INDIANAPOLIS (Reuters) - They are the Indianapolis 500’s odd couple.
Crusty team owner A.J. Foyt, a 78-year old American motor racing legend and his driver Takuma Sato, an impeccably groomed 36-year-old from Tokyo who arrived in IndyCar from the glamour world of Formula One.
They are a sweet and sour, East meets West fusion of cultures that enter Sunday’s Indianapolis 500 as one of the favorites to reach victory lane at the famed Brickyard.
Foyt is a straight-shooting, tough-talking Texan who won the Indy 500 four times, the Daytona 500 and Le Mans in a driving career that spanned 30 years.
He famously cheated death on and off the track, surviving several harrowing crashes during the 1960s, open wheel racing’s most dangerous decade.
SuperTex, as Foyt is known to his fans, has at times appeared indestructible. He survived a plane crash, almost drowned as a teenager, was swarmed by killer bees and pinned under a tractor in a pond while working his farm.
In contrast, Sato is cultured and polished. He speaks perfect English and once served as a Goodwill Ambassador between Britain and Japan.
Yet for all their differences, Foyt and Sato share a common bond, a daring, go-for-broke philosophy that has carried both men to the winner’s circle.
In April, Sato became the first Japanese driver to win an IndyCar race with his victory at Long Beach, making A.J. Foyt Racing a winner for the first time since 2002.
The Japanese driver added a second place finish in Sao Paulo earlier this month and arrives in Indianapolis sitting atop the drivers’ standings.
“I go for it if I can,” said Sato. “If there is a chance I definitely go for it because it is racing.
“The 500 last year gave a very clear idea for the fans if there is any chance I will attack for sure.
“This is the 500, you go for the win. Why not?”
Sato, who spent seven years racing in Formula One with Jordan, BAR and Super Aguri, caught Foyt’s attention at last year’s Indy 500 when he charged up alongside Dario Franchitti on the final lap and looked ready to pull off the daring pass and take the lead.
But Sato clipped Franchitti’s car and spun out leaving the Scotsman to go on to collect his third 500 win.
“A.J. loves a fighter doesn’t he? And Taku is that definitely,” said Franchitti, who will start alongside Sato on Row Six for Sunday’s race. “I told him I thought he drove a perfect race in Long Beach but in Brazil I thought he was lucky to get away with some moves.
“He’s fast and he’s always been fast, he’s just that type of guy, he’s very aggressive. He’s leading the championship so he must be doing something right.”
That bold move and aggressiveness, however, was enough to impress Foyt, who signed him for the current season.
Sato arrived from Formula One with a reputation as an aggressive driver with a penchant for wrecks but Foyt has been able to harness and channel that aggression with just a look.
“Dad has always told me it is easier to calm a hard charger than it is to prod a guy who doesn’t want to charge,” said Larry Foyt, A.J.’s son and Foyt Racing’s team principal.
“The obvious thing is you keep wrecking A.J.’s race cars and you have to go look at him and tell him it has a pretty calming effect.
“That was kind of his reputation but once you get to know him and work with him that’s not the case at all.
“He’s just a super fit with our team the way he gets along with A.J., he feels like the whole team is behind him and he doesn’t have to go out and extend himself.”
Editing by Frank Pingue