured sting ray robb however motor racing is expensive so money talks and I feel Penske have somewhat let the lad down. The integrity of the ladder series requires the Champion to move up.

  2. billytheskink Says:

    A good pairing for both sides for sure. Sato’s inconsistency over the years has been as maddening as it has been entertaining, but darned if he doesn’t know his way around the speedway. Taking his two wins in the 500 in two dramatically different types of races, with very different aerodynamic packages, and doing so in straight up duels with two of the best drivers the sport has to offer in Castroneves and Dixon… it’s a heck of a record

  3. In past years I’ve listened to the Dinner with Racers podcast interview of Sato twice.
    Yesterday I listened to Marshall Pruett’s interview with Sato.
    Incidentally, I really wish that pole winner Dixon had won the Indy 500 last year rather than making one tiny mistake.

  4. The #11 will be a contender for the win. That is great news indeed. Sato has always been good at Indianapolis.

  5. Thanks for blogging, George. Good work.
    I read the news this morning immediately after it was posted on Racer .com and then listened to Marshall Pruett’s “Catching Up” brief interview with Sato. Then I read here and commented after the first two.
    Apparently my comment wasn’t posted.
    Hours later I see that only one other reader cared to comment about Sato or Franchitti or George, Susan, and Paul at Pocono.
    I’m glad that Sato will have a car to race this season. Imagine him winning a race and Rahal again failing to win.

  6. I haven’t seen or heard of anyone mentioning this, so here goes. Sato’s first 500 win was in 2017, and his second one three years later in 2020. 2023 is three years after his second win. Those are just dates, but some will think, “Hmmmm.”

  7. Love that “No attack, no chance” attitude.

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