LONG BEACH, Calif. — Takuma Sato became the first Japanese driver to win an IndyCar race on Sunday in the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.
The win came in Sato’s 52nd career start, and was the first for A.J. Foyt Racing since Airton Dare won Kansas in 2002. Only the Texan wasn’t on hand to make his first-ever trip to Long Beach’s Victory Lane — a sciatic nerve that will require surgery forced him to watch the race on television at home.
The victory on the temporary street course through Long Beach — where Foyt never won as a driver or team owner — was a huge accomplishment for the organization. A.J. Foyt Racing’s last win on a street or road course was with Foyt behind the wheel at Silverstone in 1978.
“It was an easy win,” said the diminutive Sato, who leapt into the arms of his crew members in Victory Lane. He said one of his first post-race duties was to call Foyt.
“I hate it Dad is not here, he’s at home, he has to have surgery,” team manager Larry Foyt said. “But I don’t think I’ve ever seen a perfect drive, and (Sato) drove a perfect race.”
The win pushed Sato to second in the IndyCar standings, and was redemption for the Honda driver. Probably best known for crashing on the final lap of last year’s Indianapolis 500 while driving for Bobby Rahal, Sato also suffered disappointment two races earlier when he was headed to a podium finish at Long Beach and Ryan Hunter-Reay spun him 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.
Justin Wilson, who started 24th because he never got a qualifying run in on Saturday, drove all the way to third and pole-sitter Dario Franchitti was fourth in his 250th career start. 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.
In fact, 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 fourth, his best finish of the season, and Marco Andretti was sixth in the highest showing 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. Sato 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 Oriol 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.
Race control was busy Sunday with several of those 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.
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.