Mr. Sato drives in the most recent Indy500. Credit:

TOKYO — Before he loved to drive, Takuma Sato learned to cycle. 

The two-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 wasn’t born with a silver steering wheel in hand. He came into his own through an unrelenting internal drive that led to innovative thinking and perseverance. 

He shared that journey with Southeast U.S. Japan alliance annual meeting attendees last week in Tokyo, outlining how he developed his life motto:

No attack, no chance. 

Takuma Sato

“You have to take your action in order to have your opportunity,” he said in summing the philosophy up.

As a 10-year-old in 1987, Mr. Sato witnessed the first Formula One Japanese Grand Prix in Suzuka and became smitten with racing as the cars whizzed by; he knew it would be a passion, if not a career. 

“That day was just absolutely shocking,” he said.

Mr. Sato poses with his trophies and guests at the SEUS-Japan conference. Credit: Trevor Williams / Global Atlanta

Mr. Sato’s parents weren’t too keen on the course, but his need for speed was so strong that he started on two wheels, taking up competitive cycling in high school and college.

While reading a racing magazine in class, he stumbled upon an ad for the ultra-competitive Suzuka Driving School, founded and funded by Honda. He resolved to take what might be his first and last shot, telling his parents that if he couldn’t get a Suzuka scholarship, he’d never bother them about driving again. Besides, he said, the age limit was 20, and he was 19 at the time.

The school at that time only had seven slots and 70 applicants. The process required a presentation of a driver’s achievements, but with his complete lack of experience, Mr. Sato knew his resume wouldn’t hold up: Most drivers grew up in the world of karting, racing competitively from the time they were small children.

Looking to zoom around the pack, Mr. Sato asked for two minutes to explain aloud why he was so passionate about driving.

“I was sure 100 percent that I had no chance to get in,” he said — if it was all based on past achievement rather than present passion.

The bold move was ultimately rewarded. If he hadn’t “attacked,” taking the time to inspire the judges with his life story, he would have never never had his chance, a spot in a school he credits with changing the entire trajectory of his life.  

“If you can’t have it, then you need to grab it,” he said. 

The first Asian driver to win the Indy 500, Mr. Sato has embraced a big lifestyle in the U.S., where he says he is swallowed by size small t-shirts that feel more like extra large.

“In the U.S., everything is huge, heavy, and bigger is better,” he said in dialogue with Christine Karbowiak, a retired executive vice president and global sustainability director from Bridgestone Americas who served as the emcee for the day.

He has continued to embrace the open road, especially in the Southeast U.S. Instead of flying to various races, Mr. Sato drives his own bus across the country, preferring to set up at RV parks rather than booking hotels. He particularly loves the small town of Tryon, N.C., where he came to sit for a bust to be used as a model for his face on the Indy 500 trophy. He likes the place not only for its mountain scenery, but also because he won more races after visiting.

SEUS attendees in the ballroom at the Imperial Hotel got a chance to view his likeness on the two trophies situated on a table nearby, and he also showed off his other hardware: a ring he received on the occasion of his first victory.

Mr. Sato spent time after the lunch posing for pictures with fans. 

In Japan, he now oversees the Suzuka scholarship, giving the same chance to select young Japanese drivers that he seized many years ago. 

Mr. Sato shows off hardware including his Indy 500 ring. Credit: Trevor Williams / Global Atlanta

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...