Years ago, there was a movie starring David Bowie called Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. In addition to starring Bowie, Tom Conti, and a bunch of other people, the main antagonist was played by Ryuichi Sakamoto. In the reviews, Ryuichi Sakamoto was referred to as “Japan’s David Bowie,” because, like Bowie, he was a musician and composer who was just getting into acting. One of the people interviewed about the movie, a Japanese film journalist, described Sakamoto as “having a wide face.”
It would seem this is a Japanese term meaning, roughly, that the person is very famous.
As I looked down from my perch in the press building at Takuma Sato in the winner’s circle, all huge smiles and waving, my first thought was, “Takuma Sato now has a very wide face.”
Tony Borroz attended the 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday, May 28th, 2017. This series, Bricks And Bones, explores the cultural significance, endearing legacy, and the nitty-gritty phenomenon of The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
The prologue of this series here.
Chapter 1: Real Wronghere.
Chapter 2: St. Elmo’s Firehere.
Chapter 3: The Quiet Racerhere.
Chapter 4: Hang Tenhere.
Chapter 5: Female Perspectivehere.
Chapter 6: The Fearless Spaniardhere.
Chapter 7: Speedway Legendshere.
Chapter 8: Barrel Rollhere.
It was a very enjoyable, thrilling, and fascinating race. Sato, or Taku or Taku-san as his fellow racers call him, became the first Japanese driver to ever win the Indianapolis 500. He did it with style, grace, and astonishing amounts of speed. It some ways, this was rather surprising. Sato has been a fixture on the IndyCar circuit for a while now, and before that, on the Grand Prix circuit. He had only won a single IndyCar event. He was, and how can I put this diplomatically, a bit of a nutcase. Sato was known for being brave and quick and seemingly fearless. He was also known for taking chances and trying gonzo passing maneuvers that rarely worked, usually taking out one or more competitors in the process.
Towards the end of this year’s 500, he was at the front of the field. And in the final laps, it boiled down to a two man race between Sato and Helio Castroneves – three time Indy champion and former Dancing With The Stars winner. Castroneves, a Brazilian, is outgoing, effusive, and animated to an extreme. Most Brazilians have that rep, but Castroneves is like that on top of your usual Brazilian ebullience. He is also a racer. Always fast and competitive, Castroneves races with a flair and style on top of his outright speed that makes him highly entertaining to watch. When he wins, he is known for climbing out of his car and scaling the nearest catch-fence, pumping his fists, and screaming for joy at the fans.
Hot Laps, Hot Mic
With just a handful of laps to go, it was either going to be Taku-san or Castroneves. Either way it was going to be history-making. If Sato could do it, he would be the first Japanese winner. Indeed the first Asian, period. If it was Castroneves, he would join an elite group of racers who have won the Indy 500 four times. In 100 Indy 500s, only three men have won four times: A.J. Foyt, Al Unser Sr., and Rick Mears. So no matter what happened, this would be historic.
Or, Sato would go all gonzo again and crash and take both of them out. Or Castroneves would let passion drive his right foot and crash and take both of them out. Neither of those happened, thankfully. Castroneves tried a couple of moves on Sato going into one, but none of them worked. And down the straights, Sato’s Honda-powered Andretti Racing entry had more speed than Castroneves’ Chevy.
As he took the checkers, Sato, wanting to share his joy and thank the team, keyed the radio button on his steering wheel. Unfortunately, it was not the “closed channel” button to just Michael Andretti and the rest of the team. It was the “open broadcast” button and it was sent out to the entire world.
Sato was screaming like a kid at Christmas who just got every toy in the catalog. Although he is rather outgoing and known for having a huge grin continually plastered on his face, this was Sato in a full joyous explosion of sentiment. At the awards banquet later that night, Tony Kanaan, a former teammate of Sato’s, and a Brazilian only slightly less outgoing than Castroneves, announced he had already downloaded Taku-san’s on air celebrations as the Sato-specific ringtone on his phone.
Nice Guys Finish First
The rare thing about Sato is how all the other drivers seem to genuinely like the guy. Everybody, even Castroneves who desperately wanted win number four, seemed just as happy as Taku-san was. I heard more than once, from journalists, team owners, mechanics, and fellow racers that “it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.” And they were all sincere. And they were all right. Takuma Sato is just one of those nice people you run into a few times each day, only he happens to be a racer, and now a winner of the Indy 500.
Given the Japanese society’s predilection for popularity, fads, and expansive love of fame, everyone said Japan was going bonkers within moments of the news. And Taku-san pretty much lost it on the podium. The traditional drink of milk from an old-time glass bottle was four huge swallows, followed by dumping the remaining contents directly onto his head while grinning and laughing. It was the image of the race. It perfectly captured how Takuma Sato felt. At that moment, I had a mental image of his face on billboards in Tokyo and Nagoya and such. Huge grin. Unbridled delight.
“Taku-san now has a very wide face,” I thought.
Tony Borroz has spent his entire life racing antique and sports cars. He means well, even if he has a bias towards lighter, agile cars rather than big engine muscle cars or family sedans.