NEW YORK (Reuters) - Indianapolis 500 winner Takuma Sato was still on top of the world on Tuesday following his weekend triumph and appreciated the support he received after a discordant note sounded by a U.S. columnist created a social media storm.
Sato became the first Japanese and first Asian to win the self-proclaimed ‘Greatest Spectacle in Racing’, at the Brickyard on Sunday and became Japan’s newest sports hero.
After the race, Denver Post columnist Terry Frei tarnished the feel-good vibe in tweeting that he was “very uncomfortable” with a Japanese driver winning the Indy 500 on the eve of the Memorial Day holiday, when the U.S. honours its war dead including those killed by Japanese forces in World War Two.
A massive backlash to the remark followed on social media and Frei, a four-times winner of Colorado’s sportswriter of the year award, was dismissed by the newspaper who apologised for the “disrespectful and unnacceptable tweet”.
“To be honest, it was very unfortunate and (he) lost the job,” Sato told Reuters in an interview overlooking Manhattan at the 86th Floor Observatory of the Empire State Building.
“I respect the Denver Post decision and the people... nowadays this generation of people thinking that was not an appropriate thing. I appreciate that positive support.”
Sato was all smiles, lighting up a foggy morning at the iconic New York City skyscraper as he reflected on realising a career dream and the impact his victory might have.
“I‘m so happy,” said Sato, clutching a winner’s wreath. “It’s just an amazing feeling.”
The 40-year-old Sato, who earned $2.45 million for winning the 101st Indy 500, has hardly stopped for breath since crossing the finish line.
”Immediately after the checkered flag I must have done over 50 interviews and there was no stopping,“ he said. ”Last night was the banquet... fly to New York at midnight and from 7 am this morning, I‘m doing everything.
”The special part of the celebration for me is it’s great international news hitting Japan big time.
“As you know Japan has been suffering from (an) earthquake (in) 2011, and 250,000 people (are) still living in temporary houses today. It’s on the way to recovery, but they need a lot of support.”
Sato said his victory for Andretti Autosport could fuel the dreams of other Japanese drivers.
”I think it’s good news. Always open the doors, get people’s attention - the younger generations and up and coming young Japanese drivers who want to come to Europe, want to come to the States.
“I think this is such a nice way to present to them (the) great opportunities.”
Sato has already experienced a taste of the Indy 500 impact, saying his phone would not stop buzzing.
“I couldn’t keep up... (messages) just coming all the time... and having over a thousand e-mails,” he said. “It’s unbelievable.”
Editing by Ken Ferris