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Takuma Sato makes history with victory at Long Beach Grand Prix

Sato, who was hired this year by A.J. Foyt, becomes the first Japanese driver to win an IndyCar event, holding off Graham Rahal.

April 21, 2013|By Jim Peltz
  • IndyCar driver Takuma Sato celebrates after winning the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on Sunday.
IndyCar driver Takuma Sato celebrates after winning the Toyota Grand Prix… (Robert Laberge / Getty Images )

Long gone are the days when A.J. Foyt, now 78, was making history as one of the world's most famous race-car drivers.

But that didn't mean Foyt was done making history as a team owner.

Takuma Sato, whom Foyt hired this year for his IndyCar race team, won the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on Sunday to become the first Japanese driver to win an IndyCar event.

It was the first victory in more than a decade for Foyt's one-car team, and Sato's first win in his 52 starts in the Izod IndyCar Series.

"It's a fantastic day," said Sato, 36, a veteran driver who formerly raced in the Formula One series for several years before moving to IndyCar in 2010. "The car was so fun to drive."

After he parked in Victory Lane, some of Sato's crew members lifted him on their shoulders in celebration. Sato then stood atop his car and waved a Japanese flag.

"It's been 3 1/2 years to get here, but I always believed I can challenge" for wins, said Sato, a Tokyo native who had started the race fourth.

Graham Rahal chased Sato for more than 40 laps of the 80-lap race but had to settle for second. Justin Wilson finished third and Dario Franchitti, the Long Beach winner in 2009, was fourth.

Foyt, who lives in Texas, was not in Long Beach on Sunday because the four-time Indianapolis 500 winner is scheduled to have sciatic-nerve surgery this week.

But in remarks distributed to reporters, Foyt praised Sato and said watching "the last five laps were the longest of anything."

Foyt increasingly has shifted management of his team to his son, Larry Foyt, who spoke to his father immediately after Sato took the checkered flag.

The elder Foyt "said this really lifts his spirits," Larry Foyt said. "I hated it that he's not here."

Sato's best IndyCar finish before Sunday was second in Edmonton, Canada, last year when he was driving for a different team.

Sato nearly won his first IndyCar race at last year's Indianapolis 500 when he tried to pass Franchitti on the final lap. But Sato spun out and Franchitti went on to win.

Franchitti, the pole-sitter Sunday, led 27 laps early around the 11-turn, 1.97-mile course along Long Beach's coastal streets, including a long stretch of Shoreline Drive.

But after dropping behind Sato and Rahal, "I couldn't get close enough to make a move and then I had to start watching my fuel," Franchitti said.

Franchitti drives for Target Chip Ganassi Racing, one of the top three IndyCar teams along with Team Penske and Andretti Autosport.

But Sunday was a day for the smaller teams, not only Foyt's but Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, which prepared Rahal's car, and Dale Coyne Racing, which handled Wilson's car.

"You're seeing that it's so competitive right now that obviously those three [big] teams made a little slip this weekend we're all here to jump in," said Rahal, who earned his first top-five finish this season.

Among those struggling on the major teams was defending race winner Will Power, an Australian who drives for Penske. Power finished 16th.

"Frustrating day out there," Power said. "Sato was very strong and he really dominated out there."

Sato, who led 50 laps overall, was asked how his win might be received in Japan.

"Any win is really great news for us, particularly [given] that we had such a tragedy" because of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated the country, Sato said.

"People [are] still on the way back," he said. "This hopefully is good news to cheer them up and hopefully, yes, this is just a start."

james.peltz@latimes.com

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