The Drive of My Life

There isn’t a single other experience in life that comes close to the feeling of being in the lead of the Indy 500 with two laps to go.

You can run as many races as you want. You can win championships. You can go toe-to-toe with the greatest legends on the track. But nothing gets you ready for the final few miles of a Sunday at Indy.

Unless you’ve been there before.

In the 2012 race, I was there. And I thought I had it.

I remember that day for a lot of reasons, but especially because of how hot it was. The thermometer read just over 100°F. But that played to my advantage. A lot of cars around me started having cooling issues about halfway through the race. Our Rahal Letterman Lanigan Honda was working really, really well and we were moving up through the field with a lot of pace. We’d made our way up to fifth by the time of the final restart with six laps to go.

With two laps to go I was third, right behind Dario Franchitti. He made a move up the inside of Scott Dixon into Turn 1, so I followed him through.

During an Indy 500, you’re not just racing — you’re learning. Every one of those 495 miles up to that point I had been mentally storing information on my car. Where do I have the grip? Where do I feel the quickest? How do I defend my line if I need to? When I went up the inside of Dixon, I felt the grip on the bank of Turn 1 — it was great. Now I had seven turns to win the biggest race of my life.

Bill Friel/AP Images

Three turns passed, I couldn’t make the move. I needed to close the gap to Dario. We came down the front stretch and I had a great run on him. I looked up to the windsocks — as you do on every lap — and I saw there was a headwind into Turn 1, which meant more force on the car and more grip. So I went for the move. My first thought was to, at all costs, not touch Dario. If I do, he’s out, and I’m not going to win a race like that — I refuse.

Dario defended. I got a little too low onto the white line and next thing I knew I was spinning and hitting the wall. Out of the Indy 500. Four turns from immortality. The gap was small, but I had to go for it. That’s racing.

I was 36 years old. I’d never had a major racing series win. How often do opportunities like that come around?

Not often. That’s the answer.

The first racing I ever watched on TV was from Indianapolis. I was seven years old, sitting on the floor 6,500 miles away in Tokyo, Japan, watching them go around. I don’t remember it that well — but I knew it was the Indy 500 because of how fast they were going the whole time. I couldn’t really understand it … or believe it.

After that, I was hooked on racing. I wanted to be a driver. I was going to be a driver.

I’ve raced all over Europe in different series, including Formula 1, but the IndyCar Series has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. From all the great people I’ve met and worked with, to that wonderful day in 2013 in Long Beach, where I got my first win — I have so many memories that I’ll carry with me forever.

But 2012 still lingered in my mind from time to time. Seven-year-old me wanted me to win that race. Forty-year-old me still wanted me to win that race.

2012 still lingered in my mind from time to time. Seven-year-old me wanted me to win that race. Forty-year-old me still wanted me to win that race.
2012 still lingered in my mind from time to time. Seven-year-old me wanted me to win that race. Forty-year-old me still wanted me to win that race. /

This season, I moved to Andretti Autosport. And this car gave me new hope for Indy. This whole last month has felt different, because from the first time we got on the circuit I knew we were in with a chance to win. We had a strong qualifying — the car had great pace. But more important, we were running really well in traffic. That gave me a lot of confidence heading into the race.

And Sunday … it just felt different. It was the first time in my career at Indy when I felt like I could win it. When, in my head, I knew I should win it.

Our team was so good on Sunday. All of our pit stops, all seven of them, were very strong. They gave me the best chance to win. And with a few laps to go, I was there again.

Five years later, back at Indy, just a handful of turns from the win.

What happened just a few laps before that, though, made the difference in the end. I was in second place with nine laps to go, and I tried to pass Max Chilton around the outside into Turn 1. The grip was so good on the inside, and if you kept your foot in it you could maintain the lead like Max did. Remember that, I thought.

A few laps later, Helio Castroneves was flying and got to the lead. And, as I did with Dario in 2012, I followed him through. This year, though, I had a bit more time before the checkered flag. It was a mental game between me and Helio. I knew I could pass him, but I had to do it with enough time so that if he then passed me, I would have time to get back to the lead. I did the calculations in my head. So with five laps to go, I got a good run and made the move, passing him down the front stretch.

I knew Helio was coming. He’s the man. Three-time champ. The man to beat. He wasn’t going to go easy. He had a good run at me into Turn 1, but I knew the grip into Turn 1. I knew it from a few laps earlier. I knew it from 2012.

I kept my foot it in and Helio couldn’t get by.

The next two laps were a bit of a blur. I remember hitting the checkered flag and the immense feeling of relief. It was a privilege to battle Helio. It was an honor to win this race. And I have a tremendous amount of pride in being the first Japanese winner.

There are a lot of things you prepare yourself for ahead of the Indy 500. You’re ready for the start, the pit stops, the restarts. But the drive to Victory Lane … you have no point of reference for that. You don’t know how you’re going to feel, or what you’re going to experience.

Since 2012, I had thought about passing for the win so many times, but I had never thought about what actually winning would feel like. When I got to Victory Lane and got out of the car, it all hit me.

Indianapolis is such a special place. And to share it with the Andretti Autosport team is one of the greatest experiences I’ve had.

It was, without doubt, the best 500 miles of my life.