INDIANAPOLIS -- The 101st edition of the Indianapolis 500 went exactly as the motorsports experts predicted. They said a veteran driver would win. They said a driver from the five-man Andretti Autosport stable would wear the wreath. They said a Honda-powered machine would push its driver into the winner's circle. They said a racer with Formula One pedigree would sip the milk.
Their predictions were correct, across the board. Except one. No one foresaw that the racer who would make them look so smart would at the same time make them look so wrong. They'd envisioned a Scott Dixon win from the pole or maybe an Alexander Rossi repeat or even a rookie run to the front from Fernando Alonso, the F1 world champ who skipped Monaco to spend May in Indiana.
No one envisioned that the driver to check all their predicted boxes would be Takuma Sato.
"Who is Takuma Sato? He's a great guy and he's clearly got a heavy right foot!" said Dario Franchitti, the three-time Indianapolis 500 champion who was standing between Victory Lane and pit lane, about to intercept Sato with a bear hug and tears. "I mean, you saw what happened out there, right?"
What happened was that Sato, a 40-year-old, Tokyo-born journeyman who is four-plus years removed from his lone IndyCar victory, rocketed into the lead around another three-time 500 winner, Helio Castroneves, with less than five laps remaining. Then he held off a handful of Castroneves counterattacks, becoming the 69th winner of "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing" by an eyeblink margin of .2011 of a second.
"Until three laps to go, you really didn't know," Sato breathlessly explained, having just been mauled by Franchitti and preparing to climb aboard the convertible that would carry his milk-stained self for one more much slower lap around the 2.5-mile rectangle. "Me and Helio were side by side with three laps to go. At that point you say to yourself, there is no other solution here but to go flat out."
Flat out has never been Sato's problem. Flat out has typically been the problem. A whopping 45 of his 124 career IndyCar starts have ended with a dreaded Did Not Finish and 31 of those DNFs came as the result of a crash. The most infamous also took place at Indianapolis. In 2012, he made a late charge at Franchitti, diving to the inside of the first turn of the final lap, only to lose the rear end of the car and watch Franchitti drive away.
"This time I finished the race pointed in the right direction, so that is a definite improvement," Sato deadpanned after his parade lap.
At the time, the 2012 move was labeled reckless. Conventional Indianapolis wisdom has always dictated that moves like the one he attempted should be saved for the third turn. But just last week Sato revisited that moment as he chatted with one of the smallest contingent of writers at Indy 500 media day, reminding the tiny gathering that crosswinds that day made moves in Turn 3 nearly impossible. Then he proceeded to break the entire near win down with intricate detail, recalling how Franchitti suddenly ran a tighter line into Turn 1 when it was too late for Sato to react in any manner other the way he did.
"I tell you what, he's really cleaned up his act, so to speak. He's always been fast, but now he's fast and reliable," Mario Andretti said after the race, he of the name on Sato's car, Andretti Autosport. "I was doing an interview with Japanese TV and I said he had a realistic chance of winning, but they didn't believe me!"
Had there been more than the perpetual, small but proud number of Japanese media listening to Sato throughout May, perhaps there would have been more stories about the development of a racer now capable of learning his lessons. Instead, the F1 contingent who'd long ago forgotten Sato's seven years and one podium finish were crowded around Alonso. The IndyCar media regulars who'd long ago forgotten Sato's 2013 victory at Long Beach were ... also crowded around Alonso.
On Sunday afternoon, they were crowded around Sato.
On the surface, it might have felt a little like his teammate Alexander Rossi's victory one year ago. The reality is that it was nothing like that. Rossi won on a fuel-mileage gamble and was making only his sixth IndyCar start. Sato has been around eight seasons.
While there certainly will be another get-to-know-your-Indy-winner period on the national scene as there was with Rossi, people within the sport need no such education. See: Franchitti's hug, Tony Kanaan running the length of pit road to chase down Sato's convertible ride, and Castroneves shaking his head at a fourth win lost, and then recovering to jump out of his car to catch Sato as he rode by to greet him with a double-thumbs-up.
"I think maybe people who don't follow the sport closely don't know much about him, but those of us here all of the time, we all love him," boss Michael Andretti said. "I think the people here at Indianapolis love him. If you listen to the reception he receives during driver introductions at Indy, it's always loud. He drove for Bobby [Rahal]. He drove for A.J. [Foyt]. And now he's with us. If that doesn't make you a part of the IndyCar family, I'm not sure what could."
All due respect to Andretti, everyone is sure what could. Having your face fashioned in sterling silver and affixed to the Borg-Warner Trophy makes you more than a member of the family. It makes you royalty.
"I have dreamed of this since I was 12 years old," Sato said, white milk still dripping from the brim of his ball cap. "You know you can do it. And there are others who know you can do it. You believed and they believed, even when things were not going well. Those are the people I think of right now. The ones who believed when others did not."
Move along, motorsports experts, he's not talking about you.