KRAVITZ: In Japan, reigning Indy 500 winner Sato is the ultimate rock star – and he’s popular here, too

Takuma Sato held off Helio Castroneves to win the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500. (WTHR Photo / Scott Hums)
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Bob Kravitz

Takuma Sato admits it: His countryman, baseball star Shohei Ohtani of the Angels, is a bigger deal back home than he is. And that’s no surprise: Ohtani, the pitcher/designated hitter, has taken Major League Baseball by storm, having become one of the very few and one of the most accomplished two-way players in baseball history.

“There are lots of IndyCar and F-1 fans in Japan, but baseball is our national sport,’’ Sato said. “So he’s definitely bigger.’’

That said, Sato, the reigning Indianapolis 500 winner, is a very close second, as he quickly learned during a week-long celebration last winter during which the Borg-Warner Trophy left the United States for the very first time, touring with Sato throughout his home country. He shook hands. He kissed babies. He addressed each and every one of the more than 800 people who showed up for his Takuma Sato Fan Club. He used his victory and his appearances to raise aware for the scores of Japanese people who were impacted by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that killed more than 15,000 people and displaced so many others. He was a Japanese Pied Piper, unable to walk the streets of any city in his country without being recognized and approached.

They say that winning the Indianapolis 500 changes a driver’s life. Now try to imagine becoming the first-ever Japanese driver to win the Indianapolis 500. After several lean years, marked by just one IndyCar victory, a close call in the 2012 Indy 500 and countless crashes before last year’s 500 victory, Sato, a former F-1 driver, has become a national hero.

Takuma Sato wins the 101st Indianapolis 500. (WTHR Photo/Scott Hums)
Takuma Sato wins the 101st Indianapolis 500. (WTHR Photo/Scott Hums)

“Let me put it this way,’’ said motor sports consultant Steve Shunck, who was among a group who traveled with Sato and the Borg-Warner back to Japan in late November and early December. “Back there, he’s like the Super Bowl winner, the NBA Finals winner and the World Series winner, AND the MVP of all three events, all rolled into one. He can’t go anywhere without being mobbed. But the fans there are very respectful. And Takuma gives everybody his undivided attention, even if it’s just for 10 seconds. He makes everybody feel like the most important person in the room.’’

Amazing, really, that the Borg-Warner has never left the United States. Maybe there’s an idea there, no? Kind of like the Stanley Cup, which every Cup winner gets to enjoy for a couple of days in the off-season whether they hail from Canada, Sweden, Russia…wherever. But the trophy had never traveled, never gone to Brazil or anywhere. Just stayed in America.

This past winter, it began its trek at Twin Ring Motegi for Thanks Day. It moved on to the Tokyo Dome Hotel for an awards ceremony featuring Sato and Yoshihide Kiryu, the first Japanese 100-meter sprinter to break 10 seconds. It stopped for photos in front of Mount Fuji on the way to Nabari, the home of the Borg-Warner plant. It went to Nabari, then Tokyo and the Honda World Headquarters, then a beauty school for a meeting of the Takuma Sato Fan Club, then finished up at another awards ceremony, where Sato was celebrated as the Car of Japan for 2017-18. (Not the driver of the year…the car).

“Going back home is good crazy,’’ he said. “You can imagine, it’s almost like an Olympic medalist coming home. It was such an amazing journey. Over the winter, it was just non-stop. Every week, it was something, receiving awards…it was fantastic."

“It (the coolest perk of winning the 500) was bringing the Borg-Warner to Japan. That was really cool. And then winning the (Honda) Car of the Year (award). It was the first time a human being won and not a Honda Accord or something. It was an incredible moment for Japan, a very special award.’’

Sato, who spends half his time in Japan and half in the States, said he’s recognized everywhere he moves in his home country. “It’s like being a movie star,’’ he said. “But they are respectful of your private time. Sometimes they identify you and come over and sometimes not. But I don’t mind. The fans’ support is why I’m racing. Sometimes it’s physically tiring but it’s an equally exciting time. I get energy from the fans. I don’t mind.’’

One of the highlights came when he returned to the United States and was selected to throw out the first pitch at an Angels’ game. The Angels, of course, employ the aforementioned Ohtani, who he got to meet.

“I’ve always liked baseball but I never played in my life,’’ he said. “I never thought I’d throw out a pitch before a Major League game, but it happened because of the 500. It’s an unbelievable experience. And Shohei hit a homerun that game. He’s making great history in the States.’’

So did he throw a strike?

“Yeah, uh…no…yes,’’ he said, laughing.

The only dissonant note that sounded after Sato’s victory was a strange and utterly inappropriate tweet from then-Denver Post sports reporter Terry Frei. Frei, a good man who I’ve known for several years, let his emotions get the best of him. After honoring his late father, Jerry, a former football coach and a World War II pilot who died in 2001, Frei strangely tweeted that he was “uncomfortable with a Japanese driver winning the Indianapolis 500 during Memorial Day weekend.’’

Outrage ensued, and Frei was summarily sacked by the Post – which, if you’ve followed the story of that newspaper’s epic decline, might have rated as a good professional move.

Sato was asked about the tweet during a post-race trip to New York City.

He said it was unfortunate that Frei lost his job, but added, “I do respect the Denver Post decision.’’

From Tokyo to Nagano, from Mount Fuji to the Sea of Japan, they celebrated Sato’s breakthrough victory wildly. And after qualifying for the race this past weekend, the man whose motto is, "No attack, no chance," wants to attack next week's race and do it again. "You think 'OK, I've won the Indy 500, now I've got my dream and I can retire," Sato said. "No. That’s not the way I think. I want to do it again."

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