Sato can credit some of Indy 500 success to guidance of 'Ziggy'

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(This story originally appeared as exclusive content on the Verizon INDYCAR Mobile app. To download the app for use on smartphones, click here.)

Back in the days when the Verizon IndyCar Series made its annual trip to race at Twin Ring Motegi, Paul “Ziggy” Harcus found himself seated next to Japan’s most famous race driver – Takuma Sato.

The annual flight from Chicago to Tokyo was long, around 14 hours. It left plenty of time to get to know the person in the next seat.

“I sat next to him on the flight to Japan twice and I thought to myself, ‘What a fantastic guy,’” Harcus told the Verizon INDYCAR Mobile app. “He is so smart and very focused on what he wants and what he needs. The biggest thing was slowing him down to get to the end of the race.

“He has that figured out this season.”

When Harcus was told last November that he was going to work with Sato and call race strategy for the No. 26 Honda in 2017, he realized the driver was fast – often too fast. So Harcus worked on slowing down Sato enough to win races. The effort paid off two weeks ago when Sato, under Harcus’ guidance, won the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

“I always knew he was fast and came close to winning this race one time before, so I knew he had the speed. I just had to get him focused on the end of the race – not what is going on before that,” Harcus said. “That is what he did in the Indy 500. He did a fantastic job of concentrating with the help of Roger Yasukawa, his spotter, who kept him focused on picking them off one at a time.

“I knew he was fast. I always knew he was fast. And he’s a fantastic guy, too. We kept him calm and he put it all together.”

At one point in the race, leader Max Chilton and second-place Helio Castroneves were racing together and Sato tried to stick the nose of his car in between in Turn 3 before backing off. It was reminiscent of the old Sato, who would sometimes push the issue and trigger a crash.

“We had two times in the 500 where people got a run in Turn 3 and the spotters missed it and didn’t get the warning that he needed that could have cost us the race,” Harcus said. “But I can’t blame him for that. We just didn’t give him the information quick enough.”

Sato likes working with a team manager that he can look in the eye – literally. Sato is listed at 5 feet, 4 inches tall and he and Harcus are about the same height.

“I feel comfortable talking to Ziggy because my eye line is exactly the same as his – I don’t have to look up,” Sato said. “He's a genuine great guy, and I've known him only because my manager, Steve Fusek, worked with Ziggy back in PacWest (Racing) days. … When I came to Andretti Autosport, Ziggy is calling my race, that is fantastic.”

This year was Harcus’ 33rd Indianapolis 500. After working in Can-Am, Super-Vee and Formula Atlantic racing, Harcus began his Indy car career working with Al Unser Jr. at Galles Racing with a three-race deal that turned into a full-time opportunity. He was part of the 1992 Indy 500-winning effort with Unser and worked with Danny Sullivan.

At one stage in this year’s Indianapolis 500, Andretti Autosport ran first through fourth with Marco Andretti in seventh place. But Ryan Hunter-Reay and Fernando Alonso had their runs halted by engine issues and Alexander Rossi fell back following a lengthy pit stop blamed on a refueling issue.

In the end, it was the fierce driver from Tokyo who saved the day for Andretti Autosport and took the man known as “Ziggy” to victory lane. And just how did he pick up the nickname?

“Ziggy came from one of the first people I worked with in America,” Harcus recalled. “He said, ‘You remind me of David Bowie and Ziggy Stardust.’ He introduced me around as ‘Ziggy’ and I said, ‘My name is Paul Harcus.’

“He said, ‘Nope, you’re Ziggy’ and the name stuck.”

Sato and the rest of the Verizon IndyCar Series field takes to another superspeedway oval tonight for the Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway. Live coverage begins at 8 p.m. ET on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.

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