Takuma Sato won the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday, erasing the memory of heartbreak in 2012 to become the first Japanese driver to triumph in America’s iconic race.
Sato passed three-time winner Helio Castroneves in the waning laps and held on for the victory.
“Unbelievable feeling!” a beaming Sato declared as he accepted a bear-hug of congratulations from Andretti Autosport team boss Michael Andretti.
“This is mega-big. I can’t imagine how it’s going to be,” Sato, winner of just one prior IndyCar race, said of the likely reaction in his homeland.
Sato shouted into his radio and punched the air after denying Brazil’s Castroneves in his bid to become just the fourth driver to win the Indy 500 four times.
“He drove unbelievable,” Andretti said of his least-heralded driver’s performance in a thriller that saw pole-sitter Scott Dixon of New Zealand escape serious injury in a spectacular crash and Formula One star Fernando Alonso’s race killed by engine failure.
Sato, who started from the second row, beat Castroneves by two-tenths of a second.
“I couldn’t do what he was doing (on the closing laps),” Castroneves said.
Rookie Ed Jones, born in Dubai, was third, followed by Britain’s Max Chilton – who led a race-high 50 laps – Brazil’s Tony Kanaan, Colombia’s Juan Pablo Montoya and 2016 winner Alexander Rossi of the United States.
The hectic race featured 35 lead changes among a race-record 15 drivers.
Alonso suffers engine failure
That included Spain’s Alonso, who rocked racing when he opted to play hooky from Formula One’s Monaco Grand Prix on Sunday to tackle the 2.5 mile (4km) Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Despite his Formula One pedigree, Alonso faced a welter of new challenges. He had never raced before on an oval, never driven an IndyCar and hadn’t done a rolling start since his karting days.
But he challenged for the lead much of the day, leading 27 laps before his Honda engine blew after 179 of 200 laps.
Honda engine failures also ended the hopes of Ryan Hunter-Reay and Charlie Kimball.
“I felt the noise, the engine friction and then I backed off and saw the smoke from the exhaust,” said Alonso, who received a rousing ovation as he exited his vehicle. “I think we deserved at least to finish the race ... who knows what position we could be.”
Despite the anti-climactic finish, Alonso called his month of May – from rookie training through qualifying and the race – “one of the best experiences in my career,” intimating he would consider coming back to try again.”
Dixon survives scare
Dixon’s day ended in much more frightening fashion when, after 53 laps, his car was hit by that of Jay Howard after the Briton went into the wall.
The Kiwi’s car was catapulted into the air, then slid sideways on the inside safety barrier, flames erupting as the back end of the car was ripped away.
Miraculously, Dixon climbed out of the car and walked away under his own steam, as did Howard.
“I’m a little beaten up there, it was a bit of a rough ride,” said Dixon, a four-time IndyCar series champion, who later returned to the track infirmary to be fitted with a boot on his sore left foot and ankle.
Castroneves just avoided being caught up in the incident, driving under Dixon’s car as it was spiraled through the air.
Other mishaps included a crash on lap 122 that had doctors checking out 1996 winner Buddy Lazier for chest pain, and a five-car crash on a restart from a caution period just 17 laps from the finish.
Sato, 40, avoided it all to seize the historic victory that eluded him in 2012 – when his last-lap bid to pass Dario Franchitti for the lead ended with a spin into the wall.
Despite that memory he had no qualms about taking on Castroneves when it counted.
“Helio is just a gentleman, and I knew I was racing against a real champion,” he said. “When Helio came up beside me with three laps to go, I decided this was the moment and I just had to go for it.”