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Associated Press
Takuma Sato leads the IndyCar points race heading into Sunday’s Indianapolis 500. He crashed on the last lap a year ago trying to pass Dario Franchitti.

Sato’s close call wins respect of the fans

– He knew he’d won them over the moment he walked back through Gasoline Alley, a year ago this weekend. Hundreds of fans, calling his name. Hundreds of (mostly) Americans cheering for a Japanese driver whom, five will get you 10, they barely knew three hours before.

“Special event,” Takuma Sato says back again in the place of his greatest near-triumph. “Unforgettable day for me.”

And, yes, he lost on that unforgettable day, but he lost gallantly, and that carries weight here. Went for it coming into turn one on the 200th lap, got a wheel under Dario Franchitti … and then, in the fraction of an eye blink, his gamble ended the way so many end here, in a heart-to-heart with the wall.

Sato’s third Indianapolis 500 was over. But his star, at least in America, was just beginning to rise.

The fans he won over that day, if they did a little digging, would find out a few things about Sato. He’s a refugee from Formula One, first of all; nine years ago, when he was 27, he made a name for himself by starting on the front row at Nurburgring with an underfunded Super Aguri team that would soon fold.

Now, almost a decade later, he comes to Indianapolis as the IndyCar points leader driving for a legend: A.J. Foyt.

“You go to the museum, and they show his old winning cars, and, you know, there was a picture hanging on the wall,” Sato said last week. “It was history.

“I had a chance to spend some time with him over the winter. And he sometimes came back to his racing days. I think it was quite fun to hear it because his time was so different, and winning the 500 was so special.”

And it’s not the odd pairing it seems, the irascible Texan and the cool Japanese driver. A Swede, Kenny Brack, won the 500 for A.J. in 1999, and at one time or another, Foyt has employed drivers from nine different countries. He even had another Japanese driver, Shigeaki Hattori, drive four races for Foyt in 2003.

Now, Sato.

“A.J., it’s different, really,” says Sato, who’s also raced for Indy veterans Jimmy Vasser and, last year, Bobby Rahal. “He hasn’t actually given me any advice yet, to be honest. But we share some views quite often, and we know what we want. And that’s good.

“I’ve got someone in the top of the team (who knows) what the business is in the cockpit. What I want to do, he already knows it.”

That apparently goes for everyone else around him. Since A.J.’s grandson, Larry Foyt, took over as team director for A.J. Foyt Racing, the team that bears perhaps the most iconic name in modern Indianapolis 500 history has taken a jump forward.

In four races this year, Sato, driving the No. 14 his boss made famous, has won once and finished in the top 10 two other times. Four races into the season, Sato is one of four IndyCar drivers who’ve completed every lap, and he’s one of five drivers with at least two top fives. He comes to Indy with a 13-point lead over Marco Andretti.

Heady stuff for a team that, until Long Beach, hadn’t won an IndyCar race since 2002.

“My whole focus is Indy now, 100 percent,” Sato said last week before qualifying 18th for Sunday’s race. “F1 was great, but I don’t think it’s for me. I think the job to be done is here, this two weeks of the 500 and the championship.

“I was so close last year. Knowing now how to get there, what you need there. … Hopefully I can translate it to this year’s performance.”

And hear those cheers again.