How many times have we seen it? A nation gripped by tragic events using sports to become a temporary salve, offering hope that happier days are indeed ahead. Many of us saw just that this past weekend at Fenway Park as the Boston Red Sox honored those affected by the Boston Marathon bombing.
It also occurred in motorsports this past weekend, but it was a sports moment for a country on another continent that is still recovering from a tragedy from two years ago. You could see it in the smile of Takuma Sato on Sunday as he proudly raised the flag of Japan over his shoulders after becoming the first driver from Japan to ever win an IndyCar Series race, capturing the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.
"Any win is really great news for us, particularly that we had such a tragedy," said Sato, referring to the 7.3 magnitude earthquake and tsunami that killed nearly 20,000 people off the northeastern coast of Japan in 2011. “People are still on the way back. This hopefully is good news to cheer them up and hopefully, yes, this is just a start."
It turned out to be a great way for the Japanese to start the work week as NHK, the country’s largest TV Network, featured Sato’s victory as a headline segment in its national news broadcast. He also was the main story on Yahoo Japan and on the front page of all the major Tokyo newspapers, which hadn’t occurred for IndyCar racing since Danica Patrick won at Twin Ring Motegi in 2008. Even the network executives who aired the race during the early-morning hours in Japan admitted to getting excited with national pride.
"We all did banzai - the traditional Japanese exclamation meaning long life - when 'Taku' received (the) checker(ed) flag," GAORA Sports TV director Keiichi Inamine said.
According to Indycar.com, the site has shown a ten-fold increase in "Likes" and Facebook comments on its main story.
"I think it's great news from sporting point of view for the Japanese all over the world," Sato said. "Any win is really great news for us, particularly that we had such a tragedy with the earthquakes. People are still on the way back; 300,000 people still don't have a home, have temporary living.”
Sato has been hanging onto that quote for nearly a year, wishing he could have helped his country’s healing in 2012 by winning the Indianapolis 500. That nearly happened, but instead of passing Dario Franchitti for the lead on the final lap Sato spun out and crashed into the wall on Turn 1 and Franchitti went on to win.
Though that aggressiveness didn’t result in a sip of milk or a chance to hoist the Borg-Warner Trophy in Victory Lane, it did catch the eye of A.J. Foyt. He wanted a driver with that kind of winning mentality behind the wheel of his car and signed Sato during the off-season to pilot the No. 14 ABC Supply Company Honda. Just three races into this season and after 52 career starts in the IZOD Indy Car Series, the 36-year-old Sato has his first victory.
"It's a fantastic day,” Sato said. “The car was so fun to drive."
Though Sato described it as “fun” that would not be the term that A.J. Foyt would use afterward.
“Those last five laps were the longest five laps of anything,” said the 78 year-old owner Foyt by telephone from his home in Texas.
Foyt, unfortunately, was unable to attend Long Beach event as he was preparing for back surgery. He had successful surgery on a sciatic nerve in his back on Tuesday in Houston and his doctor expects a full recovery.
“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.
His son Larry Foyt, who runs the day-to-day operations of the team, was sad that his father couldn’t be in Long Beach for the win.
“We hate it because he is definitely our big leader and he is the big boss man,” Larry Foyt said. “This really lifts his spirits; this is for him.”
This was the first victory for A.J. Foyt Racing in more than 10 years, the last coming when Airton Daré won the Ameristar Casino Indy 200 at Kansas Speedway in 2002. Long Beach was the first road/street course victory for the team since Foyt drove to victory at Silverstone in 1978. The team has three more road/street course races and the Indianapolis 500 before returning to Texas Motor Speedway for the Firestone 550 on Saturday, June 8. The first and last victory for a Foyt team at Texas Motor Speedway was June 6, 1998 when Billy Boat held off Greg Ray for the final seven laps to win the True Value 500k.
It’s been a long drought for Foyt’s teams in his home state, but if there is a driver to get him back to Victory Lane at Texas Motor Speedway Foyt thinks Sato is the man.
“We’ve had a lot of drivers, but none of them wanted to win,” Foyt said, “this boy wants to win.”