By JENNA FRYER
LONG BEACH, Calif. — It was an unlikely pairing that no one was certain would work when A.J. Foyt hired Takuma Sato to drive for him this year.
Foyt, the hot-tempered Texan with little patience for errors, had just hired a talented Japanese driver with a penchant of letting his aggression take him out of many races. Sato’s most spectacular gaffe came on the last lap of last year’s Indianapolis 500, when he wrecked while racing for the win.
Foyt made it clear early he wanted his new driver to bring a 10th-place car home in 10th, to never push past the limit and settle for what the car would give him.
On Sunday, the car gave both owner and driver a victory.
Sato became the first Japanese driver to win an IndyCar race, taking the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach in just his third race with his new team.
The win came in Sato’s 52nd career start, but was the first for A.J. Foyt Racing since Airton Dare won Kansas in 2002. Even more impressive? It was the first on a road or street course since 1978 when Foyt was behind the wheel for a win at Silverstone.
“We’ve had a lot of drivers, but none of them wanted to win,” Foyt said, “this boy wants to win.”
The 78-year-old Foyt had to watch the race on television at home because of a sciatic nerve that needs surgery. He missed out on making his first trip to Long Beach’s Victory Lane — Foyt never won on the street course as a driver or an owner — and said via telephone “the last five laps were the longest five laps of anything.”
Not so for Sato.
“I was really enjoying driving,” he smiled. “I didn’t want to finish the race because it felt so good.”
The diminutive Sato, he stands just 5-foot-4 and is listed at 117 lbs., leapt into the arms of his crew members in Victory Lane and spoke of how much his victory would mean in Japan. He touched upon the struggles of his home country since the 2011 earthquake.
“I think it’s great news from a sporting point of view for the Japanese all over the world competing. Any win is really great news for us, particularly that we had such a tragedy for the earthquake, we had such a difficulty,” he said. “People (are) still on the way back, 300,000 people still don’t have their home, have temporary living.
“This hopefully is good news to cheer them up and hopefully, yes, this is just a start to bring more IndyCar excitement and enthusiasm to Japanese fans.”
Both Sato and team manager Larry Foyt, who runs the day-to-day operations of the race team, spoke to Foyt by telephone after the win and were disappointed he wasn’t present Sunday.
“We hate it because he is definitely our big leader and he is the big boss man,” Larry Foyt said. “This is for him. He was surprisingly calm. He said, ‘If my memory serves me correct, I think it’s been since 2002.’ He’s very happy.”
Foyt is scheduled to have surgery Wednesday in Texas, but said he’s pushing to have it moved up to Tuesday because he wants to shorten his recovery period.
“I just can’t walk very far and I want to get this healed up because I am definitely going to be at Indianapolis Motor Speedway,” Foyt said.
The win pushed Sato to second in the IndyCar standings, and was redemption for the Honda driver, who was headed to a podium finish last year at Long Beach while driving for Bobby Rahal when he was spun by Ryan Hunter-Reay on the final lap.
On Sunday, he held off Graham Rahal, who took his seat at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, for the win. Although the second-place finish was a huge turnaround for Rahal, who did not fare well in his first two races driving for his father’s team, it was a typical Rahal result. Bobby Rahal finished second as a driver at Long Beach four times, in 1988, and from 1991 through 1993.
“I think we just performed the way we ought to each and every weekend,” Rahal said. “To be honest, it just feels phenomenal to get this result. God, I came so close to winning yet again.”
Justin Wilson, who started 24th because his team failed to get an approved wing onto his car in time for him to make a qualifying run Saturday, drove all the way to third for Dale Coyne Racing. The team had held a meeting without Wilson to discuss its qualifying gaffe.
“I figured if we got in the top-12, top-10 on the outside chance, that would be a great day,” Wilson said. “To actually be on the podium, that’s a great day. A real team effort.”
Pole-sitter Dario Franchitti was fourth in his 250th career start. It was the first race he’s finished this season after a crash led to a last-place finish at St. Pete and a mechanical failure ended his race early at Barber,
“After the first two results this is a lot better,” said the four-time champion. “We’re getting there, we’re getting there.”
It marked a sweep of the top four spots for Honda, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this season and had been shut out by Chevrolet in the first two races of the year. All Honda drivers were previously scheduled to visit Honda Performance Development and American Honda on Monday in Los Angeles, a trip Rahal noted will be much more enjoyable following the sweep.
“We as drivers have pushed them extremely hard,” Rahal said. “We push on each and every one of our race engineers that are with us each and every session. The response that they’ve given us has been phenomenal. At times it would be easy for them to get down on themselves because of the things surrounding them, but I can’t say I’ve seen them with a negative outlook on anything.”
Honda was locked out of the podium at St. Pete and had just one spot — Scott Dixon’s second-place finish at Barber — as Chevy drivers from Andretti Autosport won the first two races.
JR Hildebrand was the highest finishing Chevrolet driver in fifth, his best finish of the season, and Oriol Servia was sixth after a penalty was overturned. That pushed Marco Andretti down a spot to sixth, but the highest finish for an Andretti organization that was looking to open the season with three consecutive wins.
Sato took the lead when Will Power pitted from the front and had no problems holding off the field over the remaining 50 laps.
The rest of the field wasn’t so lucky.
A late crash between Servia and Tony Kanaan sent Kanaan into the wall, where he climbed from his car and was on the track for the final lap. It brought out the caution that ended the race under yellow, and Servia was hit with a 30-second penalty for what IndyCar deemed avoidable contact.
Servia appealed and IndyCar overturned the penalty — the second penalty he’s had rescinded this weekend — but Kanaan was not happy.
“We had a good race going and I was set for a fifth-place finish until Servia took me out with half a lap to go,” Kanaan said. “It’s really frustrating — I was the leading Chevy car out there and it was looking like a good points race for us. I’m really disappointed on how it turned out.”
Race control was busy Sunday with several calls, and several other incidents that required review.
Defending IndyCar champion Hunter-Reay, who was coming off a win at Barber two weeks ago, had too much speed as he passed Ana Beatriz and couldn’t navigate his way through Turn 8, driving straight into the tire barrier to bring out a full-course yellow.
“I just started getting desperate. We couldn’t go anywhere,” Hunter-Reay said. “Some of the corners that are my strongest were my weakest today. I just got in too hot. Trying anything to get a little better, and it just went from bad to worse.”
The caution period triggered pit stops, and an incident on pit road between Tristan Vautier and Power.
Vautier started to pull out of his pit stall as Power was coming in and the two cars collided. The contact damaged Vautier’s wing, and although Power seemed to escape major damage, his car stalled as he tried to pull away after the service stop.
It led to a penalty for Vautier, his second of the race. His first was for avoidable contact with Dixon on the first lap of the race. The rookie ran into the back of Dixon, causing him to spin.
“I made a mistake at the beginning of the race with Scott Dixon, and I’m sorry about that to him and his crew,” said Vautier. “Unfortunately in the pits I got sent out and made contact with Will Power’s car. We had some communication issues as a team, but we’re all learning to work together and things happen. We win as a team and we lose as a team, and I had my mistakes as well.”
At the same time Power’s Penske Racing crew was trying to get him re-started, his teammate’s race was ending. AJ Allmendinger, making his second IndyCar start, pulled his car off the course in Turn 5 with some sort of mechanical issue.
Andretti escaped penalty after IndyCar reviewed contact between him and Simon Pagenaud that caused Pagenaud’s tire to go flat.