Takuma Sato was already a well known icon in Japan from his years in Formula One and near victory in last year’s Indy 500, when he slammed into the outside wall after making contact with winner Dario Franchitti on the final lap of the race. But his celebrity status reached new heights in his homeland after his dominating victory in last weekend’s 39th Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach for the IZOD IndyCar Series.
Until last Sunday, no Japanese driver had ever stood on the top of the podium in the premier U.S. open-wheel series or the European-dominated F1 series.
“Indeed, I'm honored to be the first one to win, but not because of me, it's everyone else,” said Sato, age 36. “A lot of Japanese drivers have started in history, not only me, and I think everybody tried. Those people really opened the door to me.”
With his victory at Long Beach, the expectations for Sato to do well only increase in his home country.
As news agency Jiji Press in Japan stated after his triumph "Sato’s remaining big goal in IndyCar will be the annual championship or the Indy 500 title."
No pressure there!
The other big story out of Long Beach is the incredible parity in IndyCar as showcased by Sunday’s improbable podium trio of Sato, giving AJ Foyt Racing its first win since Kansas in 2002, second-generation driver Graham Rahal of Rahal Letterman Racing and Englishman Justin Wilson for Dale Coyne Racing.
In fact, it was the first time since the race at Motegi, Japan in 2003 that the big three teams of IndyCar racing — Andretti, Ganassi and Penske — did not have driver on the podium!
"It's just so tense. There's so many drivers in this championship that are capable of winning races," Wilson said after the race. "I think it's going to be even more intense and interesting as the season goes on."
Rahal echoed those same thoughts.
“There are no bad drivers in this series anymore,” he said. “It is just so competitive now. If you miss anything at all you drop way down.”
The uniformity in performance was also apparent in qualifying where 16 other cars in the 27-car field were within one second of polesitter Dario Franchitti’s fast time.
Even the intense competition among the engine manufacturers was a draw. The final results had five of the top 10 finishers, including Sato, powered by Honda and the other five by Chevrolet.
Helio Castroneves now holds a slim six-point edge over Sato in the season standings as the series heads to Brazil for the Sao Paulo 300 on May 5, and then it is on to Indianapolis in preparation for the 97th running of the Indy 500 on May 26.
The IZOD IndyCar Series will make two more stops in California in 2013 with the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma at Sonoma Raceway (formally Infineon) on Aug. 25 and the season finale MAVTV 500 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana on Oct. 19.
The Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race has been an institution at the Long Beach Grand Prix since 1977. Toyota has donated more than $2 million on behalf of the race and its participants to various children’s hospitals since 1991.
The event’s diverse list of past winners includes gold medal Olympian Bruce Jenner, actor Gene Hackman, singer Donny Osmond and rocker Ted Nugent.
This year History Channel’s “Top Gear USA” host Rutledge Wood took the checkered flag over the 18-car field in the annual 10-lap race while last year’s race winner and comedian Adam Carolla finished first in the Pro category.
“I can’t believe it. I feel great. Some of those people were so fast that I have no idea how I stayed in front of them,” exclaimed Wood. “This is the most fun I have ever had in my life.”
Asked to comment on a rumor that Toyota may not continue the Pro/Celebrity race in 2014 Carolla replied: “Rutledge and I will be here whether they run it or not!”
The Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race is scheduled to be broadcast on SPEED Channel on May 4.
The NASCAR Whelen All-American Series season is officially under way at the Stockton 99 Speedway and a couple of Manteca drivers are off to hot starts.
Chad “the Iceman” Holman was well off the pace in practice at the season opening race for the Super Stocks two weeks ago, but his crew made some major changes before the main event and they were just what the doctor ordered as the second generation driver grabbed the lead from Lodi’s Robert Knittel on the 4th lap of the 30-lap feature and cruised to the win.
Dave Kong is a perfect two for two in Basically-4s division this young season, picking up the win over fellow Mantecan Brad Mast two weeks ago and backing that up with another impressive run to the checkers last Saturday.
Two other drivers are also two for two in 2013 as Pine Grove’s Matt Scott drove to a pair of wins in the Western Late Model twin features two weeks ago and Jay Lindstroth of Citrus Heights equaled the feat in the Grand American Modifieds last Saturday.
The 99 will be dark this weekend as the action shifts to the new dirt oval at the San Joaquin fairgrounds with a Late Model Open show that will also include the Delta Series Modifieds and BCRA Midgets today.
On May 4, the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West returns to the 99 Speedway for one of the biggest races of the season.
Also on tap this Saturday will be a five division program featuring twin 50-lap late model mains at Madera Speedway and a four division program headlined by the IMCA Modifieds on the 1/3 mile dirt oval Merced Speedway.